Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Movie Review: The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender
Warning:  May Cause the Bends.

The Last Airbender, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.  Starring Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, and Nicola Pelz.  Paramount Pictures, 2010.  94 minutes.  Rated PG.  Catholic News Service Rating is A-II--Adults and Adolescents.

I'm of the opinion that the movie reviewers have gone overboard trashing this film.  As Exhibit A, I present the funny but decidedly uninformative review by Mike Ward, who imagines director M. Night Shyamalan locked in a studio executive's trunk somewhere, but says little about the movie.

So let me clear all this up:  Yes, it is a bad movie, but it's not that bad.

It is another stillborn attempt to start a spin-off fantasy movie franchise, similar to some other forgettable attempts made in recent years.  The Last Airbender is a lot like Eragon, The Dark Is Rising, or The Golden Compass, though it's better than any of those (but not much better).  In my opinion, it's on the same level as the first Harry Potter movie and makes most of the same mistakes, but keep in mind that, with the exception of the third, I have an unusually low opinion of the Harry Potter films.

The Last Airbender is an adaptation of the first season of the hugely successful and unprecedented Nickelodeon animated series with the full and somewhat awkward title, Avatar:  The Last Airbender.  Just to make sure you don't get it confused with anything made by James Cameron, I'll explain ahead of time that in this review I refer to the live-action movie as Airbender and the television cartoon as Avatar.  All clear?

The story of Airbender is a dumbed-down yet somehow over-explained version of the story of Avatar.  It takes place in an alternate world divided into four nations, each of which based around one of the four elements.  In each nation, certain people can "bend" the represented element, which means they can manipulate it magically by use of maneuvers drawn from Kung fu.  One perpetually reincarnated person called the Avatar can bend all four elements and has the responsibility of maintaining peace between the human nations, and of communicating with the animistic spirit world.  The Avatar went missing a century earlier, so the Fire Nation took the opportunity to attack everyone else, particularly targeting benders.  Two teenage siblings from the decimated Southern Water Tribe, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and Katara (Nicola Pelz), discover the missing Avatar, twelve-year-old Aang (Noah Ringer), the last of the destroyed airbenders.  Sokka and Katara join Aang on a mission to reach the Northern Water Tribe where he can learn waterbending with the goal of eventually defeating the Fire Nation.  Along the way, they are chased by the moody, exiled Fire Nation prince, Zuko (Dev Patel), and Zuko's easygoing uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub).

Where to start?  The first major mistake of the movie is talking.  There is a lot of it.  The movie opens with (badly written) text on the screen, read to us by Nicola Pelz.  Most of the dialogue consists of lengthy exposition, a surprisingly large amount of it for a story that's basically a fantasy McGuffin hunt.  When the characters aren't talking, we're typically listening to Nicola Pelz narrating again, filling in any supposed gaps, though most of them don't need filled in.  The narration perhaps hints that this movie is so bad partly because it was hacked up in the editing room.  Some scenes in the previews, such as the appearance of the Kyoshi Warriors, are not in the actual movie, and I wonder if the narration was added to replace whatever was sliced out.  The film is certainly cursory and choppy enough to suggest editing is partly to blame.

The second mistake is poor direction, especially of the child actors.  Noah Ringer is the spitting image of Aang from the cartoon, but his acting is lousy.  He manages once or twice to convey some real emotion, which suggests that the problem has to do more with direction than with Ringer himself.  This is further suggested by the almost universally bad performances from the other actors, both kids and adults.  As Sokka, Jackson Rathbone delivers brief lines with a strained look on his face, as if he's constantly thinking about how this is ruining his career.  Nicola Pelz as Katara is so milquetoast I can't think of anything to say about her, except that she keeps bobbing her head around in a distracting way whenever she talks.  Dev Patel does a fair job pulling off Zuko, and even though he has that big burn on his face, he may ironically be the only one to come out of this project unscathed, but his badly written dialogue prevents him from really reaching his potential.  On a few occasions, he starts saying something that sounds good, but then his lines derail into vagueness.  I was wondering if that expression of frustration on his face was acting or a representation of his real feelings about the script.

The other actors in the film are more-or-less forgettable, except Seychelle Gabrielle, who as Princess Yue has a brief romance with Sokka--a romance told largely through Nicola Pelz's narration again.  In spite of the severe underdevelopment of their relationship, Sokka and Yue manage to have one genuinely emotional scene, a scene that would have been much better if it had more building up to it.  The cartoon characters of Avatar have more personality and more emotive faces than the live actors of Airbender.

My biggest complaint is the action.  I've already seen Avatar, so I'm mainly here at the theater to see some bending-enhanced martial arts, but the action sequences are awful.  Avatar was inspired in part by Hong Kong chop-sockey, and the cartoon manages, quite amazingly considering it's a weekly animated series, to have seriously good martial arts battles, some as impressive as anything I've seen in live-action Kung fu films.  But Airbender desperately needs more chop in its chop-sockey and more wire in its wire-fu.  Most scenes that in Avatar lead to impressive fighting involve little or no fighting at all in Airbender.  The few scenes of actual fighting look sloppy and stilted.

For example, early on, Aang, Sokka, and Katara inspire a group of captured earthbenders to rebel against their Fire Nation overlords.  I naturally expected a big bending-fest fight sequence to follow.  The camera makes a wide pan over the scene as people fight, but instead of being exciting, it's sluggish and static.  Most of the extras stand around as if they don't know what to do.  The same problem persists in every other action sequence in the movie.  Noah Ringer, although clearly an athletic kid, looks uncertain while fighting, as if he's had neither enough training nor enough direction.  Most of the other fighters don't do much better.

And that brings me to another complaint--the bending.  In Avatar, bending is a vital part of this alternate world.  Every one of these four cultures is dependent on bending.  The Fire Nation has coal-powered machines, attacks with flaming rocks launched from catapults, and builds its war tanks with windows so firebenders can shoot flame from them.  The Earth Kingdom uses earthbenders to drive communication and public transit systems made of stone, and its earthbending police wear special rock gloves they can shoot at criminals.  The Water Tribes live at the poles so they can build cities out of ice.  In the cartoon, it makes sense that the Fire Nation would attack the other countries by attacking their benders first, not only because benders are the most dangerous warriors, but also because by eliminating other countries' benders the Fire Nation is destroying their infrastructure and their morale.  In Airbender, bending is mostly superfluous, a neat trick certain people can do, and the Fire Nation's reason for wanting to wipe out everyone else's benders is unclear, perhaps the result of superstition or bigotry.

In the action sequences in Avatar, bending is vital.  Although the series contains some accomplished fighters who can't bend (such as the aforementioned Kyoshi Warriors), bending is nonetheless integrated into most every battle, and used creatively.  In Airbender, the characters frequently slug each other with no bending at all, even in cases where all the fighters are benders.  Most fights happen with only occasional bending.  In that scene with the earthbender rebellion, almost no earthbending takes place:  a few earthbenders raise a rock wall to block some fire, and I think one or two others threw some small stones, but that's it.  There are scenes in this movie where Katara and Aang practice the Tai Chi waterbending moves by a lakeside, but nothing happens in the lake behind them.  During the final sequence, the siege of the Northern Water Tribe, most of the fighting involves bending-free fisticuffs between Fire Nation and Water Tribe soldiers, but the fisticuffs have precious little of the stylized wire-fu of the cartoon, and the little they do have looks clumsy.  The waterbenders are too much like old people doing Tai Chi for health and not enough like The Tai Chi Master.  Shyamalan seriously needed to hire a choreographer and put his cast through more training.

And another thing, in Avatar, the animistic spirit world is a scary place.  Any wrong move with the plant life and you could find a destructive, invincible giant animal tearing apart your village (the Fire Nation is somehow exempt from this).  Although the spirit world loses importance in the second and third seasons of Avatar, it's nonetheless abundantly clear why people need the Avatar to negotiate between them and the spirits.  In Airbender, we're told that the spirits are all benevolent.  In Avatar, the one genuinely frightening scene involves Aang traveling to the spirit world to get vital information from a centipede-like monstrosity who can steal the face of anyone who shows emotion in his presence.  In Airbender, the only spirit he encounters is some generic dragon who's neither scary nor awe-inspiring nor filmed clearly.

Just once, in one instance, the movie arguably fixes a mistake in Avatar.  In Avatar, we learn that most of the past Avatars got married, but we're also told Aang has to give up all desire--including his desire for his love interest--in order to have access to all his Avatar powers.  That never made sense to me. Airbender attempts to fix this by telling us Aang ran away from his destiny specifically because he was told he couldn't have a family, but that's a minor improvement.

One other attempt at improvement looks as if it were specially designed to irritate fans of the cartoon, that being the change made to firebending.  In Avatar, all firebenders can shoot flame out of their fists or feet.  In Airbender, they can only bend fires that are already lit.  The rationale for this appears at the end in the setup for the unlikely-to-happen sequel:  We're told (with more exposition) that only the most advanced firebenders can generate fire out of their bodies, but that when Sozin's Comet arrives at the end of the summer, all firebenders will temporarily have this ability.  Now, this is arguably an improvement over the cartoon, in which we're told over and over that things will get really bad if Aang doesn't defeat Firelord Ozai before Sozin's Comet arrives because of all the new power the firebenders will get.  When the comet finally arrives, we discover that all it does is make the firebenders' flames bigger.  Still, the change in firebending in the movie constantly bugged me.  It means that, again, the firebenders do a lot less bending during the fight sequences.  Their ability to shoot fireballs out of their fists makes them a real menace in the cartoon, but in the movie, firebending doesn't appear to give them much of an advantage.

Several times during this film, I recognized scenes with counterparts in the cartoon, and in every instance, the scene from the cartoon is superior.  The cartoon has better writing, better acting, better worldbuilding, better fighting, and better all-around storytelling.  The only slight advantage of the movie is its lush environments, but since Avatar has frequent beautiful painted backdrops, even there the cartoon holds its own.  I was looking forward to the movie because it promised a grittier version of Avatar, but it didn't deliver.  Airbender takes all the humor and fun out of Avatar, but replaces them with nothing.  The result is flat, dreary, and unengaging.

I've read a number of reviews that say the basic premise and the story are stupid.  I disagree; there's nothing wrong with the story, but the film is so poorly constructed it makes what should be acceptable fantasy conceits look like arbitrary caprices.  All the goofiest elements that worked well in the cartoon look silly in the movie's stripped-down, bare outline of Avatar's plot. Things that were well-integrated into the world of the cartoon simply pop out of nowhere in the movie, and the endless explanations in the dialogue only serve to make them look worse. Sure, Avatar has many elements that look stupid if examined closely (Aang walking around the South Pole in his bare feet, for starters), but the show is so well-made that most of them aren't too noticeable.  Airbender makes all the weaknesses of Avatar glaring and piles on more weaknesses of its own.

I saw this movie in 3D, but I barely noticed the 3D effects, which were added post-production to only a few scenes.  This movie is not worth seeing in the theater at all, and the DVD release should be of interest only to die-hard Avatar fans bent on having a complete collection.  Because nothing in Airbender, not one moment, manages to outdo or add to the cartoon, I recommend skipping it completely.  Instead, rent the first disc of Avatar if you haven't seen it and check out what is probably the grandest children's television series ever, and possibly the greatest TV fantasy series for any age group.

Content Notice:  Contains mild action violence.
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