If It Bends, It's Funny! If It Breaks, It's Mr. Beaks's THE LAST AIRBENDER Review!
Published at: July 1, 2010, 4:43 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
When M. Night Shyamalan bottomed out creatively for the second time in his career, with 2006's LADY IN THE WATER, there was still hope that this undeniably talented artist might, if his ego would allow it, reinvent himself as a director of other writers' material. Visually, he still had the gift; all he needed to do was wed it to someone else's story. Then he went and made THE HAPPENING, an uproariously funny piece of accidental self-parody that, while enjoyable on many unintentional levels, felt aesthetically anonymous. In terms of craft, it was a clear regression: poorly acted, perfunctorily shot (at best) and slackly paced. Shyamalan had already lost his voice as a writer; now, the flair was gone from his filmmaking.
When Shyamalan signed on to direct a big-screen version of Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko's animated series AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER, the thinking was that he'd finally been humbled into true collaboration; here was the opportunity to get out of his own head, and consider story from a different perspective. But he just couldn't loosen the reins. He had to write the damn screenplay. The result is, remarkably, a new low for Shyamalan, and one of the most stunningly inept studio films I've ever seen. In 3D. Kind of.
Burdened by an never-ending onslaught of expository dialogue awkwardly delivered by actors giving career-worst performances across the board, THE LAST AIRBENDER is so outrageously bad it's a wonder it ever got before cameras. Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, veteran producers who know better, should've shut down production the minute Shyamalan turned in his first draft and found a writer with a vision for the material. Or just a writer with a vision, period.
Rotten as it was, at least THE HAPPENING contained perceivable (if mutated) traces of Shyamalan's creative DNA; no one could make a movie that insanely moronic and not mean it. If only he'd brought that lunatic conviction to THE LAST AIRBENDER. Unfortunately, Shyamalan's disinterest in the material is palpable from the opening moments, where young water-bender Katara and her brother Sokka discover Aang, the hero of the title who, it's hoped, will restore balance to the natural world. There's no magic or wonder to any of this, just characters moving the plot along with dialogue that should've been relegated to the opening title crawl. To be honest, the whole film plays like an opening title crawl.
Having only watched bits and pieces of the series, I can't speak to how hideously Shyamalan has travestied the Season One narrative; I have, however, seen plenty of dense stories badly truncated to fit a two-hour running time, and THE LAST AIRBENDER feels like a movie that's rushing from one plot point to the next in order to satisfy fans with as many obligatory scenes as possible. Judging from the response from the kid sitting behind me (who kept explaining the significance of certain characters and locations to his bewildered parents), the importance of telling a coherent story was secondary to "fan service" - an idea that should be as insulting to viewers who've invested time and energy in the mythology of the show as it is to those of us who simply crave a transporting night at the movies. The TWILIGHT movies are guilty of the same kind of pandering, and, considering how wildly successful those films continue to be, it's likely that "fan service" will be all that's required of screenwriters transferring popular texts (or toys) to the big screen (that said, kudos to these AIRBENDER fans for being more discriminating than the TWI-hards).
This could be the new world of event filmmaking: give 'em what they know. And if that ain't good enough, convert it to 3D so you can extract an extra few dollars from their wallets. Given today's harsh financial realities, this is an appalling notion. Kids love THE LAST AIRBENDER, and they'll demand to see it with all the bells and whistles lest they get excluded from the playground postmortem. So parents are pressured to shell out for the top-of-the-line presentation - even though, in this case, the film is far from a top-of-the-line experience.
Whereas CLASH OF THE TITANS was pilloried for its aggressive, headache-inducing 3D conversion, THE LAST AIRBENDER deserves to be savaged for going too far in the other direction. Having lost interest in the film after the first reel, I kept myself interested by occasionally taking off my glasses to see if this abomination was somehow more tolerable in boring ol' 2D. To my surprise, many shots were in 2D. Though the ratio definitely favored converted shots to unconverted shots, the fact that a healthy chunk of the film was perfectly viewable sans glasses seemed a gesture of bad faith - especially since the 3D moments were so underwhelming they barely enhanced the movie at all, and only served to dim the image. In fact, if I were cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (whose ability to compose in darkness should be unquestioned after THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy), I'd be incensed that my work was being degraded to the point that it's practically unwatchable. All of his moonlit blues have been reduced to a sickly greenish hue.
After a while, Shyamalan's failure is dwarfed by the galling greed of the producers and the studio. Sadly, by jacking up the ticket prices on a movie this pre-sold, they'll probably all come skipping out of this debacle like they delivered something akin to a triumph. So sit back, watch the money pile up, and celebrate another runaway blockbuster loved by no one.