I don’t normally read reviews of movies before I go see them. I like to walk in with a fresh point of view without any preconceived viewpoint clouding my judgment. I had no intention of seeing The Last Airbender so I read a few reviews and was stunned at its near unanimous panning. The consensus isn’t even close. Rotten Tomatoes has it only at an 8%. Roger Ebert called it an “agonizing experience” and said, “The laws of chance suggest something should have gone right. Not here.” Ouch.
The critical repulsion to the movie piqued my curiosity. Could it really be that bad? M. Night Shyamalan isn’t the most cuddly and beloved director out there: he is notoriously temperamental and arrogant. Plus I gave up on him long ago. I haven’t seen anything of his since Signs – it was laughably bad – so I can’t talk about some of his more recent work. There has, however, been a rising chorus of anti-Shyamalan dissent from all those critics who inexplicably told us he was a new Hitchcock (?!?!?!?) after the success of The Sixth Sense. It seems many critics have realized their mistake (The Sixth Sense doesn’t hold up to repeated viewings the way even Hitchcock’s mediocre movies do) and have possibly been heaping overdone criticism ever since. I wondered if there was a bit of overcompensation in their campaign against The Last Airbender to make up for past over praise.
I went to see it at the Arclight yesterday and I have to say no. The Last Airbender is a truly wretched picture. It fails on every level: the script is clunky and overstuffed; the acting is bad B-movie grade; the visuals are strikingly unimpressive; even the music is standard loud movie epic filler. The best thing about the movie is the costumes, but even their vitality is washed away from the dark visuals (made even worse by the 3-D conversion).
Shyamalan simply has no idea how to construct a story. He’s good at concepts (whether they are good or not is debatable), but he tends to stumble when it comes time to integrate those concepts into a compelling script and retell it on the screen. This time the concept came from the popular Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, a show I have not watched. The premise is promising. The world is divided into four nations dominated by a natural element – water, earth, air, and fire. In each nation there are people who can manipulate their element called benders. To balance the four nations there is always one, called the Avatar, who can bend all four elements and maintain balance in the world. Unfortunately the last Avatar disappeared 100 years before the film begins and the Fire Nation has been on a campaign to conquer the world. But the Avatar Aang returns in the form of a small boy. He must master bending all the other elements to defeat the evil Fire King, Ozai (Cliff Curtis). Ozai’s son, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) wants to capture the young boy ever since he was ignominiously banished by his father for cowardice (I think?). Zuko hopes to capture the Avatar so he can return a hero. However, Katara and Sokka, a brother and sister from the Water Nation, help Aang elude Zuko and find a master to teach him waterbending.
This sounds like a fine but standard fantasy/adventure plot, but Shyamalan tries to pack in so much that it all rushes by so quickly. There were possible moments of beauty, wonder, and emotion where we should have lingered, spent a few moments to admire what we’re looking at or take in the enormity of the situation, but he wants to rush ahead to the next action sequence. Maybe he thinks his audience doesn’t have the patience, but if anything the past 10 years has taught us is that audiences are more than willing to sit through a movie longer than 2 hours if the characters and story is compelling, especially fantasy epics (The Lord of the Rings trilogy; the Harry Potter movies come to mind). But they aren’t compelling here and I got the sense that Shyamalan understood that he was cobbling together the pieces of a story without really getting them to gel in any substantial way so he had to rush it along.
But the uneven structure isn’t the worst of the script. The dialogue is unforgivably dreadful. An actual line from the movie is: “We have to show them we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs!” I’m not kidding. Someone actually says that – seriously. That’s the kind of line one might get from a beginning creative writing student whose primary exposure to narrative fiction has been action movies. Characters say goofy things and all the others nod appreciatively with somber faces as though it was something profound.
Many critics have already slammed the movie for changing all the protagonists from Asian to white, while making all the villains dark skinned. It was a stupid decision but it didn’t have to be fatal. (And it isn’t like there aren’t dark skinned good guys.) If Aang, Katara, and Sokka had been played by great young actors I could see why Shyamalan decided to cast them. But that isn’t the case. Noah Ringer as Aang and Nicola Peltz are particularly bad. (Jackson Rathbone hobbles along and does the best he can as Sokka, but really he distinguishes himself by not being awful.) I hate to attack child actors, but Ringer and Peltz have no – zero – discernable acting skills. They recite lines and we instinctually recognize them doing it. Noah Ringer is solemn and determined, but we see no conflict between his nature as a child and his responsibility as an Avatar. And Nicola Peltz delivers every line with the same level of frantic energy. Maybe they have talent; I don’t know. If they do Shyamalan has not served them well. I suspect they don’t though. He doesn’t seem to realize that he can’t turn them all into Haley Joel Osmonds by sheer force of will.
Shyamalan continues his casting mistakes with the eminently likeable Dev Patel as the conflicted Prince Zuko. Patel does not play menacing well; never once did I feel like Zuko was a real threat. Patel tries to swagger around and glower threateningly, but I still wanted to tuck him in and bring him a cup of soup when he has a stuffy nose on a rainy day. And Aasif Mandvi as the power hungry Commander Zhao? He just bellows out his lines as though speaking louder indicates acting is in progress. The only bright spot in the casting is Shaun Toub as Zuko’s Uncle Iroh. But then his solid performance is just wasted around all the amateur silliness going on around him.
That is what surprised me about this movie. It all feels amateur with a big big big budget. How Paramount looked at the script and gave the go-ahead for a big budget movie without any more work is a question that boggles the mind. Even the special effects are less than impressive (when we can see them through the dinginess on the screen). Imagine how impressive some of the visuals would have been had it not been for the studios juvenile and knee-jerk insistence on making it 3-D. I’m not sure, but I don’t think we can blame Shyamalan for that decision; the movie was shot in 2-D but stupidly converted later so what would have been the best thing about the movie (the visuals) ended up being obscured by the cloudiness of 3-D. So far this movie has been making some decent money, but I will be curious to see how it performs in coming weeks as word of mouth spreads. Remember The Village opened strongly only to suffer box office anemia in the coming weeks and turn into a bomb.
But what I will be more curious about is the future of M. Night Shyamalan. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of talented directors and screenwriters in Hollywood so why do studios keep giving Shyamalan this kind of responsibility? They will give him movies – I don’t doubt that. He’s proven he can direct but why such a big budget? And why do they allow him to keep writing? Maybe it would behoove him to branch out and try directing someone else’s script. Whatever he needs to do, he needs to do it quickly. He’s gotten more chances in Hollywood than many other more creative and more substantial filmmakers. How long did it take Robert Altman – a man who made several classic American films in the 1970s – to come back after Popeye? I would say Shyamalan’s Popeye should have been The Happening and he has been on borrowed time ever since.