Monday, July 5, 2010

Movie Review: The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender **
Directed by:
M. Night Shyamalan.
Written By: M. Night Shyamalan.
Starring: Noah Ringer (Aang), Dev Patel (Prince Zuko), Nicola Peltz (Katara), Jackson Rathbone (Sokka), Shaun Toub (Uncle Iroh), Aasif Mandvi (Commander Zhao), Cliff Curtis (Fire Lord Ozai), Seychelle Gabriel (Princess Yue).

What the hell has happened to M. Night Shyamalan? After three films – The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs – critics were comparing him to filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock. He seemed poised to become that rare Hollywood director who could sell a movie by his name alone. Personally, I loved all three of those films – Unbreakable especially – and was looking forward to seeing what he had next. I just didn’t think it would like this.

The Village seems to be where Shyamalan’s career went off the rails. He tried hard to create one of his characteristic thrillers, and set it in the past. He built atmosphere all right, but his screenplay was ridiculous – and culminated in one of the worst ending of any film in the last decade. Most directors would just chalk the experience up to a failed experiment – but Shyamalan seems to have a ego problem. His next film was Lady in the Water – and while I kind of liked that film – we went even more overboard on the writing, and created a film critic character who was horrid and just asking for rotten reviews. It didn’t help that he cast himself as a writer who would save the world. Then came The Happening, a kind of return for him to the thrillers of his earlier career – and while that film had some great, terrifying moments when people were killing themselves, it all came undone because Shyamalan seemed to have lost the ability to write dialogue. The once “next big thing” had become a little bit of a joke.

When I heard that Shyamalan was going to turn the wonderful Saturday morning cartoon: Avatar: The Last Airbender into a movie, I was both skeptical and excited. Skeptical because Shyamalan had not previous shown an ability to make a big budget action movie, but excited because I thought it was so far out of his comfort zone that he may come up with something great. Freed from the confines of having to create a thriller with a shocking ending, perhaps Shyamalan could find that magic that made his earlier films so good. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I cannot recall the last film that got such a horrible critical drubbing, and while I don’t think the film was THAT bad, it sure as hell isn’t very good either.

The movie is about a world where there are only four nations – Fire, Earth, Water and Air. Each nation seems to have two kingdoms – one in the north and the other in the south. Some of the people from each nation is a bender – that is the can control the element that their nation represents (essentially they use this power to hurl fire, dirt, water or air at each other). There is only one man – the Avatar – who can bend more than one element – he is supposed to be able to do all four. He brings balance to the world. But the Avatar disappeared 100 years ago, and since then the nations have fallen into war. All the airbenders have been slaughtered, and the evil fire nation wants to control everything.

Then one day Aang (Noah Ringer) shows up from under the ice. He says he is an airbender who ran away just a few days ago. Of course, he really is the long lost avatar, missing for 100 years. He befriends Katara (Nicolas Platz), an amateur water bender and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathborne). They travel from the South Kingdom of Water, where Katara is the only bender left, and not a very good one, to the North, where they can both learn how to bend water. Along the way, they stop off at cities throughout the Earth Kingdom and incite them to revolution. This, of course, angers the powerful fire nation who wants to capture the Avatar – including Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), who has been banished by his father and told he can never return unless he brings the Avatar with him.

This admittedly sounds pretty stupid, and if you judge the story solely on this movie, it is. The TV show, which I was never an avid fan of, but ended up seeing most of it anyway (my wife loves anime – even knock-off anime like this was) was intelligent and exciting. The movie is neither. The problem, I think, is that Shyamalan has lost pretty much all of his ability to write dialogue. Admittedly, he was never the best – but in movies like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, the dialogue was at least serviceable. Now, there are few lines throughout this movie that don’t sound at least slightly ridiculous – and his mostly amateur cast brings little life to the proceedings. Shyamalan covers some of this up with his visuals, but he cannot disguise how painfully dull the movie is at times. Worse still, the studio insisted on making this a 3-D movie, and the result is not good. It is not nearly as bad as Clash of the Titans – whose 3-D was so bad it rendered the film nearly unwatchable, but it really does feel like you’re watching this film through a dirty window. The colors are duller than they should be. And the 3-D is fairly useless as well – not adding anything to the proceedings. I am pretty much at the point now that unless a film is animated (or almost entirely motion capture like Avatar), I think that 3-D really isn’t a good idea. Even in animation, I don’t really think it adds to the experience, but for the most part, it doesn’t take away from it either.

The Last Airbender was supposed to be the first in a trilogy of films – hence why after the opening credits it says: Book 1: Water. But I have a feeling that like Jumper and The Golden Compass before it, that this series is never going to go beyond the first film. That’s a shame, because the underlying story could have made a great movie. But M. Night Shyamalan screwed it up. Please, don’t let this man write another screenplay. He can direct, and that’s about all (and I’m, even starting to doubt that).

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