Last Airbender, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/01/10 13:56:17
Already on shaky ground after such witless and worthless duds as “Robin Hood,” “MacGruber” “Sex and the City 2” and “Grown Ups,” to name just a few, the 2010 summer movie season has officially hit rock bottom with the detonation of “The Last Airbender,” M. Night Shyamalan’s stupefying awful live-action adaptation of the popular Nickelodeon anime series. This is not just the worst film of the season or the year to date, this is quite simply one of the worst films to ever achieve a commercial release. “How bad is it?,” you might ask. It is so bad that it now marks the artistic low point in the career of the man who gave us such mega-bombs as “The Village,” “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening.” It is so bad that I would rather attend a Henry Jaglom retrospective than watch any five minutes of it again in this or any other lifetime. It is so bad that it is one of the very few films that I can think of that would come up on the short end of the stick when compared to the infamous “Battlefield Earth.” It is so bad that I would be perfectly content to simply write the phrase “Your Movie Sucks, Night!” over and over again if it weren’t for the fact that I would have to pay Roger Ebert a quarter in royalties every time I did. It is so bad that not only could Uwe Boll make a better movie than Shyamalan has done here, he already has.Set who-the-hell-knows-when in the land of who-the-hell-knows-where, “The Last Airbender” begins by explaining, via the first of many chunks of raw and bloody exposition thrown out there in a desperate attempt to explain to viewers what is going on, that the world it takes place in is divided into four nations that each represent one of the four major elements--Earth, Air, Water and Fire--and that certain members of each nation known as “benders” have the ability to harness the power of their element and use it to combat their enemies whenever a poorly choreographed battle sequence rears its extremely ugly head. Long ago, there used to be exceptionally gifted people known as Avatars who had the ability to master all four elements and therefore be virtually invincible. Alas, the last Avatar mysteriously vanished over a century ago and ever since then, the world has been plunged into war thanks to the aggressiveness of the Fire Nation, who I think want to rule everything. The story proper finally kicks in as two young members of one of the Water Nation tribes--budding water bender Katara (the wonderfully named Nicola Peltz) and big brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) are out hunting for food to help feed their starving people when Katara pulls up an enormous orb from beneath the icy water and discovers a young, heavily tattooed child inside it along with his trusty pet, a ginormous beast that looks like the offspring of the flying beast from “The Neverending Story” and an illustration from a Maurice Sendak story. The boy is Aang (Noah Ringer) and it is soon revealed that he is actually the long-missing last Avatar--upon discovering his true purpose in life from his people 100 years earlier, he ran away and somehow got stuck in the ice and remained perfectly preserved for all that time.
Aang’s arrival brings trouble in the form of a group of Fire Nation warriors led by Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), the disgraced son of Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) who has been charged with retrieving Aang and bringing him home as a way of reestablishing himself in the eyes of his father and country. He makes off with Aang easily enough but the kid uses his powers to quickly make a getaway with the aid of Katara and Sokka and they then set off to return him to the Air Nation monastery where he was living before taking off. Alas, it is only once he arrives and sees the skeletons littering the land does he realize just how long he has been missing. It is also only then that he finally reveals to Katara and Sokka that he took off before beginning his full training--while he is all aces at bending air, he is still fairly weak when it comes to the other elements. Since Aang is pretty much the only one able to prevent the Fire Nation from conquering all, Katara and Sokka hit upon the idea of taking him to the other lands for remedial training in the other forces of nature. Along the way, he is pursued by both Zuko and the ruthless Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), who hopes to permanently usurp Zuko’s position and needs Aang to do it, and it all ends in a flurry of barely explained characters demonstrating barely explained powers and subplots involving a pretty princess (the wonderfully named Seychelle Gabrielle) and a couple of powerful spirits hiding in plain sight in a form that shows them to have all the self-preservations qualities of monkeys on crack.
In the wake of such massively successful films as the wildly overrated “The Sixth Sense,” the vastly underrated “Unbreakable” and the perfectly-good-until-the-last-ten-minutes “Signs,” there was a belief among many that M. Night Shyamalan could do no wrong and that he might indeed be both the next Spielberg and the next Hitchcock. And yet, in a twist as bizarre as any to be found in his films (though perhaps a bit more unexpected), Shyamalan proceeded to offer up a trio of films that seemed to have been made only to prove to people that he could indeed do very wrong if given the chance. In the wake of the increasingly apathetic critical and commercial response to such jaw-dropping flops as “The Village,” “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening,” it was probably a smart move on his part to work on a project that was an already popular property that didn’t come from his increasingly suspect imagination--in theory, such a move would allow him to branch out as a filmmaker by bringing someone else’s vision to life instead of being a slave to his tortured muse and the seemingly surefire commercial success of such a project would both boost his sagging fortunes and demonstrate to increasingly skittish studio weasels that he could play by the rules when forced to do so. However, it doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes to realize that Shyamalan is in way over his head this time around. Considering the fact that his previous films have essentially been chamber pieces involving only a handful of characters and menacing forces that generally lurk off-screen in the shadows, who could have possibly imagined that he would be the ideal choice to direct a hugely expensive epic filled with special effects and giant battle scenes? The end result doesn’t feel like a typical Shyamalan film but then again, it doesn’t feel as though anyone was at the controls on this one. As bad as films like “The Village” and “The Happening” were, they were clearly films that were the products of one clear and singular vision that knew what it wanted to say and how it wanted to say it. “The Last Airbender,” on the other hand, is such a jumbled mess from start to finish that it becomes fairly obvious that Shyamalan found himself overwhelmed by the mammoth proceedings early on in the game and just decided to instead put together enough random footage to make for a feature film and spackle it together with endless narration and expository dialogue, a good portion of the latter being supplied by an otherwise unexplained talking dragon spirit, in a desperate effort to make it coherent to audiences. In other words, the man who once would be the next Spielberg or Hitchcock reveals himself here to be the next Coleman Francis instead.
What is most stunning about “The Last Airbender” is the fact that there is not a single element on display that even remotely works for an instant. With an ordinary bad film, I can usually go through and find something that appealed to me--a oddball performance here, a quirky line of dialogue there or just the presence of a pretty face--but there is nary an aspect to this one that didn’t crash and burn before my eyes. Having never seen the original TV series, I cannot attest as to how closely the two match up (my sneaky suspicion is that they bear little resemblance to each other) but I have to guess that there was more to it in its original incarnation than this incoherent jumble of every kid-on-a-sacred-quest epic that you have endured in the last decade jammed into a template that suggests what “The Fifth Element” might have been like without the lucid plotting or keen fashion sense. Despite having gotten a number of impressive performances from the child actors he has employed over the years, Shyamalan gets nothing from the bland and instantly forgettable brood that he has collected here while better-known performers like Patel(thoroughly squandering his post-“Slumdog Millionaire” boost) and Cliff Curtis simple embarrass themselves. The fight scenes are indifferently staged cacophonies of chaos in which it is impossible to tell what is going on at any given time and which move so slowly that they feel as if they are all taking place underwater. The big climax is so poorly executed that when it is over, most viewers will probably assume that it was just the buildup to the real climax that, alas, never quite comes around. Instead, in an act of hubris so massive that it marks the only time in the entire film where it feels like Shyamalan is actually in charge of the proceedings, the story just kind of abruptly ends and we are treated to a blatant and not particularly edifying set-up for the sequel that he apparently expects that audiences will be clamoring to see. This is doubly infuriating because a.) it fails to bring the story that we have been watching for nearly two hours to any sort of conclusion and b.) the follow-up is unlikely to ever be made since the moment that the public gets a load of this one, Shyamalan is going to be sent off to the movie jail version of Elba and it will be a long, long time before any studio entrusts him with the money required to buy a carton of smokes, let alone a feature film.
Yes, “The Last Airbender” is one of those all-time disasters that will have viewers shaking their heads in disbelief for years to come--my guess is that if you took a photo of the audience immediately after the first time it was screened for Paramount executives, they would look almost exactly like the audience in “The Producers” after experiencing the opening number from “Springtime for Hitler” for the first time--but I haven’t even mentioned the worst aspect yet. That, of course, would be the last-minute inclusion of the increasingly tepid miracle of 3D in an especially blatant effort to lure in gullible kids and parents willing to pay premium prices for a substandard screening experience. For the most part, I am not a fan of the gimmick but I am willing to be a little more forgiving of it if the film in question was designed with the process in mind from the beginning. That is not the case here--the film was originally shot in 2D and the extra dimension was added in as an afterthought as was the case a few months ago with “Clash of the Titans.” Over the years, I have seen more than my fair share of 3D films, ranging from old classics like “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “House of Wax” to such mid-80’s format revivals as “Friday the 13th Part 3D” and “Comin at Ya!” to virtually all of the ones released in the last few years and I can confidently say that “The Last Airbender” contains the most ineffective use of the process that I have ever seen and bear in mind, I have seen “The Lollipop Girls in Hard Candy in 3D.” In fact, despite being shot by the usually reliable Andrew Lesnie (the cinematographer behind the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and many of Peter Jackson’s other films), the results were so incredibly dull, dingy and poorly focused that after about 20 minutes (many of which were dedicated to wondering if I had suddenly developed cataracts), I finally gave up and took my glasses off for good and as a result, I happened to notice something very interesting.As it turns out, I would estimate that between 60-70% of the rest of the film was still in 2D--the image was still clear (or as clear as could be under the circumstances--with the rest, mostly random scenes, appearing in a blurred manner that suggest an attempt at reaching the third dimension. In other words, Paramount is asking you to pay premium prices for the full 3D experience even though the film itself doesn’t provide anything close to such a thing. Therefore, if you must, for whatever reason, go out and see “The Last Airbender,” do yourself and your wallet a favor and catch it in its 2D presentation since both versions are mostly 2D as is. If you voluntarily go out and fork over the extra money to see it in this ersatz and virtually unwatchable 3D process, you are basically telling everyone that you are a clueless dope who refuses to listen to reason and who will cheerfully throw away your hard-earned money based on nothing more than hype and hot air. Then again, if you are choosing to see the film in any format after reading this review, I suppose that you are already comfortable with making such a statement.
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