The Last Airbender (M. Night Shyamalan) 2010
You know, I have defended Shyamalan a lot prior to this movie. Whatever you want to say about the films, you can tell he is a technically proficient filmmaker. The man is talented. He knows how to frame shots, how to build tension and suspense, and works well with actors to get good performances. If I had to pin down a problem, I would say it was his ego. He got labeled pretty early on as being this new master of suspense; like a modern day Hitchcock. People were so blown away by Sixth Sense that it got overwhelming. Since that time, it’s like the pressure has been on to top that twist with another twist, and another twist, and another. Then he went off the deep end with his anti-critic bitchfest which was Lady in the Water, then his anti-general audience bitchfest with Happening. I kept saying the problem was with Shyamalan doing the writing. If you gave him something where he could just focus on the technical aspect you could have something really great. Well, I got that with The Last Airbender and by “that” I mean one of the one of the most inept movies of the year.
The biggest problem is that they try to fit an entire season of a television show into a 103 minute movie. Now I’m not saying material can’t be shortened for the purposes of a movie. To go back to an example I use often is the LOTR series. By no means can you fit three dense books into three movies. Even running at 3 hours you are going to miss a lot that an author can expand on in detail in written form. However the director/screenwriters take the most important core concepts and try to translate that into an effective and exciting movie experience. It is not the same as the book, but I don’t think it should try to be. What the writers of the Last Airbender did, was almost string together the episodes of the season, cut them to 10 minute Cliffs Notes version, and make it the movie. So what you get, is scene after scene of character puking out exposition trying to back build all that happened before and everything that will happen. Tension is also immediately killed off. There are three different occasions where Eng is captured, and almost three minutes later he has escaped and onto the next episode, I mean scene. This movie is lacking a three act structure with a primary conflict to move the build up an effective climax. The climax just comes out of nowhere not because the story led there but because the writers just needed to wrap it up.
I can’t complain enough about this. Where it really hurts is the characters. Now I’ve only seen a part of Avatar (the TV show) but one thing that was really striking was the characters. Everyone in the TV show is a different person who is likable and funny in their own way. Even the bad guy Prince Zuko is compelling at times. But because we are rushing from episode to episode spouting nothing but exposition we get absolutely no character development. Katara and Sokka are just blank slates. They stand around and do nothing but gape at what the Avatar does. Our main character has been so gutted that we know nothing about him. The only character we get to know anything about is Zuko, and that can be written on a postage stamp. They had so little time for actual character interaction, that Katara gives a bland voice over to tell us what each person is thinking and feeling. I love when she blandly groans out something to the effect of “Sokka and the Princess quickly formed a close relationship” without hearing one line of dialog exchanged between them to even hint at that. And we are expected to believe they are deeply in love with one another? Puh-leeze. One of the things that make the show is its humor and light hearted attitude. But here it is dark, completely humorless, and lethargic.
This leads into the acting. It sucks. I’ll quickly discuss the issue of the casting before moving onto the performances. A lot has been brought up about the casting of white actors. Now while I’m not opposed to multi-ethnic casting, the way they did it was just weird. Take for example the tribe where Sokka and Katara come from. Everyone in that village is of an Inuit descent. But for some reason Sokka and Katara are white. How does that work? It is like that way with all the tribes and it is more confusing than anything else. Now onto the acting. While I mentioned before they don’t have much to work with, the actors are no good either. Many of the fire nation actors ham it up like they went to the Shatner school of scene chewing. Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) is terrible as he grunts out all his lines through gnashed teeth. The rest of the cast are bad kid actors or just blank slates. There is not one good performance worth noting.
The direction is simply lousy. The action has no intensity to it. There is no tension to the scenes (through the crappy script) and it seems more like they are doing dance routines than actual combat. Contrast that to the anime which is actually interesting to watch and inventive. Shyamalan continues to frame actors in EXTREME CLOSE UP which really bugged the hell out of me in this movie. The effects were alright, but for the money they spent on this movie it should look a hell of a lot better. Also the editing is horrendous. It seems like Shyamalan shot a lot more footage for this movie but a ton ended up on the cutting room floor because there are even times when continuity seemed FUBAR.
This really sucks because I was actually looking forward to seeing this movie. But it almost takes an epic level of incompetence to f*ck something up this badly. There really is nothing good I can compliment this movie on. You know me, I bend over backwards to give a movie the benefit of the doubt and to highlight something worth noting but here I got nothing. This movie just plain blows.