July 03, 2010 – There’s a very simple way to summarize this film. A metaphor so pertinent, that I cannot help but share it with you. Don’t worry, I’ll get into details in a minute.
Imagine the Shakespearean play Hamlet (or Macbeth, or something else perhaps.) Now imagine this play being put on by a group of middle-school students with some of their teachers in supporting roles. Now give them a Hollywood budget, a visual effects editor who’s pretty good and a semi-professional cinematographer. That is much like what The Last Airbender is: A school play with a big, big budget.
Now, you may want to know all the whys and wherefores behind this assertion, so here we go…
The film is based off of the acclaimed animated series “Avatar; The last Airbender.”The world of the film is a fantastical pseudo-Asian inspired land of magic (called “bending”) and warring nations based on the elements fire, air, water and earth. These nations are at war with one another, and into this conflict comes Aang, (played by Noah Ringer in the film,) the last member of the Airbender Nation. He is a messiah like figure who is periodically reborn into the world as a master of all four elements who brings peace between the nations.
The only thing is, Aang has been asleep for the past century or so and doesn’t know how to bend all the elements, only air. So he sets off on a journey with a few friends and his giant multi-limbed beaver of a companion to learn how to bend the elements and stop the fire nation from invading all the other nations.
Now, I haven’t seen the cartoon myself. I plan to. I’ve heard many great things, and indeed there are glimmers of what might be a very good story buried somewhere under all of this, but let me be frank and say that the film has done a terrible job for inciting confidence in the franchise and I hope it doesn’t sully my opinion of the cartoon when I watch it.
First, let me address the controversy over the “whitewashing” of the film. As I said earlier, the cartoon is based in a pseudo-Asian fantasy world. If you look at the actors who play the lead roles, however, they are as white as flour. Ringer looks close similar to his character, in my opinion, but the rest are generally laughable.The fire nation is full of imperialistic Indians, the Earth nation is full of Chinese peasants and the Water nation seems to be a mix of white upper class and Eskimo lower class civilians. The Air nation doesn’t count because, well, they’re dead. I don’t know what went through Shyamalan’s head when he was casting white bread in place of wheat, but it all came out baloney in the end (hyukhyukhyuk.) I don’t think it was blatant racism, but I think there’s some psychological underpinnings here that don’t reflect well upon Shyamalan.
Second, let’s talk about the script. The funny thing is, I’m not sure there was a script. How anyone could pass off this garbage as dialogue is a ridiculous thought. I guess it happened, though. Here are some choice lines I lifted from various forums and commentary (due to my own pathetic memory, I know:) “This time we show the fire nation that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs.” “Bring me ALL YOUR ELDERLY.” “It’s led by a princess, because her father died.” “EARTH BENDERS! THERE IS DIRT UNDER YOUR FEET! THERE’S DIRT ALL AROUND YOU! WHY DON’T YOU FIGHT?” “Wake up, young man. I am Commander Zhao. I set this trap for you.” “Again, I offer my condolences on your nephew burning to death in that terrible accident.”
Those are only a few choice lines in a script that should be a textbook for how not to write dialogue. This isn’t just a horrible adaptation of a beloved animated series, it is a travesty to film of all stripes.
The way the plot is structured and revealed is also a wreck. Aang has been gone for a hundred years while his people were being massacred by the Fire Nation. Why? “There was a storm.” Oh, okay. That freaking makes sense. They give so much narration about what is supposed to be happening (relationships, adventures, mythology, etc.) they didn’t even have time to narrate that? Of course that’s just asking for trouble because the narration is just as bad as everything else. There are occurrences where narration overlaps narration, and you feel like you’re listening to a radio play while shots of beautiful scenery (if you’re lucky. Rocks if you’re unlucky) fly by.
Of course, part of the problem with the script is how it tries to be faithful to the minute details of the TV series. The choppy scenes, the way the heroes bounce from location to location, the halfhearted plot hooks strewn throughout, all seem to me to be indicative of the show’s episodic nature. I would not be surprised to watch the cartoon and find that every few minutes of the film was a full episode with plot and characterization that actually makes sense.
But just as bad as the writing was the acting. Oh, man, the acting! I am honestly unsure if most of these people know how to act at all. Ringer may sorta look the part, and he can do martial arts moves like a pro, but he falls into the worst trappings of being an inexperienced child actor. All of his lines are delivered with the panache of a student reading lines aloud from a textbook, and just as humorless. The other two heroes, Nicola Peltz as Katara and Jackson Rathbone as Sokka, are just as bad. Dev Patel and Shaun Toub are the lone decent actors in the film, and while they wouldn’t exactly be winning oscars for it it takes some bravery and skill to manage the amount of believability they did, especially when surrounded by crap.
The choreography is sometimes good, sometimes terrible. Occasionally a fight would look great with well done martial arts moves, special effects and realistic character movement. Other times, soldiers would run flailing his arms at Aang in a ridiculous attempt to look like a charging threat. Others would wait at their positions obviously prepared to be the cannon fodder they were meant to be. The final epic clash between armies, when it focuses on guys slashing at one another with regular weapons (the “bending” fights were pretty cool) reminds me of scenes from my old high school history videos.
Of the film’s few redeeming qualities, the visual effects are easily the best.Fire balls, moving mounds of earth, floating balls of water and tidal waves all look fantastic. The intricate tatoos on Aang look neat, as do the costumes and most of the sets (occasionally you’ll see something like the barrel room where you just ask “why?”.) The world of Avatar looks great with aging dilapidated temples, glittering palaces and vividly green forests. The CG companions, the lemur like creature and the flying… whatever that was (Beaver? Cow? Yak?) look decent, but except for a few fun scenes (such as when the children hang off the toes of the flying cow-thing) they aren’t given much of a personality.
Sound is another good part of the film with pretty sharp effects and music. The cinematography, however, is seriously hit or miss with some shots being wonderfully done and others being about as well done as a hand camera might do. Some shots become exceedingly blurry when in motion as well, obscuring the nice scenery.
The concept has such promise. This could have been a stirring kid’s action flick about the hero’s journey. On top of that, there are so few great Asian-themed epic fantasy films. Bending, as an alternative to our western wizards and sorcerers, is a neat and fresh concept that, while everywhere in anime, in severely lacking in big budget film. The acting is atrocious, the writing is insulting and the directing is almost non-existent. The visual effects only prove that there was a neat film adaptation waiting to be made, but this isn’t it. The trailer for the film is an excellent example of how a great trailer can make a bad movie look good. If you’re curious about the film, just watch the trailer. It’s all that’s worth it in the end. Maybe one day “Avatar: The Last Airbender” will get a live action adaptation it deserves.
We can only pray that this is the last time Shyamalan is ever given a chance to direct a film. Thanks for “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable.” Now stop it. Please.