Somewhere, Ed Wood Is Smiling
We surely must respect an artist of the caliber of M. Night Shyamalan. He’s always been a filmmaker who clearly wants to stand out from the crowd, give us movies that may look, on the surface, like the same old, same old, but once you get into them, evince a true break from the current paradigm. And he’s done it again with The Last Airbender. It may appear — from the posters and trailers and ads and such — that this is yet another tedious $200 million action fantasy cashing in on the popularity of a franchise from another medium. It may look like — as I deemed the recent Clash of the Titans remake — another example of “empty, cheap, cold, soulless corporate filmmaking, and that that’s its good side.” But it’s so much more than that.
It is not for the likes of Shyamalan (The Happening, Lady in the Water) to leave the audience with the impression that, well, his movie may have failed, may be dull and perfunctory, may make you wish you’d stayed home, but it’s not like anyone involved wasn’t trying: they did their best but the gods of cinema simply did not bless them; the lightning did not strike, the souffle did not rise, the Jell-O did not gel, and that happens sometimes. No: Shyamalan wanted to ensure that his film, his Last Airbender would not be lost in the Hollywood dross: he wanted to assure this he was presenting the audience with awfulness on a scale that would boggle the mind. He wanted to leave us shaking our heads and marveling at a terribleness that was not merely terrible, but a terribleness that leaves you astonished at just how very, very terrible it is.
“Astonishing!” –MaryAnn Johanson, FlickFilosopher.com
Because, honestly, from the bottom of my geeky movie-loving heart, I cannot explain the jaw-dropping awfulness of The Last Airbender in any other way. It looks, by all that Ed Wood considered holy, that Shyamalan simply stood his inexperienced and incapable young cast in front of a bluescreen (flat, lifeless CGI settings would be added later) and shot the first read-through of the first draft of the script. Which was written by an eight-year-old who really, really loves Avatar: The Last Airbender, the pseudo-anime American cartoon series this is based upon [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]. Because it’s full of people saying to one another “As you know…” and then explaining stuff that, indeed, the other character does already know. And exchanges like this:
“Do you have a spiritual place I can meditate?”
“Yes, we have a very spiritual place.”
“Stilted” and “hamfisted” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
It’s all about, apparently, a little boy, Aang (Noah Ringer), who was frozen in ice for a century, but now he gets defrosted and he’s just fine and he’s gonna be the savior of this alternate world, where some people can magically control the elements — earth, water, fire, and air — and the Fire Nation are all evil and bent on world domination. You can tell the Fire Nation people are evil, because they’re brown (played by actors that make me weep with pity for them, like Dev Patel [Slumdog Millionaire, Skins] and Cliff Curtis [Push, 10,000 B.C.], and also by The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi, whom I kept expecting to be identified as “Senior Fire Nation Correspondent” and whom I kept expecting to end his every line of dialogue with “Jon…”) The good people, like Aang and the deeply annoying and pointless Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone: The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), who are helping Aang save the world or something, are white. Later, Sokka will spend about two minutes with Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel: The Spirit), who is also white, and then be in love with her, and we’re supposed to care about that, I think. Oh, and Aang can control all of the elements, which makes him the Avatar and hence a kind of demigod, except he can’t control all the elements yet, just air and water (and the latter only a little bit). It’s basically how like the Force is with Luke in Star Wars but he still gets zapped in the butt by the training droid and totally needs to go visit Yoda and get himself tutored.
Except not. Because Shyamalan — I can’t believe he’s not embarrassed to reveal that he wrote this script as well as directed — has no idea how to immerse us into the multiple alien cultures and religions he is allegedly introducing us to here. At least with Clash of the Titans, to return to that previous low-water mark for the year, we understand the world we’re visiting and what’s at stake — we just don’t care about any of it. Here, it’s just people in vaguely exotic costumes telling one another about “the spirits” in the same way that we don’t ever walk up to random strangers and say, “As you know, Bob, Jesus died on the cross for our sins and for our free-market capitalism, and the nation of Whateveristan brings war upon us because of that.” These characters don’t live in their world — perhaps because their world isn’t in the least bit real.
The nauseating fake 3D is the least of it, as moments that are meant to be solemn do nothing but induce laughter pile up and blank-slate characters become increasingly unlikeable. The stench of a major stinker starts wafting from the screen pretty early on, and it just keeps getting worse… or better, if you’re looking for an opportunity to lob snarky remarks at the screen. Those opportunities are many. In fact, be sure to bring a Riff Bender of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Nation with you for maximum enjoyment. For the only enjoyment to be had from this shockingly amateurish movie.