Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Last Airbender


The Land was divided into three Nation-States: Rock, Scissors and Paper.  The Nomads who inhabited those far-away lands each possessed a champion with the Power Arcana to command each of those tools: Rock, which could leave a nasty scratch; Scissors, with its precise cutting edge (so long as you didn't run with them); and Paper, which could leave you with the worst cut of all.

The lands fought over the centuries, ecah battling the other—Rock breaks Scissors, Scissors cuts Paper, Paper covers Rock.

But the ancients spoke of an "Avatar" (in 3-D, even), but once they saw it and realized James Cameron was just recycling his old ideas, they spoke of something else: a Fourth Champion, who could manifest all three of the tools and defeat all three of the nations' wielders, and serve as either conqueror...or peace-maker.

With the vast powers of rock, scissors and paper at his command, the young avatar magically produced corrugated cardboard and *WHUMP* smashed the three nations under his creation.  "They don't call me Papier Maché" for nothin'" he said.

M. Night Shyamalan is one hell of a good director.*  He's not always a good writer, however.  Look at "The Village," a movie and concept that any five year old could have resolved (even if they hadn't watched "The Twilight Zone"), or "The Happening," which starts with an intriguing idea, goes through its "And-then-that-happened" motions and then, just sorta...ends, leaving you not so much unsettled (ala Hitchcock's equally unexplained "The Birds") as much as feeling suckered.  You want to take him by the shoulders, shake him and say, "'re not 'an auteur,' okay?  Just because Newsweek called you 'The New Spielberg' doesn't mean you are—as much as The Guardian calling Chris Nolan 'the New Kubrick' makes it true.  You can't sketch out a script, get a loan and make a good movie, okay?"

"And another thing..."

"You're not Charlie Chaplin?  You can't write, direct and feature yourself in all your movies.  Just do one thing right—you've got a great eye—find an adapted novel and produce the gee-whillickers out of it..."

"But for crying out loud.  Don't make a movie before you have a good script, hire better actors than yourself, and, stop writing movies for your kids. It takes more people in the world than them to have an audience (and better directors, too)"

Look, I'm a fan.  When a lot of people were deriding "Unbreakable" for not being "The Sixth Sense II," I was talking about how Shyamalan might have produced the best super-hero movie, even with the handicap of no icon status.  But, from his initallly strong out-put, his work has become more and more watered down (which, if you've seen his "Signs" CAN be fatal...), good ideas for movies, but not good movies—they feature strong set-ups and huge let-downs.  Part of the problem is that Shyamalan the writer is letting Shyamalan the director down (and the director can't save the work of the writer) and both partners are a bit too full of themselves to admit it.

So, instead of the meticulously imagined worlds of "Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable" (which also depend on a kind of myopic view of things in order to work) we get products like "The Last Airbender" (based on the Nickelodeon cartoon, "Avatar: The Last Airbender") that may look great, and shapes the sketchy 2-D cell-drawings into a kind of three-dimensional glory, but never really gells into a fully formed movie—like a Thomas Kinkade by-the-numbers painting. 

Part of the problem is the story it is based on.**  Simplistic to a fault, and based on an American-produced animé cartoon series, it suffers the same problems as its source-genre...basic principles of story-telling.  Ever try to watch any animé with your kids?  You're lost in the first five minutes.  Continuity sticks to animé the way eggs stick to Teflon.  But if you're 7, it doesn't matter—the basic conflicts are there (like climbing mountains... "because they are there"), and the story just continues in a long arc from high point to high point until someone is vanquished, and in however as disjointed a path as it takes to get get there.

I don't know what Shyamalan was thinking***...but the big battle-scenes are a mess.  Maybe he designed it to have the same chock-a-block story-style of the originals...but you can't follow them:  People are in one end of the battle, then all of a sudden they're across town; there are no rules, per se, and if there are, they're bent to accomodate an ADD personality ("Cool! Haven't seen that before!").  I was so unnerved by "The Last Airbender" I thought someone had drugged my popcorn.  "Excuse me, I asked the other patron who sat through the entire End Credits—James Newton Howard's music is that good—"But...did you like that movie?"

"We-ell," she said, doing a fair Samantha Stevens impression. "I couldn't hardly follow it.  A lot of the dialog is corny.  And it was really edited weird." 

Out of the mouths of babes (more of a soccer-mom, really).  That, it is.  It's not edited in the "flash-in-the-brain-pan" modern style of using as few frames as possible between cuts, but the connecting tissue that takes you between incidents does not exist.  Things of great import happen, but there is no indication of why and how.  Motivations and purpose are missing, and thus any emotion that the resulting actions might evoke; blocks of information that might have provided transition (and might have expanded its running time beyond ninety minues) do not exist, and thus the movie feels incomplete...even incompetent.  "The Last Airbender" is an elaborate fire-works display, loud, noisy and not-too-bright, puffed up with self-importance, but ultimately meaningless, leaving only the ashes of waste.

"The Last Airbender" is a Cable-Watcher

* I say that because he tends to push the film-making lexicon, but even he can go too far:  there's a sequence in "The Happening" when Mark Wahlberg is teaching his class that is "obviously" trying to say something about the aloofness of one of his students, but makes it appear that the two actors weren't even on the same set the same day.  It's an odd, unnerving scene and not in a way that makes you think the director knows what he's doing.  (Geez, first sentence and I'm already making excuses...)

** And this is only Book One—God help us!

*** Another issue among afficianados is the casting of white actors as ethnics, a throwback to Hollywood Studio Times when white contract-actors were cast as the lead protagonists amid a crowd of genuine extras.  It's a little odd to see the two white leads in a village of Inuits.  Only the ostensible villain is played by "Slumdog Millionaire" star Dev Patel.  Shyamalan has always been adroit at making his casts multi-ethnic, but here, he's quite contrary to political correctness, or even accuracy.  One other casting issue:  Jackson Rathbone was a clear acting stand-out in "Eclipse"—why is he as dull as ditch-water here?


Walaka said...

I can't comment on the movie, since I was part of this boycott, but as someone who watched the entire Nick animated series*, I can say that continuity was a major factor in the original presentation. The narrative has threads and themes that weave in and out with consistency and (usually) effectiveness. In fact, one of the later episodes has the protagonists watching a stage play based on their public adventures, and it's full of continuity porn and meta-references. So, if the movie didn't have it, that's just another thing that MNS got wrong.

*I'll avoid the whole argument about whether anything made outside of Japan can properly be called anime.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Whatever joys the Nick series had, are missing here...and evidently MNS (sounds like a disease) cut a bunch of stuff out to give more focus to the last action section...which might explain the gaps. Still, if that is the case, it was a poor choice that cost his movie dearly.

Yeah...I had a line about American produced knock-offs of the style being watered down sake, but left it out as I thought i was being cute as it was...