Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Last Airbender

If you're like me and have followed the career and films of M. Night Shyamalan since the beginning, you might feel a little like you've been in a trying relationship that makes you wonder how many times you can foolishly keep coming back. Personally, I may have found the final reason to break it off forever...only to indulge on a late night if I'm properly intoxicated and desperate.

Everyone knows how it began...The Sixth Sense was a smart, suspenseful film and even though I figured out the "don't tell" twist ten minutes in, I was pleased with how deftly the whole premise was executed. Shyamalan's next film, Unbreakable, was an underappreciated spin on comic book origins. The ending was a bit tacked on, but it didn't hurt the movie. With Signs I was officially hooked. I loved the idea of an alien invasion plot that didn't bother with the worldview...only how it would affect your average citizen. I was genuinely creeped out at several moments...a feat few films elicit for me.

At the peak of this "romance," I fully anticipated each time I got to see this director's name on screen. The Village still kept the mood, but the plot felt a little weak...the "twist" this time wasn't as interesting or a natural extension of the story. Things took a nasty and very disappointing turn with Lady in the Water, a "fairy tale" that was neither magical nor provocative. But hey, everyone is allowed a misstep, right? We could work through this...I'm sure it would get better. Then, it happened...or rather, The Happening, a movie about killer plants and breezes apparently. It looked great...cinematography like a slinky black dress that promised so much, but the actual deed and the climax? Phoned in...uninspired and boring. The cinematic equivalent of faking it...

Sexually charged analogies aside, a once promising filmmaker akin to Spielberg had strayed far from the path of entertaining. His screenwriting got progressively sloppy...twists and deus ex machina becoming his crutches. I still enjoyed his films visually...he set mood and tone with the best, but everything else felt forced.

I give all this backdrop to build to the review for The Last Airbender, an adaptation of a popular cartoon. While "A Film By M. Night Shyamalan" no longer thrills me as it once did, Airbender looked like a step back in the right direction. The trailers seemed like epic fantasy in the style of LOTR or Harry Potter.

The actual result is closer to an expensive direct to DVD production. Airbender throws us into the story immediately, following the adventures of Aang (Noah Ringer), a tattooed monk-like child with the power to "bend" air and use it combined with martial arts. He's the only surviving airbender in a world at the throes of the Fire Nation (guess what they bend) and hooks up with a young water-bender and her brother. They speak of destiny and Aang's apparent role as an "Avatar" who can learn to bend all of the elements and restore peace, etc... These details are thrown out as either random voiceovers or overwrought exposition.

What immediately becomes apparent in Airbender's flaws are rushed, gap-filled plotting and atrocious dialogue. I'm not a fan of the show on which it's based, but apparently this film covers the first season which lends itself to the scattershot story beats. What is supposed to be a globe-trotting adventure instead comes off as a highlight reel of a broader tale with the parts that would connect the dots left out.

In between set pieces and action sequences, the mostly youthful cast speaks in generic lines that might have been written by the actors themselves...they would sound forced on Saturday morning programming, too. Character development is practically non-existent, save perhaps for Aang's nemesis, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), a disgraced fire-bender seeking the Avatar to get back in his father's graces. Aang himself mostly looks confused and whiny. Shyamalan has taken flack for casting white actors in roles that were Asian in the cartoon, but really, he should be critiqued for picking wide-eyed kids that haven't even been through Acting 101.

What saves The Last Airbender from complete waste are the "bending" battle scenes. Watching these intricate dance/kung fu moves whipping water, ice, fire, air and earth about is fascinating and well choreographed, but it can't make up for the stale moments between. Planned as the first of a trilogy, I can't imagine the other two films will be coming soon to your local theatre. I can also safely say that M. Night Shyamalan will not get me in one again, either, no matter how many times he drunk dials me.

Rating: C-


  1. I'm a huge fan of the show. I don't want to see the movie, since I've consistently heard it's a train wreck.

    But the show is wonderful. I've watched it through twice.

    I mean, one of the charms of the show is that Aang (pronounced correctly when rhyming with "bang"... not "bong" like in the movie) is a goofy kid with a goofy name that makes stupid jokes and doesn't really want to be a hero... because he just wants to be a kid. It's great.

    I'm tired of serious heroes.

    At least Zuko seems to be intact.

  2. Here. Random 30 seconds from the show:

    Behold the original charm.

    Kind of goofy, but CHARM dude. Good characters, great plot, solid fun.

  3. Yeah, that clip had more humor and energy than the entire film. Maybe once I've forgotten it, I'll take up the 'toon someday.

  4. I was with him up through The Village, which I actually loved as much as the earlier films. I could barely sit through Lady in the Water, and never saw The Happening.

    Did he write the screenplay for Airbender? His movies always "look" great, and I think maybe he either needs to let go of the story telling for a while, or find some new collaborators. He still shoots incredibly beautiful films...

  5. Big fan of the show as well, but I passed on this. Even without the mountain of bad reviews I've read I could have guessed that this franchise and this director were not a good mix. You should really check out the cartoon, John. Its got charm to spare, but it also gets pretty intense, and even a little creepy in places, as the overall plot moves along. And the ways they come up with to combine martial arts and bending are pretty awesome to watch.