Sunday, July 4, 2010

TRIAL BY FIRE PLUS EARTH, AIR AND WATER: a review of "The Last Airbender"

“THE LAST AIRBENDER” Written, Produced and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
** (two stars)

As I watched “The Last Airbender,” M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of the hit Nickelodeon animated series, I found myself pondering whether a film loses its artistic value when it is strictly presented as a children’s movie. Not a children friendly movie, a film that can carry a certain appeal to the adults in the audience while also entertaining children. I mean, by all intents and purposes, a children’s movie, something that is aimed precisely at their level, age and mindset while being completely and entirely regardless of any adults in the audience.

In the last few years, we have been witness to a variety of children friendly films that have also attracted a large adult following. The films from Pixar have grown increasingly challenging with their subject matter and entertainment and adult filmmakers like Wes Anderson (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”) and Spike Jonze (“Where The Wild Things Are”) contributed their idiosyncratic visions to the genre by giving younger audiences something to reach for while also not shifting their own artistic aesthetics and simultaneously leaving children behind in the dust.

Shyamalan’s film is a peculiarity and I am determined to give it a fair shake, even as disappointed I was with the final resulting film as a whole. I am not ready to give up on this filmmaker and I have been rooting for him for quite some time. Ever since he exploded into our consciousness with “The Sixth Sense” (1999), obtaining tremendous box office heights with “Signs” (2002) and even harnessing building respect for his extremely underrated “Unbreakable” (2000), Shyamalan has certain hit a cinematic rough patch with audiences and critics alike. I have held firm as I have long thought Shyamalan’s particular style may not meet the tastes and expectations of the mass audience or critics. I still hold vigilant over his hugely maligned “The Village” (2004) as a remarkably bold film which explores the natures and usages of fear. While I do tend to think of “Lady In the Water” (2006) and “The Happening” (2008) as his weakest efforts so far, I did enjoy them both very much as they were each highly personal, visionary and creative films that made no apologies for what they were. With “The Last Airbender,” this is the first feature from Shyamalan that I was not wholly impressed by or even liked very much at all. I didn’t hate this film so I will not add my voice to the choir of critics racing to see which one of them can take him down once and for all with their pointed barbs. But, I do call it as I see it and what I saw was not entirely successful in the least.

For the uninitiated, “The Last Airbender” follows the collective evolution of the Earth, Water, Air and Fire nations, which are kept in balance by the spiritual guidance of the Avatar, the one being who is able to control all four elements at will as well as travel between the material and spirit worlds. Long ago, the Avatar disappeared leaving the nations unbalanced and the vengeful Fire nation began to wage war over the following 100 years against the other three nations, in pursuit of the ultimate dominance as the most powerful element.

As the film opens, we are introduced to teenaged members of the water tribe, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and his impetuous sister Katara (Nicola Peltz), the only one of her tribe with the ability to manipulate the form of liquid. One day, as the twosome search for food, they discover a strange, large substance trapped underneath the ice. After setting the object free and cracking it open, the body of a small tattooed boy tumbles outwards. After identifying himself as Aang (Noah Ringer), Sokka and Katara correctly assume that he is perhaps the vanished and newly resurrected Avatar, the last airbender, the one who will ultimately bring unity back to all four elements.

But, of course, there are obstacles to be faced and vanquished which include, the nefarious forces of the Fire Nation led by Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), and the jealous pursuits of banished Fire Nation member Prince Zuko (Dev Patel from “Slumdog Millionaire”). Most of all, is Aang’s own reluctance towards fulfilling his destiny as savior to the warring nations, not to mention facing the challenge of mastering all four elements as he is currently only able to manipulate the air.

What Shyamalan has given to us with “The Last Airbender” is a combination of classic mythology, martial arts, Eastern mysticism, and elements familiar to us all from “Star Wars” and even “The Matrix.” Additionally, Shyamalan has discovered a way to filter these disparate themes through a storyline that matches his own consistent and personal themes of faith, spirituality and discovering one’s life purpose. But, this film is pitched at the level of a seven year old, from top to bottom, and I am thinking unapologetically so.

The film is one long expository piece peppered profusely with special effects and extended martial arts battles between Aang and all of the dark forces ready to contain him. The script is loaded with overly simplistic pseudo-metaphysical speeches and earnest pleas for togetherness and victory. Aside from Curtis, the acting throughout is absolutely, positively and unjustifiably atrocious. It just felt like a long, almost lifeless mess but I found myself not being able to fully dismiss it as one of the worst films of the year for a few reasons.

Visually, this is one of Shyamalan’s finest hours as he has relinquished himself from his beloved Philadelphia for the landscapes of Greenland for much of this film’s shoot and he has proven himself equal to task of presenting us wide visual compositions of land, sky, hills and vistas giving the film an appropriately majestic look.

This film also boasts his largest usage of visual effects, not a trait he is known for and admittedly has always been a bit clumsy with. Yet for “The Last Airbender,” the effects are wondrous and seamless, bring this previously cartoon world to vivid, physical life. And, all of the martial arts sequences are presented elegantly, and with genuine clarity, giving everyone in the audience the ability to follow the storylines of each individual battle with ease. No shaky-cams allowed!

But, here is the point that is certain to cause the most controversy as well as being the reasons for the disastrous reviews so far. As I stated before, “The Last Airbender” felt as if it were a film pitched at a seven year old. Not a seven-year-old sensibility, but an actual flesh and blood seven-year-old being. It seems to me that perhaps Shyamalan intentionally made this film for children and absolutely no one else. For all of the moments in the film that struck me as awful or terrible, I could not get past the fact that the film also felt sincere, pure and without a cynical or crass bone in its body. Shyamalan has admitted in interviews that he arrived at this particular project because of his two daughters are fans of the television show and it is obvious that he has tried, in earnest, to make this film for them. There is no laziness or lack of effort on display and I didn’t feel as if my time were being wasted. The film felt as honest as any of Shyamalan’s previous works and I had to allow those feelings to not derail my entire view of the film itself.

However, I must return to the acting. I did say that it was atrocious and it truly is. This fact absolutely perplexed me as Shyamalan has been able to elicit great performances time and again from his actors, even allowing major stars like Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson to show new depth, fragility and sensitivity. Yet, this time around, the acting was so horrendous that I had to wonder if it was intentional as what may constitute bad acting for me, as an adult, may not constitute bad acting for a seven year old.

I want you to take moment and think back to children’s adventure films like Disney’s “Escape To Witch Mountain” (1975), or the bizarre “Danger Island” cliffhanger segments from the “Banana Splits” television show or best of all, the 1970’s Saturday morning adventures of “Shazam!” and “Isis,” two programs that disseminated their fair share of pop mythology. Did any of those presentations possess anything resembling good acting? I should think not. I’m certain they were all painfully dreadful but when I was seven years old, I ate them all up with a spoon and pleaded for seconds. “The Last Airbender” is a film exactly like those examples through and through (but with infinitely better production values), whether by accident or design, and I am wondering if the real critics for this film are not the professional ones or even film enthusiasts like myself. I am wondering if the real critics for this film will be the legion of children this movie is obviously geared towards and I am really looking forward to hearing what they have to say about it.

Yet, dear readers, all you have right now is my opinion and I am thinking this is a film young children might actually enjoy. It gives them a somewhat complicated storyline to chew over, a collective of youthful characters to root for and sneering adults to root against, the action is presented in high style without ever crossing the line into actual grisly violence. There are no swear words on display and no jaded pop culture driven irony or flatulent lowest common denominator based humor is present anywhere.

For me, however, “The Last Airbender” was a bit of a dud. And still I hope and wait. I will continue to defend and root for Shyamalan, as I am still waiting for that one film that will shut up all of his detractors and prove all of them wrong for ever discrediting and disparaging his talent.

Unfortunately, this film just isn’t the one and I can't defend him too strongly this time.


  1. My son loves the animated series and will no doubt be watching the movie... when it comes out on DVD. You've actually made it sound reasonably okay to sit through.

  2. Hi "swissmiss"! I am so glad that you seem to be one of my most avid readers!! Hmmm...I think that when your son does see the film, you may want to have something else to do as it is playing on your TV. Like bills, folding laundry, almost anything else you can turn to from time to time.