July 6, 2010

The Last Airbender (07/06/10)

Lettergrade: B- (but with some hesitation)

The Last Airbender kicks off with 30 minutes or so that are truly awful. Crappy, dinner theater level acting... cheap, unconvincing sets... and dialogue that neither feels true to the time and place on screen, nor does it stray that far from the big book of fantasy movie clichés. After that rocky start, however, the picture unexpectedly hit me with a nifty sequence that wasn't bad (the first time Aang demonstrates his abilities in the Earthbender Village), and as the movie continued, I was further surprised that it kept getting better after that. I generally feel it's hard for a movie to survive such a terrible opening, but somehow this one did it for me (although I realize I'm in the minority in that regard).

Before we get into things, however, I will offer the backstory that I'm unemployed at the moment, and decided to see the movie, in spite of the piss-poor reviews, largely because I was bored and wanted to see something. I chose Airbender because I thought I might like the chop-socky stuff, and to be honest with you, I still haven't given up hope that there might be a good movie in M. Night Shyamalan yet (my extreme dislike of The Village, The Lady In The Water, and The Happening notwithstanding). This one isn't exactly the fantasy/action masterpiece that you'd hope for from the talented guy who made The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs earlier in his career, but the second half of this movie did remind me why I liked the guy's flicks back then in the first place, and for that I give it credit.

Based on a popular Nickelodeon faux Animé series, the general story is in keeping with a familiar theme in Shyamalan's work: A really talented and/or gifted person must come to terms with how incredibly awesome he is. This time, the character that Shyamalan chose to stand in for himself is a kid named Aang, who's been trapped in the ice for a hundred years. Now, the people in this world have divided into four tribes, each representing the essential elements of life: Air, Water, Earth and Fire. Within these groups, there are a select few (called "Benders") who can manipulate their tribe's signature element, much as Jedi knights can move shit just by thinking about it in the Star Wars movies.

Anyway, the emperor of the Firebender tribe is a serious asshole, and before the movie started, he decided to try to dominate the other tribes through all sorts of violent means, including outright killing all the Airbenders, as it is well-known that from them comes the "Avatar" (sort of a messiah type), who can, with the proper training, bend all the elements, and presumably kick the Firebender guy's ass right back to Mumbai. Since the Airbenders are no more, the world assumes that the Avatar will not return... untiiiiiiiiiil a couple of Waterbendin' kids inadvertently set Aang free.

Since Aang, clearly the last of the Airbenders, was frozen young, he was never trained to be a true Avatar, meaning that he spends a good amount of the movie exploring and learning. There's interesting, if overly familiar, stuff in there about listening and responding to nature that I thought was effectively staged. The rest of the film's main action features Aang and his companions traveling from village to village, freeing the enslaved and inspiring the willing to fight (ala Braveheart), mixed in with some requisite action scenes, some of which were pretty cool.

I think the movie, which currently has an 8% positive rating on RottenTomatoes.com, is getting beaten up by three main groups: The first walked in already expecting any movie that Shyamalan makes to be wretched (frankly, I would have thought that I would be among them). The second are fans who adored the Nickelodeon series which ran from 2005-2008, and are upset by what Shyamalan did with the source material. The third seems to be people who saw the movie in 3D and are upset that the low-grade last-minute conversion that Paramount ordered shortly before the film's release makes the picture look dull and lifeless while simultaneously providing almost no 3D effect. Readers of this blog know that I believe 3D technology peaked with MuppetVision 3D at Disneyland in the early 90s, and refuse to see any film in the format these days. In 2D, the image was bright and crisp, and the visual effects didn't seem as crappy to me as they did to Roger Ebert, who spent a good chunk of his entire half-star review railing on how bad the process serves the material.

As I said, the very worst part of the film (for me) was the beginning, where we are with the Waterbenders. The two white kids who travel with Aang throughout the movie (and one of whom narrates occasionally) are wretched actors who feel painfully contemporary and perky, as if they've just come to set directly from presenting at the Kid's Choice Awards. They shatter every scene that they play even a remotely significant part in. Fortunately, they kind of fade into the background once Aang shows up to claim the movie, and at times I had even forgotten that they were around to kick everything off.

Shyamalan chose to mostly cast the Firebenders with actors from his native India, including Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel as the evil emperor's exiled son and The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi as a meanspirited general. I caught myself giggling early in the movie whenever Mandvi's voice was heard, as I could only imagine him wearing a fly fisherman's jacket and standing in front of a crappy blue-screen image, ready to give a smart-assed report to Jon Stewart. Nevertheless, he eventually was able to fade into the role nicely, and makes for an effective baddie.

In closing, I know that it's getting a serious critical flogging, but I didn't find it to be nearly as awful as Shyamalan's previous few movies. The editing is a bit rushed in places, and sometimes I felt the film didn't effectively show you the correct story points in a way that allowed you to process and understand them. There's a little clunky dialogue here and there, but it doesn't miscalculate the audience's reaction or drip with pretension like his more recent efforts have.

The early part of the movie reminded me a bit of The Neverending Story, not only because of Aang's pet air-bison Appa, who looks sort of like an obese Falcore, but also because of the general premise of kids on a quest through a fantasy world chalked with mystical spirituality. Neverending had a lot of soul, and took time for quiet moments that never failed to completely captivate and scare me whenever I watched it. During the early scenes of Airbender, I wondered why this movie, which has really cool source material to draw from, failed to take a lesson from such masterful templates. In the end, though, I think Shyamalan made a movie that at least has a heartbeat, and I'd rather see a good (albeit not entirely successful) attempt at that, than a movie like The Prince Of Persia, which is bigger and louder, and tries at nothing.

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