My antithetical demographic:
In the following review, I will be entirely open about what happens in the movie. Don’t worry about spoilers, though. The movie was spoiled to begin with.
My intention with this blog is to detail my occasional explorations into entertainments that, ostensibly, have nothing to offer me. I want to emphasize, however, these entertainments were simply never designed for me. It’s not as if they’re entirely useless; they’re just useless to me. If I can’t find anything to eat at a steakhouse, I really can’t complain. It’s a steakhouse; I’m a vegetarian. Instead of becoming annoyed that there’s no food on the menu for me, I want to keep in mind that there’s a whole demographic of people who enjoy the things I have no interest in. I’m wallowing in unfamiliar milieus, and my revelations should primarily be self-deprecations.
But The Last Airbender doesn’t fit neatly into my preconceptions. I already knew that this movie wasn’t designed for me, but I didn’t immediately realize that it wasn’t designed for anybody. In a way, M. Night Shyamalan probably had a very specific audience in mind for this movie: himself. But somewhere along the line he just said, fuck that guy, I’m going my own direction.
See, this movie doesn’t come off as self-indulgent. I’m thoroughly convinced that the movie was designed for an audience of M. Night Shyamalan’s, but somewhere in the process M. Night Shyamalan started to resent compromising M. Night Shyamalan’s vision to the uninformed whims of M. Night Shyamalan. He probably did some market research with an M. Night Shyamalan focus group. When the results came in, however, he dismissed the M. Night Shyamalan focus group as ignorant philistines and went his own anti-Shyamalan way.
It’s really incredible. M. Night Shyamalan’s head is so far up his own asshole that he’s folded himself up into an auteur black hole. No joy can escape a collapsed Shyamalan. Most unfortunately, an apparently beloved children’s program has wandered to close to his event horizon. Outside particles cannot escape the Shyamalanian suckage.
There’s really no need for name calling, though. The Last Airbender is awful enough on its own without considering Shyamalan’s legacy of exponentially increasing hubris and incompetence. This is a bad movie. It’s as bad as you’ve heard. In fact, it might actually be worse.
The Last Airbender doesn’t waste time in revealing its awfulness. It starts out with a text crawl and a voice over. This is never a good sign. To me, this means that the filmmakers would like to establish a rich, fictional universe, but don’t have the necessary convictions to integrate it into the narrative. That’s certainly the case here. The text crawl establishes a certain amount of contempt for the mythology of the series that runs through the rest of the movie. Anything that could potentially deepen the universe is only mentioned if it furthers the plot, and it’s done as quickly and as dismissively as possible.
Besides the text crawl, the title screen also gives a good clue that even the studio execs have given up on the film. After the text craw fades, or rather explodes, a subtitle comes up: “Book One: Water.” Since this had not been in any of the marketing that I saw, I originally thought the movie was divided into several subchapters. But as the movie stretched along with no sign of it being further broken up, I realized that this was supposed to signify that the movie was originally conceived as the first part of a series. I could be wrong, but it seems that the movie studio was a little skeptical that this series would take off.
M. Night Shyamalan: “Hey, guys. Why didn’t you include Book One: Water on any of the posters?”
Studio Execs: “Well, uh… let’s just see what happens, okay?”
After these less than encouraging signs, the movie sort of flattens out in its awfulness for the first 30 minutes or so. That’s not to say that there aren’t more problems, it’s just that my expectations were already lowered and the movie continued to at meet them. Most of the actors are either trying too hard or not hard enough. Nicola Peltz as Katara in particular is just constantly befuddled. She goes through the entire movie with her mouth agape and her brow furrowed no matter what situation she’s in. Dev Patel bumbles his way through his villainous role as Prince Zuko. He sneers like a petulant teenager. He’s about as menacing as French toast.
The movie begins with Katara and her brother Sokka stumbling on a giant snow globe in the middle of a field of ice. In one of the film’s most unintentionally hilarious scenes, Katara impulsively runs up to it and breaks it open with her brother’s misshapen boomerang. Like you do. You would think you’d want some tension in this scene, but instead we get about a half a second of Katara swinging the boomerang above her head like the world’s worst tennis player, before the ice ball cracks open and ridiculously shoots her across the ice field. It’ the type of physical comedy you’d see in a Warner Brothers cartoon when someone gets hit by a spring loaded boxing glove. All that’s missing is twittering birds around her head.
Inside the fragile ice palace of solitude is Falkor from The Neverending Story and a miniature Caucasian Dali Lama. The Dali Lama fellow is the eponymous Last Airbender (Christian name: Aang) who we quickly learn, through some of the most hamfisted exposition ever, is the world’s last great hope. He went missing for a few years because he ran away. But he’s back now. Here, you know what, I’ll just let him tell you himself:
That scene’s been making the rounds on the Internet, for good reason. It displays a great deal of what’s wrong with this movie: stilted dialog, stilted action and unbelievable human interactions. It’s astonishing how blasé everyone is in this scene. The Avatar has been gone for 100 years, yet everyone seems fairly indifferent to the entire concept of him standing right in front of them. Even when shit gets real, signified here by someone getting hit with a rock, the action proceeds with only a minimal amount of tension.
But the movie drops precipitously in quality immediately following the above scene. Sure, the action is awful up there, but the following scene illustrates how the movie seems to hold utter contempt towards the very idea of narrative.
Of course, the worst aspect of this clip is what they’re saying. The dialogue seems to have been written for old Hannah Barbara cartoons. Check out this Birdman episode (or any Birdman episode, really) and compare it to the above clip. It’s the same thing.
“He disappeared!” We know, guys. We just saw it.
But never mind that no one talks like this, who fucking frames like this? Obviously, this comes from a bootleg copy of the film, so the picture is distorted and slightly cropped, but trust me, not by much. When it first cut to Aang in the theater, I literally jumped in my seat. There’s no reason we should be that close to that kid’s face. I feel embarrassed for invading his personal space.
I also love the fact that the Earth bending village was polite enough to wait until they were done with their conversation before starting the ticker tape parade.
Things just get worse from there. The main bad guy, Prince Zuko’s dad, illustrates his menace by speaking in a baritone and positioning his hands as if he were perpetually carrying around a large box. Sokka’s love interest is introduced and sacrifices herself after about 30 seconds of screen time. She explains this noble act with a sentence so poorly composed that it seems designed to prove a linguistic fallacy: “It’s time we show the Fire Nation,” she says, “that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs.” I can’t believe that series of words was actually spoken by a human being. They must have created it with a voice synthesizer in post production.
When you watch a film as bad as this, keeping up your amazement in its awfulness throughout is exhausting. At a certain point you begin grasping at any little part of the film that is, at the very least, not the worst thing ever. The costumes were passable, though my friend noted that they didn’t seem to fit the actors. The sets seemed competently designed and constructed. I don’t remember anything about the score, so it wasn’t distracting. Also, the special effects are functional.
That’s probably the saddest part of this film. There was a large group of people that clearly put a lot of time and effort into its design. They probably didn’t realize how awful the entire production would be. They did their jobs trusting the producers and the director to take their concepts and wrap them around some well developed characters and competently realized plot. But that didn’t happen. So, unfortunately, we end up with a movie with a nice sheen to it, but no soul.
I can only imagine how disappointed I would be if I cared about the TV series.
At the end of the film, after Aang defeats a fleet of Fire Nation ships with an emotionally feuled wave, he stands in front of a prostrating crowd. He looks confused. Katara approaches to clarify, “They want you to be their Avatar, Aang,” she says, as befuddled as ever, “We all do.”
No. No, I’m sorry. No, we don’t.