Friday, July 2, 2010

Movie Review: The Last Airbender

Here's my review of Shyamalan's latest. It's what you thought.

Not-so Hot Air
The Last Airbender should come with a mute button
Ryan Syrek

Some dialogue looks great staring back from inside a Final Draft document but thuds like little anchors were tied to every noun and verb when manhandled by talentless tongues. Forget 3D glasses, you couldn’t find any kind of spectacles rose-hued enough to appreciate writer/director/word-assassin M. Night Shyamalan’s clunk-tastic assault on the suddenly overrated art of speaking, even in print. Although skilled behind the lens, Shyamalan should be afforded the same treatment as cybercrime felons, with legal prosecution the anvil dangling above his keyboard should he dare to press his flesh upon the alphabet ever again.

The Last Airbender had promise, in that it wasn’t an original Shyamalan invention on the order of the arbor-horror flick The Happening. Adapted from the Nickelodeon cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the film is set in a world where technology is largely absent and where some people can “bend” earth, air, water and fire, meaning they can do tai-chi stuff that uses these elements as weapons. Each element has a tribe of people associated with it, and the fire people are really big assholes. This is essentially the thrust of the story, but don’t worry, it gets more unnecessarily complicated.

There’s a spirit world, in which everything is apparently out of focus, and only the Avatar can communicate with it. This reincarnated super-fighter is also the only being with mastery of all elements and hasn’t been around for a century, allowing rampant Fire Nation douchebaggery. One day, while being exactly as useless as they are for the entire remainder of the film, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) find Aang (Noah Ringer) frozen underwater and break him out. Turns out, the tween is the tattooed monk they’ve been waiting for to save their pointless lives.

Because they are bad for no reason, the Fire Nation wants the Avatar dead. Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) tasks Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) to kidnap him; but Zhao suddenly finds himself in a child-kidnapping race when Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), who was banished by his Fire Lord pappy because he’s a whiny girly man, tries to yoink the kiddie monk for himself in order to restore his honor. This all culminates in a battle between the Fire Nation and the Water Nation that is so rendered with CGI that it may as well have just stayed a damn cartoon.

As much as it sucks bagging on young actors, boy howdy is Ringer wretched. The blame for that is largely on Shyamalan, as even Peltz, who has a naturally charismatic spark, is beaten with wet-noodle dialogue and waylaid by line-readings that demanded another take. This is one of those movies where everyone speaks in the kind of long, expository sentences that would get a chump sucker smacked if spoken in real life. In fact, because this is basically a run-of-the-mill good-vs-evil rhumba, it would probably be significantly more enjoyable with the sound off.

Visually, however, The Last Airbender is somewhat bitchin’. The swirly water/fire fights are set against uber-pretty backgrounds and have the proper tempo and thrust. Heck, even the general concept is fantasy-familiar fun, with the typical hero’s journey and whatnot. Had Shyamalan worked off of a script from someone with more than a passing understanding of human speech, it could have been a fairly engaging little ditty. Instead, it’s just more grist for the Shyamalan-sucks wheel.

Even without the race-switching issues (many Asians in the cartoon got whitewashed in the translation), the film is further proof that Shyamlan needs to be saved from himself. If somehow the second chapter occurs as promised, he should be retained as director and stripped of his pen. It’s time to make the bad man stop.

Grade – C-

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