MASSAWYRM calls THE LAST AIRBENDER a crapbending mess
Published at: July 1, 2010, 10:01 a.m. CST by merrick
Hola all. Massawyrm here.
If you were to ask me at the beginning of the week which film I would watch twice if forced to at gunpoint, the notion of choosing a TWILIGHT film over an M. Night Shyamalan translation of a beloved animation series would have been the laughable one at the bottom of the list. I fully went into this week believing that even if M. Night failed, he wouldn’t have failed so miserably as to make ECLIPSE look like the better choice. But that’s exactly what he did. This is a catastrophic failure – a film that has sparked furious debate between critics as to whether this is the worst movie of the year or only the worst of the summer. Me? I’ve seen worse this year. But not much worse.
The principle crime here is that the film is just boring. Truly, unspeakably boring. While there are a myriad of things wrong here – both for fan and neophyte alike to be bothered by – its chief problem is that Shyamalan weaves a nearly two hour tale that completely and utterly fails to spark the slightest bit of your interest. The characters are hollow, the story mostly incomprehensible, and all of the film’s flavor is in its set decoration which ranges from stunningly beautiful to cheap and prefabricated, with very little in-between.
Many of our younger readers there – ranging between 12 and 17 years old – have for several years harassed me for not having watched the original show. And much like I was with FIREFLY before it, I was hesitant, because it looked too much like a number of other properties the fanbase loved that I simply didn’t connect with. But after much browbeating, my wife and I sat down to take in the series and found ourselves blown away. It started a bit slow – a bit kiddish as I had initially feared, it being written for 7-12 year olds and all – but within a few episodes we were hooked. And by the time the second season began, we were madly in love.
The source material is brilliant. It is something our geek generation has thus far mostly ignored, which needs to be rectified. It is everything we love about fantasy and Eastern mysticism, written by and for American geeks…and their kids. It has all the character depth and sweeping storylines of LotR, crafted perfectly into a single, continuous, fully realized storyline, spread over three distinct seasons. One need only watch the Kurosawa/Leone inspired Samurai-western episode (Season 2, Episode 7) to understand what this series is capable of and where it’s going. (It’s fairly stand alone, give a try on Netflix – best 23 minutes of your day today, I promise.) Fans love this series with all their heart – and rightly so. It is their Robotech, a series written with adults in mind, but marketed to kids.
And the fans are going to be howling mad at this film. Shyamalan gets everything but the look of it wrong. EVERYTHING. Not a single personality translates from the show to the film. Ang the Avatar is a 12 year old boy. Sure, he has the weight of humanity on his shoulders and a burden far too great for any one man to bear, but he’s still a kid. He has fun. He smiles and laughs. In fact in the early parts of the series, he refuses to take his responsibility seriously and instead spans the world, chasing exotic monsters to ride (against their will.) He’s the inventor of an air-sphere moped technique that he loves to scoot around on. He is a joyful boy given a job he’s not ready for – and the show is entirely about watching that boy slowly begin to understand what it is to be a man and what he needs to sacrifice to save his fellow man from destruction from the wrath of the Fire Lord.
M. Night thinks instead that Ang is a mirthless, scared little boy with his mouth agape at the world around him, lacking emotion apart from fear. He has no joy, there is nothing aloof about him – in fact, M. Night never mentions one of the most important points of Ang’s storyline: that he is hopelessly in love with his travelling companion Kitara. Kitara is equally as bland. Soka is more of an angry, awkward teenage boy than the comic relief of the group. Even the villains are off base. Iro is more councilor and less brilliant Zen master. Zuko is more whiny than he is bitter and angry. And Aasif Mondvi as Commander Jao is simply ridiculous and not at all menacing. Worst of all, Cliff Curtis (a wonderful, underappreciated actor) gets the thankless role of playing the Fire Lord himself…who appears on screen repeatedly.
For those of you unfamiliar with the show, that would be like readapting STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE and writing several scenes of Vader conferring with the Emperor to speed up exposition, while simultaneously casting the Daily Show’s John Oliver as Darth Vader. Fans’ heads will explode at the 20 different things wrong with each of these scenes (before they even begin wondering how the hell this guy is travelling from one side of the globe to the other on a steamship in a matter of hours.)
While I am with most of my fellow critics - both fan or unacquainted with the series – in hating this film, I am a bit upset with a number of critics taking aim at the actors in this film. While I’m not in love with all the acting choices here, the piss-poor performances are equally dismal across the board, and it is *not* the actor’s faults. They give the same, hollow, dead-eyed, thousand yard stare that M. Night Shyamalan elicits from all of his actors. In THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE we thought it was brilliant. But comparing Osment’s turn in SIXTH SENSE to the performance of Ang here, you find the very same elements and acting tricks. They are identical. It isn’t the cast who fails this film, it is Shyamalan’s complete inability to direct actors outside of his very narrow type of film. These kids never had a chance put under the direction of this guy and they seem to be bearing the brunt on the performance front.
But I am with those in agreeing that casting a comedian as the film’s foil was a bad choice. Jao needed someone like a Ken Watanabe or a, ahem, Cliff Curtis; someone who can evoke a genuine menace.
Finally, M. Night pulled a full on Zack Snyder and decided that he had a better idea for the ending of the film and radically changed what happens, but more importantly what it all means. The end of season 1 is a crazed, clusterfuck of awesomeness that will drop your jaw and make you beg to see it in live action 3-D. Shyamalan neuters that ending entirely, rewriting both it and Ang’s progression as a character. It’ll piss you off if you’ve seen the show, because you know just how crazy awesome it was supposed to be and you can also suspect that this means M. Night has very different plans for Ang’s character arc than is, you know, in the fucking show.
The one thing that THE LAST AIRBENDER gets right at all is the look of the world. The costumes, sets and characters are all beautifully realized. It’s almost as if Shyamalan watched the show with the volume off. I say almost, because the film is the show – that is if you took many of the most unimportant parts of the show and jammed them together into a loose storyline. Series one of the show (encapsulated here) is 20 episodes of 23 minute shows – roughly 7 and a half hours, with a number of filler episodes, gags and stories that didn’t need to be told to complete the story. This could have easily been done as a three hour epic that didn’t need to change a single thing about the series and would have kicked some serious ass. Instead it is a less-than-two-hour highlight reel, directed as if it were the High School play version of the show.
Worthless, mind numbing and a complete mess from minute one, this is a film best avoided based upon a show that you owe it to yourself as a geek to sit down and enjoy. The seasons are being rereleased on DVD in nice boxed sets and are available to stream on Netflix right this very minute. Do yourself a favor and watch those while skipping this.
Until next time friends,