Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2010

Epic fail

The scope of 'The Last Airbender' may be there, but there's nothing to support it

The Last Airbender
Paramount Pictures
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan, based on the animated series created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
Starring: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Seychelle Gabriel, Cliff Curtis and Aasif Mandvi
Rated PG / 1 hour, 43 minutes
(out of four)

Say what you will about the racially insensitive casting decisions in The Last Airbender, you've gotta at least give the cast this much: They sure are terrible actors.

While most of the pre-release attention was focused on the presumed "whitewashing" of the film's characters, what ultimately matters is not whether the actors are Asian, but whether they can act. And, friends, they cannot. They are curiously bad for an M. Night Shyamalan-directed film. He's had success with actors in the past, but his Airbender leads are more in the spirit of Mark Wahlberg's unfortunate performance in The Happening. You know the kind - endearingly earnest, but lacking in any nuance whatsoever, expressing "surprise" or "anger" or "confusion" as if they're laymen taking the first acting class of their lives. To call it Amateur Hour would be a compliment.

In a way, I don't know what to make of this fact. I don't know what to make of a movie this bad, and performances this bad, coming from a filmmaker of such talent. I know, I know, it's easy to dismiss Shyamalan now because he's become such a punchline - but even watching the unsuccessful Lady in the Water, his creativity and command of visual language are striking.

Oddly, it's in those two areas that The Last Airbender seems most lacking. What I see on screen is an utter absence of energy. Where is the imagination, where are the beautiful visual strokes, that made even a failure like Lady in the Water so promising? Where is the sense of character that elevated his masterful Unbreakable? This film requires that Shyamalan, and instead it gets a version that seems, sadly, uninvested. I cannot doubt his apparent enthusiasm for any of his projects, even this one. But I have to wonder why this one feels so banal. It's not just that it's a bad movie, it's that it's relentlessly uninteresting.

Even when he made his worst film, the indefensibly misguided The Village, we felt a conviction for the material, even if the end result was monotonous and, ultimately, cheap. Lady in the Water may have been similarly misguided (if, in my mind, fascinating), but we certainly felt a filmmaker's presence. Perhaps the real cracks came with The Happening. I wrote then that Shyamalan seemed to be hedging his bets by trying to force his somber, apocalyptic mood and his attempts at campy, B-grade horror to co-exist. But moving from that movie to this one - where he doesn't really seem to be trying anything of note - I'd much rather have the former. I don't know if I can come up with a single scene in Airbender that piqued my interest.

I've heard very good things about the animated series upon which this film is based, and I look forward to eventually sitting down and plowing through it all. (Certainly the best way to watch a series, no?) But then again, I can't imagine a worse advertisement for the show than this movie. Like Prince of Persia earlier this year, this is a film that wants its audience to be dumb, or young, or both. This is not an insult to young moviegoers, who aren't given nearly enough credit (which is why it's so frustrating when films are unnecessarily dumbed down), but an indictment on the filmmakers' respect for those moviegoers, or lack thereof.

Consider: Early in the film, a huge iceberg emerges from underneath the icy terrain. From the iceberg, an almost blinding light shoots deep into the sky. Moments later, one of the two characters who witnessed this event asks the other, "Did you see that light shoot into the sky?"

Or how about a character declaring, "There's something out there!" - when it's painfully clear to everyone, character and audience member alike, that there is, in fact, something out there. It's the kind of thing you'd expect from a filmmaker who doesn't have confidence in his material, or in his ability to communicate visually. Before this movie, I never would have used either description on Shyamalan.

I don't mean to pick on the man, because people have done enough of that already the last couple years. Too much, really. Just look at this review, for instance. Hundreds of words, and I haven't even told you that the movie's about a war being waged by the Fire Nation against the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes, and the messiah - or "Avatar" - who is meant to end the war and save the world. Like the Dalai Lama, Aang (Noah Ringer) was identified as the Avatar as a boy. With the rest of his people having been wiped out, Aang is now the world's last airbender. He can bend air, you see. The abilities of the Fire, Water and Earth tribes should be self-explanatory. With their powers combined, they can summon Captain Planet. . . .

No wait, I'm getting things confused.

Anyway, with the help of his allies, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), an initially reluctant Aang tries to master his unique gifts while eluding capture from the Fire Nation's exiled Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) and the calculating Admiral Zhao (Aasif Mandvi). And it all boils down to . . . well, nothing, really. This has been clearly planned as a trilogy, so there is no real conclusion to The Last Airbender. Which is fine. Except Shyamalan has managed to make the first leg of the series so lifeless and ham-fisted, there's really no reason to worry about what happens next.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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