Monday, July 5, 2010

The Last Airbender (2010)

Believe the anti-hype, people – The Last Airbender really is that bad.  The writing is lazy, awkward and underwhelming.  The performances are atrocious.  And yes, even the steady director’s eye of M. Night Shymalan seems to have been blindfolded during the making of this could-be franchise touchstone. 

  I didn’t want to believe that anti-hype.  Hating on Shymalan is too popular a past time in the cinematic community, and I’ve always felt his work was largely undeserving of such copious amounts of venom.  Sure, the guy got a bit too twist-happy for his own good.  And yeah his writing has never been on par with his studied directorial skills.  But those skills alone were often enough to rescue his films – even if just barely – from the land of the unredeemable.  Shymalan has always been a master craftsman, if a misguided one.

  But in Airbender he is completely unhinged. 
Working for the first time from someone else’s material (Airbender is an adaptation of a popular animated TV series), Shymalan is burdened somewhat by a stuffy mythology and the labored creation of a far and distant land – there’s a lot to set up here, and not a lot of time to do it.  But then again, the show itself is quite successful…and the elemental abilities of its heroes is only as complex as an episode of Captain Planet.

  The title character is an “all-powerful being” in training, a kid (newomcer Noah Ringer) who will one day be capable of controlling all the elements of the world – earth, wind, fire and water.  Once he can control these things, he’ll bring peace to a universe corrupted by the power-hungry Fire Nation.  So he’s basically Neo or Luke or Jesus or “insert savior here.”  But for now he’s just a kid who can push large amounts of air around, and not always in very impressive ways. 

  He’s joined on his quest to stop the Fire Nation and unite the world by Katara (Nicola Peltz), a waterbender, and her useless brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone).  Katara takes on the narration duties, and gets more than her fill – Airbender is notoriously over-narrated, needlessly repetitive.  It seems all these modern mythical flix require laboring explanation, but rarely is it so tiring.

  The idea, I guess, is to cater to young moviegoers with the understanding that they can’t retain even the most basic information for follow a story over the simplest of beats.  Airbender is kid smart and family foolish – I’m told the appeal of the animated series is its intelligence, and its ability to entertain all ages.  But Airbender plays on such a juvenile level it's almost insulting to the audience it's aiming for.  This is the kind of “family” film that flicks like Toy Story 3 or even Shrek Forever After put to shame.

  Indeed, Shymalan’s film is the definition of lame, and on every level.  One or two big tricks aside, even the FX are blasé.  And I’ve seen better coordinated fights on Xena Warrior Princess.

  It would all be somewhat acceptable on a cheese-ball level if it were at all fun or if any single performance were worthwhile.  But everybody here is miserable.  You can almost understand a newcomer like Ringer being rough around the edges.  But even Rathbone’s work in the Twilight series is superior to this.  Slumdog Millionaire Dev Patel plays the villain, and does the exact opposite of everything that made him interesting in that warm-hearted hit.

  Ultimately the blame can only fall on Shymalan.  He’s the writer, the director and really the identity of this film.  What he’s done with that status is take a successful, quality product and turn it into an embarrassment. 

  Keep the kids away – they deserve better than this.  Updated Summer Blockbuster Smackdown Status:
1.) Toy Story 3
2.) The A-Team
3.) Iron Man 2
4.) Get Him to the Greek
5.) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
6.) The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
7.) Shrek 4
8.) The Last Airbender

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