Monday, February 14, 2011

Film Review: The Last Airbender (2010)

Hey, it's just like the TV show, but it's only a fraction of the length and incalculably worse!
For fear of making a broad generalisation (hey, we're on the Internet, the home of broad generalisations!) there are two kinds of bad movie. The first are films which, through their sheer ineptitude, achieve a state of entertainment as fodder for derisive laughter and drunken group viewings. Movies like Tommy Wiseau's legendary The Room, owing to the glorious incompetence with which they are written, acted and directed, are far more nourishing experiences than most genuinely good movies because they are so fun to mock.

Then, there are the other kind of bad movies. Movies that are so shudderingly, thuddingly ponderous and dull that they can't even be mocked. They are quantum singularities which suck all the fun - even ironic, detached fun - out of movie-going, until the audience is left with nothing but an oppressive sense of ennui. They wander out of theaters, blinking into the daylight, wracked by feelings of insignificance and a profound existential malaise. What is the point of living in a world where films like M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender are allowed to exist and, rather than being hidden away in a bunker, only to be used for the purpose of torture, exhibited for public consumption?

Based on the popular Nickelodeon TV series, The Last Airbender follows the adventures of Aang (Noah Ringer), a young boy who awakens from a century-long slumber inside an iceberg (erm?) to discover that his world has been ravaged by war. In this world, certain people - known as "benders" - are able to bend the four elements (Water, Fire, Earth and Wind) to their will, and the Fire nation has waged an unceasing campaign in search of complete dominance of the world. But there is hope; Aang is the Avatar, the one person who can bend all four elements and maintain balance, but since he only knows how to control air (hence the title) he must seek out people who can teach him. With his friends Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), Aang sets out to master the remaining elements, in the process inspiring people to rebel against the Fire nation.

The many, many things that are wrong with The Last Airbender are mainly confined to a selection of creative choices which subtly alter the philosophy of the story, but I'll quickly go over its technical failings, lest they be ignored.

1. Despite being an action adventure ,its action sequences are distressingly unadventurous. Shyamalan insists on filming the fight scenes using unbroken takes, an idea which would be impressive if the fight scenes just involved physical props and stunts, but because they feature copious amounts of CGI, they make the action seem leaden and airless.

2. The film relies so heavily on exposition and voiceover to explain what is going on that it might as well be a documentary, yet it does a terrible job of explaining its central mythology to anyone who isn't already familiar with it. The importance of Aang to the world is never really expanded upon, and the film just expects the audience to understand why he is a big deal as if it was some self-evident truth.

3. The acting is, across the board, terrible. Everyone delivers their lines in a stilted, lifeless monotone that makes their life-or-death struggles sound as compelling as the phone book. (It's tempting to single out the child actors as the worst offenders, but they are young and inexperienced so can't be wholly blamed. I'm a film critic, not a monster.)

At its heart, the problem with The Last Airbender is that it seeks to cynically exploit the loyal fanbase of the acclaimed TV show, yet seems determined to do everything in its power to alienate and enrage those same fans. Actors pronounce their character names incorrectly, despite having a readily available resource to teach them the proper pronunciation; a love triangle between Sokka and a Waterbender is completely cut, depriving the film of a possibly interesting sub-plot with which to develop his character and help distract from its tedious final third; and all potential roadblocks to the characters are either removed or defanged so grotesquely that the film lacks any drama or tension. Of course Aang will succeed; he can defeat anyone, and everyone he meets will be pleasant and cooperative to a fault, rather than deeply suspicious about the return of this Messianic figure!

The most damning change that Shyamalan made was to change the ethnicity of Katara and Sokka so that they would be played by white actors (in the series the two are depicted as having brown skin) whilst casting Asian actors - such as a sorely under-used Dev Patel and a staggeringly miscast Aasif Mandvi as the film's main antagonists, Prince Zuko and Commander Zhao, respectively - in all the villainous roles. Not only does this betray the multicultural ethos of the series, but it lends an uncomfortably imperialistic edge to the story.

At one point, Aang, Katara and Sokka are taken hostage and placed in an enclosure with a group of Earthbenders. In the TV series, the Earthbenders are kept captive on an oil rig in the middle of the sea so that they can't use their powers. In the film, they are kept in a compound surrounded by a flimsy fence and, crucially, built on earth. They could escape at quite literally any time, so their decision not to rebel until Aang shows up makes them seem like weak-willed simpletons, rather than proud warriors placed in an impossible situation. Furthermore, since the Earthbenders are all played by Asian actors, and the three leads are white, the film seems to suggest that they could only win their freedom with the help of white people who were smarter and more powerful than them, an idea which is distasteful on so many levels.

All the way through the film, I found myself laughing involuntarily at its use of the word "bender." I didn't want to - note the use of the word involuntarily - but something about hearing the word, which, for non-Brits reading this, is a childish slang word for "homosexual", made me laugh. I thought to myself, "Am I really so unenlightened, so immature that I laugh at the word 'bender'? I thought I was better than that." Then I realised that I am better than that, and the reason I was laughing was because the film was so abominably awful that it failed to make me believe in its world. Why should I take any of the mythology seriously if the film does nothing to make me care about it?

Flat action, terribly acting, turgid writing and a cavalier disregard for its genuinely great source material combine to make The Last Airbender easily the worst film that Shyamalan has ever made, and a low watermark for popcorn entertainment. Before its release, there were plans to make two more films in the series, but we can only hope that it lives up to the promise of its name and remains the one and only entry.

Grade: F