Awfully Good: The Last Airbender
The trailers for AFTER EARTH have done a pretty good job hiding any mention of director M. Night Shyamalan's name. And with good reason…
The Last Airbender (2010)
In a mystical world where human society is divided in to four elemental nations, a group of evil white people pretend to be Asian in order to… Wait, that's NOT the plot of the movie? That's just the casting!?
M. Night Shyamalan has to be doing this on purpose. You don't go from THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE to THE HAPPENING and this movie. It's just not conceivable. No, this is all clearly some great big Andy Kaufman-esque performance art piece. In 20 years, Shyamalan will come out, take a bow and announce that he pulled off the greatest twist of all—punking the audience's entire life.
I can bend Cheetos!
After LADY IN THE WATER—the movie in which Shyamalan wrote himself in to the script as a writer whose work could save the world—no studio was dumb enough to let him tackle anything original. So they allowed him to destroy an already-established, universally-acclaimed property instead. Having seen only a few episodes of the original "Avatar: The Last Airbender" TV show, I didn't have any preconceived expectations, but even those weren't met. (I'll let die-hard fans of the source material, including our own Ink& Pixel writer Steve Seigh, complain in the Strikebacks below.) I get that Shyamalan wanted to stretch himself with bigger budget tentpole entertainment, but this is still disaster on pretty much every level.
MILD XENOPHOBIA. Adjustments are often necessary when adapting something for the big screen, but this is freaking ridiculous. The show was clearly heavily influenced by various Asian cultures in the characters, subject matter and animation style. So of course Shyamalan whitewashes the film version to a hilarious degree. All of the heroes are played by Caucasian actors—brave white people who have to fight the evil ethnic villains that all look vaguely Sub-Continent Asian. The filmmaker gathered all the Indian performers he could find, which is apparently the kid from SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and "The Daily Show's" Aasif Mandvi, and then just used Persian, Maori and Native American actors to fill in the rest. It's quite astonishing when you're watching the film, as you can't imagine there wasn't at least one person on set the first day that was like, "Uh, guys, this whole light skin vs. dark skin thing doesn't look very good. Couldn't we just hire some Asian people?" And if the racial disparity wasn't enough, Shyamalan also changes the pronunciation of character names or completely makes up different ones. I wonder if he actually watched the original series or just had his assistant give him a two-sentence synopsis.
"I call it a Rathboner."
ACTING. The director's excuse for whitewashing THE LAST AIRBENDER was that he held a nationwide search and chose the best actors regardless of their background. I know this to be a boldfaced lie because the movie has some of the worst performances by a young cast I've ever seen. First and foremost is talent vortex Jackson Rathbone, the guy who managed to be the worst part of TWILIGHT, a series comprised entirely of "worst parts." (Ironically, AIRBENDER opened the same day as TWILIGHT: ECLIPSE, making for one of the most depressing filmgoing weekends in cinematic history.) Rathbone believes that every line should be delivered with robotic intensity and always looks like he's on the verge of crying out of his giant bug eyes. Noah Ringer, who plays the title character, is also an unnatural actor—going back and forth between portraying Aang as a whiny brat and a big, smiling doofus. This is Shyamalan's fault though for hiring a kid with martial arts talent but no acting experience. Everyone else (aside from Dev Patel, who snarls every one of his lines) is so bland they barely register.
Commander Zhao gave the best eulogies.
WRITING. Shyamalan has proven he can put together a solid script in the past, so I don't know what happened to this humorless mess of a story. The film meanders along without any direction or pacing aside from the lazy narration ("And then this happened! And then this happened!"). We never learn about any of the characters besides their surface motivation and whatever emotions they loudly declare. (My favorite is the tragic love story between Sokka and the Princess, which is supposed to elicit tears despite the fact that they've only had one previous scene together.) But worst of all is the dialogue, which is so bad you might as well call this EXPOSITION: THE MOVIE. At one point Dev Patel's disgraced prince asks a young kid to tell him his own backstory in detail for no other reason than so the audience can hear it. And then there are exchanges like this:
"I have to tell you something."
"What do you have to tell us?"
"I ran away!"
"Why did you run away?"
"Because Avatars can't have a family!"
"Why can't Avatar's have a family?"
The rest of the screenplay is made up of complete fantasy nonsense that even Shyamalan doesn't understand himself. (Actual Line: "Water teaches us acceptance!") There's an intricate world of Ocean Spirits, Moon Spirits and Spirit Dragons that could be interesting if the movie wasn't more concerned with "Hey, look over here. This dude's dropkicking fire!" I'm sure these elements are better handled in the show, but scenes where Aasif Mandvi randomly kills the moon or a princess sacrifices her life so some spirit fish can swim in to her aura are just baffling in this incarnation.
Smokey The Bear could only look on in horror as Iroh completely ignored his warnings on forest fire prevention.
ACTION. With a $150 million budget, you expect some spectacle in your kung fu epic—except no one remembered to ask Shyamalan if he knows how to direct action. (The answer is no.) His lack of experience with special effects, wirework and the basic rhythm of action scenes is readily apparent. He tries his best, even with some single-take sequences, but they all just feel off and nothing here is unique or at all memorable. The CGI itself isn’t terrible, but it's used so awkwardly (especially the greenscreen) that it draws attention to itself. And save for Noah Ringer, who's an actual black belt in Tae Kwan Do, it's not hard to tell that the actors are just flailing their arms in the bending sequences, trying to mimic something they saw in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON.
Yes, when you shoot bullets in to it.
THE LAST AIRBENDER was clearly and confidently set up to be the first part of a cinematic trilogy. It's obvious because it feels like absolutely nothing happens in this movie: They find the Airbender; they get chased; the Airbender discovers he's lacking training in Water, Earth and Fire; he gets trained in Water; The End. Thankfully I can just watch the TV show to see what happens and pretend this fantasy nightmare doesn't exist.
A sample of the truly awful acting and terrible writing. ("We believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs!")
Some of the film's "exciting" bending sequences. I love that Jackson Rathbone's signature move is to literally kick guys in their ass.
Some sexy wind.
Take a shot or drink every time:
- Someone says something that is purely exposition
- Dev Patel snarls
- Katara fails at bending
- Aang meditates
- Someone makes a funny face while bending
- Jackson Rathbone kicks someone in the butt