By Brian Prisco | Film | July 3, 2010 |
By Brian Prisco | Film | July 3, 2010 |
For a long time, I’ve been an M. Night Shyamalan apologist. It was mostly misplaced civic pride. He shoots his movies in Bucks County, PA, which is for all intents and purposes my old backyard. But no more. I’m done. We’re breaking up. He’s fucked with my heart for the last time. If you remember what it felt like when George Lucas raped your childhood, at least he had the common fucking decency to lube up first. Shyamalan takes the remarkable and groundbreaking Nickelodeon cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and doesn’t just violate all that was charming and amusing, but he castrates the characters and feeds them their own genitals. The dialogue is so laden and heavy with exposition and explanation, it’s like listening to an audio recording of someone reading the Wikipedia page. It’s as if Shyamalan left the cartoons on in the background while he made dinner and figured it counted as research. The character names are butchered, the film is grievously miscast, and the general storyline is chopped up and cobbled together until it’s fairly unrecognizable.
There was no need for this to be in 3D, as it lacks even a second dimension. If you were a fan of the cartoons, you’re going to be mortified. If you’re coming into this raw, you’re just going to be fucking bored and possibly confused, even though they practically repeat word for word every event as they are about to perform it. Instead of the lighthearted and energetic anime style romp we got for several years on Nickelodeon, Shyamalan delivers a listless, miserable, and dreary film that skims across everything wonderful in the source material like someone skipping stones over a sewage tank. But what do you really expect from a dude whose second to last film was about himself writing a children’s story in order to save the world?
From the opening moments, you know you are fucking doomed. Replicated from the cartoon’s introductory sequence, we see four shadowy figures each summon the prospective elements: earth, water, fire, and air. This should be exciting — seeing what up to now has only been pen and ink brought to life in stunning 3D. And yet, there is no life. It feels half-speed like a dry run of the production. In fact, Shyamalan went out of his way to suck any and all life out of the original material, like a Twihard horking feathers as she chews through her Cullenpillow. The entire movie is played out like a test-audience screening, hastily assembled scenes of actors explaining every element of the story as if it was a placeholder for an amazing action sequence that hasn’t been shot yet. Like a shoddy contractor building a dream home piecemeal, Shyamalan throws up the barest sketch of a foundation with the cheapest materials possible, and then adds elements as time and money allow. Only this motherfucker clearly doesn’t understand how to read blueprints, and has no idea which end of the hammer does the hitting.
The world of Avatar is one where four nations have the ability to bend the elements, which is a fancy way of saying they could wave their hands and fire off a projectile based on their particular talent: fire, water, earth, or air. The Avatar, a legendary warrior who could control all four of the elements, mysteriously disappeared over a century ago. So now, the evil Fire Nation is waging war on the other three nations. Two Eskimo looking kids from the Southern Water Nation, brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, Jasper from the Twilight series) and his sister Katara (Nicola Peltz), are hunting for food when up out of the glacier comes not a bubbling crude, but a weird little bald kid with a henna tattoo on his melon (Noah Ringer). Oh, and his flying six-legged furry bison Appa. While exposition is whipping past us in big glacial chunks of emotionless jibba-jabba, suddenly the Fire Nation shows up and evil Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) takes the boy hostage and brings him aboard his steam frigate to be tested by his Uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub) to see if he might be the Avatar. Surprise! He is! And he quickly escapes by bending air — which involves a lot of people tumbling down hallways and getting blown backwards. The young Avatar escapes on his flying kite staff and rejoins his flying bison and two instant just-add-water pals for some adventure.
Shyamalan decides that for his trilogy, he’s going to divide the three books among the three remaining elements that the young Airbender has to learn: Water, Earth, Fire. While the cartoon had Aang and his two companions traveling around the countryside, trying to find out how Aang could learn all three elements while disrupting the Fire Nation wherever they could, and learning important life lessons and the such, Shyamalan decides to condense this all into one horrendously overwrought fight scene between an enslaved Earth Nation camp and the Fire Nation. A 12 year-old kid, led as prisoners into the compound, shouts out that they shouldn’t be slaves anymore, because “I’m the Avatar.” That’s not lazy criticizing either — that’s practically verbatim. The dialogue in the script consists entirely of people standing in front of green screened backdrops saying exactly what they are about to do or what’s going to happen in the next scene. The Fire Nation soldiers laugh — as did everyone else watching — and what follows is one of the most poorly choreographed special effects fight sequences in film history. Instead of kinetic frenzy, with characters hurling fireballs and boulders, streams of wind and water with reckless abandon, everyone stands around patiently as one attack is made and then pauses, as if Shyamalan was off-camera, checking with the production accountant if they had enough money to pull off the next kata.
Since Aang is supposed to learn waterbending first, he has to go to the North. But first, he has to fight some soldiers to free other villages. We know this because Sokka tells him that they should fight some soldiers to free other villages. In approximately that cadence, with approximately those words. Meanwhile, we get a bunch of cut scenes with the supremely evil baddies, Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi from the “Daily Show”) and Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis from everything with a terrorist every made in the past decade) who spend most of their time walking around the Fire Nation palace explaining what is happening in the meanwhile. Because apparently, without the money to film additional village battle sequences, Shyamalan tries to fake it by showing outtakes from the earlier fight patched up with voiceover from a completely different scene. There are plenty of filmmakers out there who can do loaves and fishes with limited budget, and with something on this scale and scope, you aren’t going to be able to fit every single scene in there. But if you’re going to do a half-assed job, why bother to do it at all?
I tend to harp on adaptations for not being slavish to the source material, but the mauling Shyamalan did on this was untenable. While the cartoon did have 20 episodes to give us subtle character nuances, these kids are written in fucking crayon. He seriously can’t even manage to pronounce their fucking names correctly. He’s like a drunk aunt at a wedding sloshing her plastic wine cup and shaking her ass cause she just loooves that rapper “Florida.” It’s not as if the source material were books like Lord of the Rings and you had to consult scholars. It’s a cartoon, where they repeatedly pronounce the names. It’s on Netflix Watch Instantly. Boot up a motherfucking laptop, Night, I’ll lend you my fucking password. Aang becomes ONG, Sokka is SOO-KA, Avatar is ABADAR. You can actually pinpoint the moment in the footage where the production learned about Cameron’s film. Vanilla Ice did a better job trying to cover up stealing “Under Pressure.”
None of the playfulness of the cartoon and the characters are there. The look of every character is completely wrong — not just approximated or overly-stylized, but thoroughly disregarded. It would be the equivalent of giving Harry Potter contact lenses. And putting Hogwarts in downtown St. Paul. And turning Hermione into a hot black chick. And making Ron a puppy. None of the enigmatic hairstyles are represented, save for Aang’s shaved head, and Uncle Iroh went from Miyagiesque to a stand in for General Zod’s drag show.
Even if you weren’t familiar with the show, you’d find the characterizations stilted and slapdash. Sokka and Katara no longer have storylines, but are relegated to tertiary subplots. Seriously, Sokka’s entire courting of Princess Yue — one of the most endearing moments in a children’s show — is performed ENTIRELY in voiceover. Even Stephanie Meyer has them stare at each other wistfully and say words, for Christ’s sake. Katara goes from being a fierce waterbender trying to perfect her craft to save her people to melodramatic luggage. She’s there, because they needed someone to do voiceover and to be completely unable to deliver Shyamalan’s atrociously clunky dialogue. But it ain’t the kids’ fault — Ian McKellan would be choking on this hackjob.
And then there’s Aang himself. In the cartoon, Aang’s a little kid, bouncing off the walls and giggling, soaring into the air and generally flitting around. The kid’s got a smile in every scene. He’s a master bender, able to command the elements with natural inborn talent. Sure, he gets sad and angry sometimes, but the prevailing charm of the Avatar is that he’s like the ultimate kid in a candy store. Shyamalan’s done his usual fix, where he’s turned him into a neurotic brooder. He doesn’t smile, not one time, during the entire film. He’s a runaway who can only save the world if he learns every discipline. Shyamalan’s turned the kid into fucking Atlas, so no wonder he’s mournful and depressed. Little fucker needed a hug in every goddamn scene. When Aang does fight, it becomes So You Think You Can Dance Fight. This is a kid who has the power to hurl currents of air. He doesn’t need to breakdance fight and do flips. He shouldn’t have to make contact with a foot. He’s a fucking airbender. Yet all the of the effects, particularly the firebending, look like Shyamalan showed old beer commercials from the ’80s where guys said they knew karate and then postured with the chop socky hands for five minutes going “Waaaaah! Hiiiyyaah!” And then a fireball comes flying from post-production. The bending is based on martial art and should organically flow from the person. It shouldn’t look like doing four minutes of overly elaborate mock tai-chi gives you a power up.
Aang’s animal companions are practically an afterthought. Given personality in the series, here they were a burden on the budget. Momo, the lemur-bat, is akin to the monkeys from the Indiana Jones series. In the movie, we seem him occasionally flying around in the background. There might be one scene where we actually get shots of him rifling through a closet. He looks cool, which is more than I can say for dear Appa, the flying six-legged furry bison. Appa was my favorite part of the series. Here, it’s like Snuffleupagus washed up on the island Where the Wild Things Are and got gang raped repeatedly, until one of the offspring developed the ability to fly and escape.
Pointless and completely uncalled for accusations of racism were leveled at Shyamalan, which are entirely beside the point. There are so many better reasons to loathe this monstrosity, especially the useless 3D technology. It was clearly not filmed to be viewed in three dimensions, nor really in two, but how you can fuck up digital effects on 3D when you have a flying bison and fighting that involves elemental projectiles just goes to show how pointless and unnecessary the entire endeavor has become. In Toy Story 3, the 3D felt unnecessary, in this, it feels like the filmmakers were reaching into my pocket for an extra five dollars and wrenching my sack when they got it. But as for the racism, look. It’s not that Shyamalan was specifically insensitive to racial lines when he cast his movie, but to the people who expected the characters to somewhat resemble the ones they saw in the cartoon. He’s not a bigot, he just doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing.
I guess I’m supposed to properly refer to this film as The Last Airbender Book 1: Water, but there won’t be books two and three. Even though they still crank out the dreadful Narnia films, they’ve given up all hope on the equally shitty His Dark Materials films, and both of those are like fucking Pixar compared to this atrocity. It will literally cost friends of mine their jobs and take industry away from my home state, but I’m hoping this is the end for Shyamalan. He’s proven once and for all that he’s completely inept at filmmaking. Normally, it’s his own little noggin that’s crapping out the nuggets, but even when handed a goldmine of source material, he’s managed to completely screw the pooch. I went to a midnight screening on opening night, and the audience applauded when people walked out. When they weren’t outright laughing at the horrendous dialogue, they were actually openly booing the final credits. Sure, we all chuckled behind knuckles at the Twihards lined up for the midnight screenings, but the joke turned out to be on us. The only twist I’m waiting for is when rabid fans of the series get their hands on Shyamalan’s neck.