Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Last Airbender

I couldn't stay away from The Last Airbender, no matter how many reviewers hated it.  It's not that I am a loyal fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the highly regarded Nickelodeon anime series on which the movie is based.  It's not because I am a devoted M. Night Shyamalan acolyte --- I rank The Village as one of my most hated movies of all time.  The reason I watched The Last Airbender (the "Avatar" title was dropped to avoid confusion with the blue alien movie) was due to morbid curiosity.  It swept the Razzies, people!  That only happens occasionally! 

In an alternate universe, or possibly the far future, or maybe even on a different planet, young Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), are hunting in their arctic homeland when they accidentally discover something frozen in the ice.  Sadly, the figure is not Captain America.  No, it is a young boy, Aang (Noah Ringer), and a huge monster that stepped straight out of the pages of Where the Wild Things Are.  If you want more details on the monstrous-floating-buffalo-thing, you're out of luck.  As for they boy, there's a story there.
Q: What the hell is this thing?  A: question?
What happened to Aang that put him on ice?  Well, Aang is an airbender, which means that he can manipulate wind, kind of like Halle Berry in the X-Men films, but he has to do tai chi and act poorly to make anything happen.
Pictured: some of the best acting in the movie.
It's not enough that Aang has super powers, though; he is the Avatar, which means that he is a once-in-a-generation occurrence where a single person can control all four elements (air, water, earth, and fire).  Well, it's never said that he can control anything.  He can bend them.  Big difference.  Maybe.  Anyway, the people of Earth (or whatever planet this is) have segregated themselves into four major groups that happen to coincide with the elements that their super-powered elite control; there is a Fire Nation (they "bend" fire), a Water Tribe (waterbenders), an Earth Kingdom (earthbenders), and Air Nomads.  Knowing (how?) that the next Avatar would be born to the Air Nomads, the leader of the warlike Fire Nation had them all slaughtered --- Aang narrowly avoided this fate by pulling a Steve Rogers, but that means he is the very last airbender.  Now that he has defrosted, though, he is in great danger.  The Fire Nation is still warlike and still worries that an Avatar could spoil all their war games.  So, Aang learns about the world and about waterbending while the Fire Nation tracks him down and prepares to murder him.

It's tough to determine how bad the acting is in The Last Airbender.  None of it is good, but there are some good actors in the movie, particularly Dev Patel and Cliff Curtis, and that is puzzling.  The script is atrocious, so I will cut some of the actors slack.  This movie easily has the worst dialogue of any film I have watched from 2010, and I saw Dear John, dammit!  Still, poor dialogue doesn't excuse performances void of emotion.  The closest that any of the performances came to palatable were the efforts of Patel and Shaun Toub.  Everyone else is bad.  Noah Ringer performed his tai chi well enough and he certainly resembled the animated version of his character (more on that later), but his performance was blank.  Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone were uninspired, but Rathbone's character has a half-baked (at best) romantic sub-plot that is given less than three minutes of screen time (most of it was even explained in a voice-over), so he comes off a little worse than most of the cast.
They're in love.  You know this because a voice-over tells you.
Daily Show correspondent Aasiv Mandvi, a pretty funny guy, plays a dramatic villain and looks ridiculous in the process.  Basically, if you like acting, this is not the right movie for you to be watching.

But not every epic adventure or fantasy film needs good acting to be entertaining.  After all, Mark Hammill was in the original Star Wars trilogy, right?  All you need is a heavy dose of action and adventure.  The Last Airbender chooses a different route, looking to overcome its inept dialogue and acting with an exposition-heavy story.  Do you like being told important plot points through voice-over?  Do you love having the vast majority of dialogue devoted to explaining a ridiculous plot?  If you answered "yes," then you are a masochist.  All this movie had to do to make up for lame writing is look and feel cool.  It fails miserably at this.  The pace is plodding.  The story is barely comprehensible (we're on Aang's side because...oppression is bad, maybe?).  There isn't even an awesome villain; the surprisingly decent actors that make up the Fire Nation have an opportunity to revel in their villainy --- with such a thin script, simplicity was definitely the way to go --- but instead try to add complexity and shades of grey to characters that don't need levels and with a script that can't support them.

The movie looks pretty good, I will admit.  M. Night Shyamalan has not lost his touch with the camera and he makes this film look like a movie that is supposed to be epic.  The special effects are pretty sweet.  That is, until they are supposed to interact with the actors.  For a movie with lots of fire and water being "bended" around, you don't see anyone getting wet or burned.  That's pretty dumb.
All hat, no cattle.  Lots of flame, but no heat.

M. Night Shyamalan wrote and directed The Last Airbender, so he deserves all the blame for this cinematic failure.  How can someone that is paid to write come up with such a wooden script?  I have no idea.  Shyamalan's molasses-fast plotting is certainly not well-suited to an action-adventure film, and his mastery of special effects leaves a lot to be desired.  As for his rapport with actors, I will simply restate that there is no good acting in this film.  The script for this film is particularly bewildering.  This was designed to be the first in a trilogy of movies based on the television show; they were supposed to be based on one full season each.  It's not that Shyamalan tried to fit too much material into one movie, it's that he wasn't able to tell an interesting story or film exciting scenes with over twenty episodes of source material to work with.  Even more bewildering is his choice to write this story as a serious epic, with no sense of fun or wonder.  This is based on a popular kid's show; shouldn't it at least be appealing to children?

There was some hubbub about the casting of this movie, specifically the casting of white actors in roles that were presumed to be Asian.  While I see the logic behind that argument (the anime characters all certainly look Asian), it didn't bother me within the context of the film.  I found it a little odd that all the brown people in the movie were the primary bad guys (and yet, their foot soldiers appeared to be Caucasian), but the film itself didn't draw much attention to the ethnicity of its characters.  Now, if the acting had been good, then the arguments of whitening the cast would have been moot; with good acting, you can argue that the best actor for the part was chosen.  The acting was bad, though.  I think the filmmakers could have looked a little harder and cast Asian kids in the main roles, if only to stay true to the source material and its fans.  It's not like they could have cast worst actors.  Noah Ringer, at the very least, resembled his character, regardless of race.  He wasn't much of an actor, but he definitely would have won a costume prize on Halloween.
Don't you need to be eighteen to get tattoos, glowing or otherwise?

The biggest sin of The Last Airbender is that it is a giant bore.  This movie is only ninety-three minutes long, and I nearly fell asleep.  It condenses twenty television episodes into one movie, and still isn't exciting.  The climax is so unimpressive that I had to summarize it out loud to believe it.  Hint: if you are expecting anything epic or awesome to happen, you're going to be disappointed.  This is perhaps the only fantasy film I have ever watched where the mundane seizes control whenever the fantastic threatens to do something cool.  Aang has the power to control oceans?  Awesome.  The bad guys are arriving in ships?  Sounds like Aang is going to make some shipwrecks!  Or not.  The end.

If absolutely nothing else, though, I will give The Last Airbender some credit: I don't hate it.  No, there is just too much incompetence to have strong feelings about this movie.  It is a bad, bad movie.  It sucks really hard.  But it never promises to be more, and it is not offensively stupid.  It is just really, truly, dreadfully dull.


  1. "Pictured: some of the best acting in the movie." Niiiice joke. LOL!

    *sigh* I'm just starting out at this blogging stuff... I already know that one of my issues is I go on too long. My pieces wind up huge. But one of the things I did recently was this three part "Fall of Shyamalan" because I just do not get it. He came ROARING out of the gate. And then... forget the Village, have you seen Lady in the Water or the Happening? They're TERRIBLE!

    I haven't seen this. I've heard nothing but horror stories. But your review may just be the straw that broke the camels back and I may have to check it out.

    The crime of it - seeing as I believe its as bad as everybody says - is that the cartoon was AWESOME! It was one of those things where once I started watching (via netflix) I could NOT shut it off. Its an absolute shame its chances to make it as a franchise were butchered.

    Nice write up!

  2. I'll have to give the cartoon series a try; I've heard only good things.

    And I hope this review didn't convince you to watch the movie --- that would be a complete failure on my part. If you like the cartoon, this movie will just piss you off.