Friday, July 2, 2010
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.
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.
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.