By Kim Voynar

Voynaristic Review, The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Just how bad is The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of the excellent anime series Avatar: The Last Airbender? I would say it’s laughably bad, but I’m too irritated by the slaughtering of this excellent source material to have much of a sense of humor about the mess that Shyamalan has made of it.Remember in Get Him to the Greek, when it’s said of rocker Aldous Snow’s music video “African Child” that it was the worst thing to happen to Africa since apartheid? The Last Airbender is THAT bad. In fact, it’s so supremely bad in every way possible that I started to think while watching it that perhaps someone at the studio was using some kind of evil story-bending power to deliberately make it bad, thereby destroying the remnants of Shyamalan’s career once and for all. Because surely the filmmaker who made The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (in spite of an impressively bad run of movies since then) wouldn’t intentionally make a movie this bad. Right?

Look, maybe it’s just not possible to translate an animated series that ran over three seaons and leaned heavily on the exaggerated sense of character and stylized storytelling style of anime into a two hour live action movie and make it good. Or at least, it wasn’t possible for Shyamalan. Maybe Tarsem, whose brilliantly vivid imagination brought to life The Cell and The Fall, could have pulled it off, but Shyamalan obviously does not possess those powers. Or maybe it’s a case of too much ego with too few people telling the director when he’s going terribly astray, and when what he’s creating just sucks. Whatever the case, the end result is about as bad as bad can be, multiplied by completely awful.

What exactly went wrong here? For starters, most of the film is B-O-R-I-N-G. Mindnumbingly boring, as in, I was very nearly dozing off for the first 2/3 or so of the film, and I unabashedly love the source material. How Shyamalan could take such compelling characters, such a complex, fascinating story, and render it so terribly, painfully dull would maybe be an interesting thing to ponder if it wasn’t so maddening to sit through.

The evil guys in charge of the film’s Fire Nation may be plotting to take over the world and inclined to oppress and/or kill anyone who gets in their way, but I don’t think even Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), who’s the leader of a tribe responsible for slaughtering the entire tribe of Air Nomads, who burned his own young son’s face and banished him to isolation for speaking out against a general in defense of his friends, would have conceived of torturing an enemy by making them sit through this film.

The story leading up to The Last Airbender, in a nutshell, is summed up in the film’s opening voiceover: Once the world was at peace, and the Air Nomads, Water Tribe, Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation lived in balance and harmony. Some of the people of each nation could “bend” their natural element, and this was considered very cool and those who could do so were greatly honored. Each generation one “Avatar” (think: Dalai Lama-type figure) would be reincarnated, and he or she would have the power to bend all four elements and commune with the spirt world, and this is what kept the world in balance.

Until the last Avatar up and disappeared over 100 years ago, at which point things went to hell in a handbasket and the Fire Nation got all, “Oooh, let’s take over the world with our awesome fire power and dominate everyone, now that we have that pesky Avatar out of the way. But first, let’s commit some genocide and kill all the Air Nomads, since according to the Avatar cycle, the next Avatar is going to be born of them! Muhahahahah!”

Katara (Nicola Peltz, who kind of looks like Michelle Tractenburg but isn’t), a teenage Waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe, and her brother Sokka (The Twilight Saga’s Jackson Rathbone) accidentally stumble upon something frozen in a sphere of ice; Sokka is all, “No, don’t crack that ice sphere!” and Katara does it anyhow, because younger sisters never do what older brothers say, and there in the ice is Aang, (Noah Ringer), the Avatar himself, who’s been frozen in there all this time with his giant flying bison, Appa, having run away from the monastery where he was training when he was revealed to be the next Avatar.

So now he’s unfrozen, and it’s time for Aang to kick the Fire Nation’s ass — er, I mean, time for him to peacefully restore the balance of the world, because Avatars don’t hurt people — with the help of his new friends and a flying lemur. All while being pursued by both Prince Zoku (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel), the scarred, exiled prince who can’t return home until he finds the Avatar, and Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), who wants to find the Avatar before Prince Zoku and, if he can, help the prince accidentally end up dead along the way.

That’s the story, folks. You have your good guys, you have your wicked bad guys, you have all the elements of a hero/journey story and all kinds of fantasty elements to play around with to make it look cool. On top of that, you have all these fascinating spiritual threads within the storyline, and a main character who’s a little boy coping not only with the heavy weight of being the savior of the world, but with his grief over being responsible for the slaughter of his entire tribe when he ran away from his responsibilities, not to mention the countless lives lost in the ensuing 100 years of war. It is a GREAT story. And Shyamalan took this story and made an absolutely terrible movie of it.

There are parts of The Last Airbender that are quite beautiful, particularly the graceful dance-like moves of the Waterbenders, but what elements do work are so overshadowed by everything that doesn’t as to render them negligible. It’s obvious that Shyamalan was trying here to capture the visual essence of the animated series, with the big bad metal ships of the Fire Nation, and the stately beauty of the Northern Water Tribe’s city, but he just doesn’t have the vision to pull it off.

Young Ringer and Patel do their best to bring the conflicted hero and tragic villain to life, but none of it comes together very well. It’s all just a mess, augmented by a lot of special effects (most of them not terribly impressive) and weighed down by some spectactularly bad, over-the-top acting that might have played fine as voiceover for animation but feels cheesy here.

It doesn’t help matters that Shyamalan (who also wrote the script, oh yes he did) spends the first half or so of the movie setting all this up. Slowly, boringly, and with mind-numblingly lame dialogue.

I can only blame Shyamalan for apparently coaching his actors to deliver this dialogue as much like anime characters as possible (that is to say, in an over-the-top, exaggerated way), because it’s just not conceivable to me that every single person cast in this film is really that bad an actor.

But in any case, that kind of line delivery just does not work as well with a live action film as it does when you’re dealing with animation. Which is probably as good a reason as any why certain animated series just should not be translated into live-action adaptations; the characters tend to come across as ridiculous, both the good ones when they are trying very hard to emote sincerity and passion and the bad ones when they are trying very hard to emote unbridled evil of the “muahahahah” variety. It just doesn’t work.

(For the record, though, I do have to add that Rathbone does appear to be actually attempting to act here, which leads me to believe that his painfully awkward glowering in the Twilight films is really a deliberate, if befuddling choice. I’m not sure what that says about him in the Twilight films, exactly, but he did at least attempt here to capture the nature of Sokka as he is in the animated series, even if he doesn’t always succeed.)

I saw the film in 3-D, and if you must go see it, I highly recommend not wasting your money paying the extra surcharge to see the 3-D version. The 3-D effects are unnecessary and barely worth mentioning, and on top of that they’ve rendered the entire film so dark and dirty-looking that at times it’s actually hard to see what’s going on. I removed my glasses more than once while watching the film because the screen was so dark. If you want to see what the film looks like in 3-D, save yourself some cash and just watch it while wearing sunglasses.

But really, I’d rather you not pay to see it at all, so as not to encourage anyone to give Shyamalan any more money with which to make bad movies.

-by Kim Voynar

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Leonard Klady's Friday Estimates
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The Nun 0.75 2264 -52% 111.5
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The Predator 0.25 1643 -77% 49.3
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