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Teen Review: ‘The Last Airbender’

M. Night May Not Survive This One

Above: Noah Ringer is "The Last Airbender"

There have been a handful of occasions where I’ve found myself publicly admitting certain unpopular or widely contested feelings I have regarding particular films and/or filmmakers, and as I begin to collect my thoughts on “The Last Airbender,” I feel it is my duty to once again make a confession−I like M. Night Shyamalan, or at least there was a time when I did. In fact, there was a period where I remained staunch in my opinion that he was one of the most talented mainstream filmmakers out there. From “The Sixth Sense” all the way until “Lady in the Water,” I remained adamant in that opinion.

Then he made “The Happening,” and my faith was severely tested. M. Night had actually made a film where almost everything went horribly, horribly wrong. But he survived it, and when news struck that he was going to be spearheading the film adaptation of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” I was actually pretty excited. I hadn’t watched the show but from what I had heard about it, it seemed like exactly the type of sprawling, big-scale story of which M. Night was both in need, to help boost his status in the eyes of the worldwide audience, and (in my view) more than deserving. Now, having seen the film, I can honestly say I don’t see how M. Night Shyamlan’s going to survive this one.

This film is a disaster of the grandest proportions. I could rattle off a list of both specific and overarching reasons detailing exactly where and why this film falls short. I believe, however, the best summary is simply that Shyamalan has broken what I consider to be one of the most basic rules of cinema: “Show, don’t tell.” This film’s tagline should read the exact opposite of that since half the time characters are talking. It’s almost straight, non-stop exposition incorporated so haphazardly as to keep the somewhat involved storyline moving without the actors or the filmmakers ever really seeming to give a damn about… well, any of it. Rather than being allowed to spend time with these characters and see their relationships unfold organically, we are simply told what information we need to know in tragically contrived dialogue as in one scene where two characters -- who have supposedly formed a romantic relationship, but whom we have seen together only once before for a matter of seconds-- discuss nonchalantly, “how wonderful these last two weeks have been” in each other’s company. Huh? There is also one of the greatest exemplifications of first-person narration being simultaneously a creative crutch and cop out.  I understand the source material is an anime series but never before have I seen acting and filmmaking so static. The characters come across as paper-thin figments of human beings thanks to some of the most disinterested, mind-numbingly crappy performances by an ensemble of actors I’ve ever seen that is surpassed in its God-awfulness only by Shyamalan’s screenplay, which is slowly making its way up the list of worst screenplays ever written for me.

Noah Ringer plays Aang, Nicola Peltz plays Katara, and Jackson Rathbone plays Sokka in the Paramount Pictures/Nickelodeon Movies adventure, "The Last Airbender."

Paramount Pictures

Above: Noah Ringer plays Aang, Nicola Peltz plays Katara, and Jackson Rathbone plays Sokka in the Paramount Pictures/Nickelodeon Movies adventure, "The Last Airbender."

The story takes its cues from typical first-entry-in-an-epic-series films as the main characters find themselves on an adventure sweeping them off to distant lands as they realize that they must subdue a tyrannical threat in the form of the ever-expanding Fire Kingdom (you see, in this film, the world is broken up into different culture based on four primary elements: earth, water, air, and fire; and there are even some who can control, or “bend,” these elements). Consequently, The Fire Nation is actively hunting down the legendary Avatar, a person capable of controlling all four elements as well as interacting with the elusive “Spirit World,” and will stop at nothing to find him. Of course, characters cross paths, battles are fought, lives are lost, and the journey concludes with the promise of more to come after this film. This film opens with the ominous title: “Book One: Water,” suggesting more books to come…but somehow I doubt we’ll be seeing them anytime soon as films.

However, while we’re here, I feel I should bring up a subject I’ve yet to really talk about at length in any review prior to this one, 3-D. You may have noticed it’s become something of the latest craze in Hollywood (which is a discussion in itself) but studios: please, please, stop with the post-production 3-D! This film, and others like it that were converted at the last minute, were neither designed nor shot in order to be shown in this format. As exciting and fiscally stimulating as the technology is, a rushed attempt is inevitably a botched attempt that serves only to offend the senses of the person watching your movie. And so, all of those shallow depth of field shots Mr. Shyamanlan decided to put in his movie become the perfect recipe for a migraine in 3-D, which is just what this movie needed.

Noah Ringer in "The Last Airbender."

Paramount Pictures

Above: Noah Ringer in "The Last Airbender."

In the end, the problems with this film really amount to the fact that no party involved appears to exhibit any interest whatsoever in, or at least severely fails to understand how to successfully realize at even the most basic of levels, the story they’re telling. The result is a poorly thrown together attempt to capitalize on the potential of the fantasy film as franchise thanks to one of the lamest combinations of directing, writing, acting, and use of state-of-the-art technology ever before showcased in a film. Searching for some redeeming factors proves a pointless endeavor beyond some admittedly impressive creature design and art direction, however what affect these elements may have held is unquestionably muddled by the mind-numbing disaster that is everything else about this movie. Ultimately, the sole positive remark I have is thank God I only had to sit through this for 1 hour and 41 minutes and not the 2 hours plus that this movie could have been. That said, I think you know where my recommendation falls on this one.

-Michael Shymon just finished his freshman year at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts where he's studying Film & Television Production. He's hoping one day all this movie watching will finally pay off. While he's home for summer break in San Diego, he'll be resuming his duties as a KPBS Teen Critic.

Comments

Avatar for user 'Maximillian_derembourg'

Maximillian_derembourg | July 3, 2010 at 3:05 a.m. ― 4 years, 2 months ago

I understand exactly what you meant by this article. And, by association, I do believe that I would completely agree with your feelings about the film.
I honestly want to make a full NPR reviewer out of you. The first rule of journalism was followed: I -the reader- understood the article.

However, coming to understand this article was certainly allot more work than reading an article (especially on any NPR-related sight) should be. You really are putting your readers to work here, Michael Shymon. As a reader,I feel as if I deserve an NPR paycheck of my own after doing the work of sorting through your review. That simply should not be the case.

This was under the title of "Teen Review." At first I was led to believe that I would be reading a review written BY a teen. However, upon seeing that you have completed your first year at Tisch School of the Arts (a part of New York University) I am forced to conclude that this was intended as a review FOR teens, instead of BY a teen. Well, if it had been BY a teen (and by TEEN I mean a high-school student not a possibly 19 year old college student in a communications program), I may have been able to cut it a few more breaks...but being specifically FOR teens, I must be even MORE harsh. It is - after all - intended to be guiding teen readers in what not to watch and why. But I am not even certain there are many teen readers who would be able to finish the review. That is what is known in the teen community as a "Fail." In fact, it is approaching the grander designation of "Epic Fail."

There are completely disassociated and seemingly random sentences which seem to spring from nowhere just to end in the same place. The worst of these is this one:
"There is also one of the greatest exemplifications of first-person narration being simultaneously a creative crutch and cop out"
What?
Where is that exemplification? To what are you referring, the sentence before this one, or the one after it? Neither fit.This sentence seems as if it were stuck into an early word-processor draft, and forgotten about instead of being properly removed in a late edit. It not only makes no sense in itself, but is also completely out of context.

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Avatar for user 'Maximillian_derembourg'

Maximillian_derembourg | July 3, 2010 at 3:05 a.m. ― 4 years, 2 months ago

I am one for writing long, complex sentences. However, that being the case, I take it upon myself to make extra certain that such long sentences are nonetheless clear and concise - not leading the reader astray and ultimately making sense; such as this one. Now, in this work of yours I have come across what may very well be working its way to the top of MY Worst Sentence of All Time List, this one:

"The characters come across as paper-thin figments of human beings thanks to some of the most disinterested, mind-numbingly crappy performances by an ensemble of actors I’ve ever seen that is surpassed in its God-awfulness only by Shyamalan’s screenplay, which is slowly making its way up the list of worst screenplays ever written for me."

Wow. Just making it through READING that sentence was a task all its own.

I draw some very interesting conclusions from reading the above "sentence." First to strike me was that I was completely unaware of the fact that this screenplay was written for you (Michael Shymon). Yes, you clearly state that this is the worst of all the screenplays that have been written for you. If that were the case, I would have suggested not using it. But of course what you meant to say is that "This is quickly (not slowly) making it's way to the top of my list of worst screenplays." That part alone should have been its own sentence.

Let's re-work that whole section: "Thanks to some of the most disinterested, mind-numbingly crappy performances I have ever seen in an ensemble of actors, the characters come across as paper-thin figments of human beings. The acting is surpassed in it's God-awfulness only by Shyamalan’s screenplay, which is quickly making its way up my list of worst screenplays ever written."

One more sentence stands out to me as particularly bad. This one:
"I hadn’t watched the show but from what I had heard about it, it seemed like exactly the type of sprawling, big-scale story of which M. Night was both in need, to help boost his status in the eyes of the worldwide audience, and (in my view) more than deserving."
Let's re-work this one for clarity: "I hadn't watched the animated show this script is based upon. However, from what I have heard about it, this seemed the type of sprawling big-scale story of which M. Night was sorely in need. It was about time he had the opportunity to make such an epic film."

In conclusion, the review seemed like a rough-draft. Perhaps Nisch will cover converting rough drafts into finished - readable - product in their sophomore year?

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Avatar for user 'ashleybashleyboo'

ashleybashleyboo | July 3, 2010 at 8:25 a.m. ― 4 years, 2 months ago

Wow. I can't quite figure out whether the intention of your comment was to evaluate or insult me (or both), but it's always nice to hear someone commenting on my work. So, I'll focus on that. I appreciate you taking the time it clearly took you to write all of that out and can genuinely sympathize with some of your points. My sentences definitely do tend to get long-winded and, though I try, I'll push myself to be a bit more delicate and sparing with them in the future.

As per your whole argument on the "Teen Critic" label, well, I'm not quite 19 yet and, college attendance not withstanding, this position was really the only one thrown my way. But I love watching movies and have greatly enjoyed my time here at KPBS. So, I guess I've always viewed the title as kind of an arbitrary one and thus never geared my reviews specifically for teens but rather for anyone who was interested in reading. I don't write to a particular audience, just in a way that suits me and seems accessible enough (though clearly doubt's have been raised about that). I see myself simply as a critic and don't aspire to or believe that I need to adjust the quality or character of my reviews according to some generalizations about the teenage demographic, if that's what you're suggesting.

Nevertheless, I've enjoyed reading your comments and am ecstatic to hear I'll be included on your Worst Sentences of All Time List. Also, it's Tisch not Nisch. I am not currently nor have I ever been affiliated with Nisch, but I think it'd be really great if they covered converting rough drafts into finished ones for any year!

Have a good day, sir.

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Avatar for user 'The0ne'

The0ne | July 6, 2010 at 12:50 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

It is difficult to read through your review. The most basic is that you could make good use of paragraphing your long on-and-on sentences. Having a huge paragraph just strains the eye to begin with. But I whole heartily agree with Max that you rant on at times without much sense backwards or forward. I rather much read a engineering spec for example :)

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | July 6, 2010 at 1:22 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

Just for clarification, the "Teen Review" label is used for the KPBS Teen Critics, and they are critics who are teenagers. They can be in either high school or college but they have to be teenagers. The reviews are not meant specifically for a teenage audience. These teen reviews are included to allow for some different points of view especially since so many Hollywood films, including The Last Airbender, are geared toward a younger audience. So I think it is good to hear what a young reviewer thinks of the films aimed at him or her.

Thanks to everyone for the feedback and comments.

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Avatar for user 'RussInMM'

RussInMM | July 6, 2010 at 2:16 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

I agree with your review completely, and I don't really understand the criticisms by your review's reviewers. You nailed the situation completely. In fact, it called to mind some of the almost-certainly unintentional laughter among the audience during the preview screening at which I saw the movie (particularly, the abrupt way in which this romance was introduced -- via exposition!).
While watching it, I had forgotten that this was a Shyamalan movie until the credits, at which I was astonished. The screenplay and the direction seemed as if they had come from someone completely inexperienced with the medium.
Given the box office figures, I wouldn't assume you won't see sequels -- but I doubt Mr. Shyamalan will have much to do with studio movies ever again.

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Avatar for user 'KelvinJeuneauSD'

KelvinJeuneauSD | July 6, 2010 at 2:22 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

Good review! I don't know what everyone found so difficult about it. Why would it be hard for a "teen" to read it? Are teenagers stupid?

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