The Last Airbender (M. Night Shyamalan, 2010)

M Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” animated series is both his worst movie yet and this year’s equivalent of DragonBall: Evolution. Eyebrows becom raised as soon as the casting was announced, a not-inconsiderable number of fans wanting to know one very particular thing: “where are all the Asians?
This was something that happened with DragonBall: Evolution as well. When the casting of Justin Chatwin as Goku disseminated throughout the fandom, message boards became battle grounds, every topic strewn with rhetorical land mines. Any assumption, any viewpoint taken as axiomatic with regards to race, or its depiction in anime, or even about the nature of race relations in Japan and America was pounced on by those who held contrary viewpoints as axiomatic; no forum thread remained safe from the bickering about whether Goku was “white or azn.” I was there for this, trolling both sides on the IMDb board, where the arguments are still going a year after nearly everyone stopped caring.
This screen cap was taken today.
The reason why attention migrated from DragonBall: Evolution so quickly was because it was an awful film. A camcorder job leaked onto the internet probably hurt ticket sales more than any negative review or argument over inappropriate (and racist, some would argue) casting. It was a terrible adaptation and a terrible movie.
An example of the erudite discussion on the IMDb board for The Last Airbender
Shyamalan’s The Last Aribender actually takes the opposite approach, slavishly adhering to the plot of the first season of its source, cramming twenty twenty-two minute episodes’ worth of content into a single hundred minute movie. The plot, roughly stated, is that the fire nation is warring against the earth and water nations, after having eradicated the air tribe. The Avatar, the one person capable of communicating with the spirits and controlling all four elements, has been missing. Katara and Sokka, two members of the water tribe, find a young boy encapsulated in ice, Aang, who is the avatar, frozen in ice for, like, a century or something. Accepting the role of the avatar, Aang must bring about peace, while being pursued by the fire nation’s Prince Zuko, who must regain his honor by capturing the avatar.

It sounds exciting, sure, but the constant exposition, told in dowdy voice-overs that sometimes narrate things as they happen on screen, sucks anything resembling energy or emergency from the narrative. The characters are flat, and the few times that they actually interact with each other, the lack of personality becomes painfully noticeable. This is amplified by the casting of a relative new-comer and total unknown for the major roles. Noah Ringer is not an actor, but a black-belt in Tae Kwon Do who the casting directors scouted during an open call in Texas. If you thought that the martial arts films of the 70’s had wooden acting, you will likely walk away from The Last Airbender with your preconceptions in check.

It’s actually really hard to figure out what was going on with Shyamalan during the filming of this mess, much less the writing and editing, beyond self-satisfaction and hubris. There’s a particular scene in which the fire nation emperor, Ozai, is filmed in a manner rather reminiscent of Dr. Claw. But we, the audience, have already seen his face. We have already seen how he humiliated and dishonored his son. We know what he did to the air tribe. There’s no reason to shoot dialogue like that -- no tension to be built and no characterization to be furthered. It’s the scene that made me wonder what happened in the editing room. The best visuals in the film are the ones that render the cartoon in live action, and that work was done by ILM.

Shyamalan also bragged about how he would film in long takes, because anyone can film with multiple cameras and construct a scene with editing. This is fine, except that the camera work during the fight scenes is either bad -- the choreography taking place out of frame (an early fight scene where Dev Patel’s character, Zuko, spars with four guards is especially bad in this regard) -- or the choreography itself fails to synch with the special effects. Compare this to the Pang Brothers’ The Storm Warriors, which has similar special effects shots that are comparatively more interesting to watch. More often, the choreography just isn't that good.

A director known for slow burning thrillers, Shyamalan has no business adapting an anime-inspired martial arts cartoon show. Worse, he seems to have finally come unhinged. Either he thought that doing a summer blockbuster would reestablish his name as a director of technical skill or he genuinely thinks that he is a visionary who can do no wrong. There’s some evidence that Shyamalan has a huge, though very fragile ego, recorded (albeit adoringly) in Michael Bamberger’s The Man Who Heard Voices, an account of the tumultuous filming of Lady in the Water, the film which really turned Night’s career for the worst. Shyamalan fails to do right by the fans who would have been the film’s biggest supporters, changing little things that actually matter (the script used for writing in the film is gibberish, the cartoon used actual Chinese letters), while not reworking the plot to actually fit a one hundred minute film. The whole of it is mystifying.
Granted, making a "Last Airbender" film in live-action would be a no-win scenario for anybody. It isn’t possible, with an American adaptation of anime or an ersatz Asian themed cartoon show, to please one part of the audience without alienating another. The Last Airbender will eventually be forgotten, like DragonBall: Evolution, by all except the righteously indignant. A year from now, I’ll check the relevant IMDb board, and were I a betting man, place money on there being at least one thread in which people fight with each other over racism, perceived or otherwise, in relation to the film and its casting.

Typically, when reviewing an American attempt at a kung fu or wuxia/fantasy movie, I comment on the way that it distorts the milieu or themes normally found in authentic films. It’s difficult to do that with The Last Airbender because of everything that’s happening around it. I cannot watch it without wondering about its director, who is capable of great work, making such an ugly, cheesy film. I can’t watch it without wondering how many people in the audience find the casting curious, if not inappropriate or offensive. I can’t help but laugh about how angry the fans of the show must be that they spent money on the 3D showing.

This "review" spun out of control and became a long rant. But that’s because the movie really is that bad. It has the worst writing this side of George Lucas. Lines like “this is our chance to show them that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in their beliefs” sound like place fillers in an unfinished draft.

1 comment:

  1. I'm one of the biggest Avatar: Last Airbender fans you'll find, and this movie hurt my soul. I'm a grown man, and yet, in all seriousness, I almost cried upon leaving the theaters, THAT's how bad this movie was.