Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Last Airbender

For his latest disaster movie writer/director M. Night Shyamalan adapts the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Remember when he gave us great films (Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) filled with tension, plots which sucked you in, strong characters, and great performances? Don't expect any of those things here.

Although it boasts its share of unintentionally funny moments, The Last Airbender isn't even bad in a fun way. It's tedious, head-scratching, amateurish, poorly conceived and even less ably enacted on screen. This concept, and its combination of martial arts, philosophy, and fantasy, might work in 20 minute animated segments but it doesn't translate well to a live-action feature-length film.

The story involves four nations each based off of one the four elements (easily color coded for the slower viewers). Some of each tribe have the ability to control, or bend, the element of their tribe. How rare a gift, and how easy an ability it is to use, varies wildly throughout the film.

Years ago the Fire Nation, in a bid for power, wiped out the Air Nation in an attempt to kill off the latest Avatar (a kind of supreme warrior with the ability to control all four elements and keep harmony over the world), a young child named Aang (Noah Ringer).

Since the Avatar's disappearance over a hundred years ago the Fire Nation has grown bolder becoming the dominant tribe. When two members of the Water Nation (once again easily color coded), Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, whose looks and wooden acting so eerily resemble Hayden Christensen), rescue the Avatar from his frozen tomb they become entwined in Aang's destiny to reach his full potential and bring harmony back to the world.

The Fire Nation are poor villains. Dev Patel has the thankless role as the exiled Prince charged with finding and capturing the Avatar. He can never quite decide how far over-the-top to play the character. Cliff Curtis as the Fire Lord and The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi don't fair any better. Only Shaun Toub, the great general, now friend of the prince, is given anything resembling a character you can take seriously.

Most rest of the cast don't even register. Peltz is the best of the heroes, but that's not saying all that much. Ringer is caught trying to be both a child and super-warrior which never quite works. And Seychelle Gabriel is asked to be cute in her role as the Water Nation princess. In that task she succeeds, despite the ridiculous white hair and contacts.

There is also a large flying dog-thing named Appa (a sky bison, according the Avatar Wiki) that Aang rides. It looks like a mix between Falcor and one of the creatures from Where the Wild Things Are. Appa never speaks and seems to swim through the currents of the air. Needless to say it gives the film's best performance.

And that's where the film's biggest problem lies. It's when a character, any character, opens his/her mouth that any spell of wonderment is broken. None of the actors seen here are likely to pick up an Oscar any time soon but they certainly aren't helped by some wretchedly bad dialogue more befitting a junior high production than feature film.

The film succeeds best when it shuts the hell up. Visually cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (LOTR, King Kong, Babe) gives us a beautifully shot world that we want to explore. The film's score works in harmony with these visuals, not overpowering them but enhancing the both the CGI and large battle sequences. If the characters would just stop talking there might be a movie worth watching.

The film also overburdens the audience with a need to over-explain exceptionally easy plot points in the most condesending manner possible. For an adaptation of a television series the movie sure sounds like someone reading a book to me. At the same time the film includes several scenes without any purpose or resolution that simply end with no explanation in sight. It's as if important scenes were cut out of the film without any care for the result to the overall story. How a film can fail in both being too remedial and yet inexplicable is something of an achievement (but probably not the one Shyamalan had in mind).

There are plenty of plot holes and plot inconsistencies to nitpick (such as the Fire Nation's eagerness to kill an entire tribe but not one child), but there are more than enough issues with this project without delving into specific plot points and scenes. And if you're actually going to pay money see this I don't want to give away any more of the story than necessary.

A final note: I saw the movie in what might be the least impressive use of 3-D ever. The most memorable uses of which are the short captions for the various cities and regions which appear for a couple seconds at the bottom of the screen now and then to remind you what part of the world you're viewing at that moment. Don't bother spending even an extra cent for 3-D. It's simply not worth it.

If you are curious to see the special effects and visual style of the film I'd wait until you can view the film on DVD with the sound off (or with the dialogue mercifully set to a language you don't speak - as in the Japanese trailer). That almost might be worth it.

1 comment:

Lazarus Lupin said...

Roger Ebert has already ripped this film a new one. Actually ripped it a new one, an old one, and one to grow on. I can only wonder what power M. Night Shamalamadingdong has over studios. The general rule is you are only as good as your last film. After "The Non-Happening" you'd think he'd be busted down to working with Charles Band if at all. Go Figure.

Lazarus Lupin
Art and Review