Tuesday, July 06, 2010
As writer/director M. Night Shyamalan's entrée into the sweepstakes of franchise filmmaking, The Last Airbender is neither epic enough to be memorable, nor disposable enough to be harmless. It's two hours of characters standing in front of greenscreens, emoting with much portent and pomposity, but little else. Think of Star Wars: Episode I without the nuance (!) and subtlety (!!). Sad to say, the critical dogpile that Airbender has engendered is more entertaining than the movie itself, and I say that as neither disgruntled fan of the cartoon show on which it's based, nor as someone with an axe to grind with Shyamalan.
Now, I say "ostensible" when referring to Aang as the protagonist because Shyamalan made the baffling decision to frame his story through the perspective and narration of Katara (Nicola Peltz), a teenager from the Water Nation. Every plot point is thus filtered through her, keeping the actual main character just at arm's reach and in turn violating the most basic tenet of filmic storytelling by telling instead of showing. When Katara and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) find Aang encased in an ice floe where he's been frozen Steve Rogers-style for over a hundred years, the three set out on a quest to free the planet from the domination of the Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) and his right hand man Zao (Aasif Mandvi).
There's also some business in there about Ozai's son, the disgraced Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) wandering the globe in search of the Avatar to reclaim his lost honor, and there's also a love story between Sokka and an Ice Princess (Seychelle Gabriel), but to be honest, they lost me fairly early on, and it was a pretty rough time a) keeping up with the various threads of the plot, and b) mustering the interest to keep up with the various threads of the plots. As a result, the intervening two hours were some of the most agonizing I've had at the movies in a great long while. Say what you will about Jonah Hex (as I did), but at the very least that one was over and done with inside of ninety minutes.
As I mentioned earlier, I went into my Airbender screening a complete novice to the concept, having heard of but never seen the Avatar animated series that which it adapts (Hmm, wonder why they didn't keep that name? Oh, right.). This was a strategic decision on my part so I might enjoy the movie on its own merits without going through another G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra experience like last year. This ended up backfiring for me though, as I left the theater caring even less about the characters then I did going in, amazingly enough.
Not helping matters is Shyamalan's listless direction and stilted dialogue, both of which are doubly confounding to me given how much I championed (and continue to champion) his early (post-Wide Awake) output. I was one of the people lucky enough to catch The Sixth Sense on opening night back in '99, knowing nothing about it, and after being utterly gobsmacked by that ending, I told everyone I knew to check it out. That was the movie that made his name, but the success he achieved there proved a double-edged sword for the director, forever saddling Shyamalan in the eyes of the public as "Twist Ending Guy."
Of course, that didn't hurt him with his next project, 2000's Unbreakable (which I think is arguably his strongest work to date), nor really with 2002's Signs (that I also enjoyed, warts-and-all), but by the time we got around to The Village in 2004, Lady in the Water in 2006, and his (again, arguable) nadir with The Happening two years ago, the bloom was clearly off the rose for "Twist Ending Guy." It's for this reason that I'd long been a proponent of Shyamalan taking on a big franchise that would allow him to leave his comfort zone while still being comfortably commercial,
Well, if The Last Airbender is the end result of that wish, I think I want my dime back.
There are numerous things we can point to as being "off" about Airbender, starting with the preponderance of greenscreen work, where Shyamalan's trademark static camerawork proves even more of a debit than usual, with the frame just sitting there and allowing us to fully take in all the mediocre effects that surround the actors. And speaking of actors, while Ringer is serviceable enough as Aang (mostly -- mostly -- avoiding the "annoying kid actor" stigma that afflicted the aforementioned Phantom Menace), he's rendered such an inscrutable cypher that a major "turn" for the character in the third act just doesn't register the way it was no doubt intended.
As to the rest of the cast, they mostly occupy that nebulous terrain between forgettable and bad. All are left underserved by their director, but none more egregiously than Patel and Mandvi. Patel makes an earnest attempt to distance the morally-ambiguous Prince Zuko from his career-making turn in Slumdog Millionaire, but he spends most of the time glowering and growling like Hayden Christensen's Anakin Skywalker -- and I'm talking Attack of the Clones Anakin, not even Revenge of the Sith Anakin (and there we go with another Star Wars comparison...). Then there's Mandvi, who I love on The Daily Show and who I legitimately feel bad for here. His Admiral Zao issues dire proclamations to the Fire Lord with all the gravity of the actor's nightly banter with Jon Stewart. I know he's capable of better, and the blame must again go to Shyamalan for not doing a better job modulating the performance(s).
In fact, modulation, or lack thereof, is as good a term as any to sum up the film's many problems various and sundry. Shyamalan is so steeped in his own rhythms and style, so unwilling to adapt his creative impulses to the project at hand, that he sabotages himself at every step. The action sequences are lifeless when they should be breathtaking. The emotional beats are leaden when they should be transcendent. By the time The Last Airbender trudges to its merciful conclusion, the explicit threat of a sequel hangs like a Sword of Damocles over our collective heads. Given the critical and audience reaction thus far, that sequel tease seems like the biggest twist ending of all. D-