Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Last Airbender review - 1.5/5 aka "Failbender"

Believe me when I say that no one is more disappointed with this film than I am. What should have a been a slam-dunk is a huge let-down. An even bigger shame considering how brilliantly written, acted, and directed the animated series it's based on is. Where to begin? The film is far too short, and feels like a combination of a Sparknotes booklet (albeit an incomplete one) and a "Previously on" montage to set up a new season, but missing crucial moments, information, and characters. In fact, I think watching this adaptation of what is arguably the best American animated show since Batman: The Animated Series is like reading the Sparknotes version of a classic book. Sure, you get the basic idea, but you miss out on all the subtleties, complexities, and power of the source material. What you're left with is a flat, unenjoyable experience that feels more like a chore than anything. This is largely due to the incredibly rushed pacing of the film. With a running time of only 103 minutes, they had to cram more plot into this film than humanly possible. I honestly was not bothered so much by the changes to the story as much as the massive amount of material left out. Word on the street is there was a 150 minute cut at some point, as is evidenced by the trailers, which include a great deal of finished footage that never made it into the final cut of the film. And it's not so much that they took out little things, but practically any shred of character development gone. It's just plot plot plot, but not even told in a very coherent manner, due to the rushed, uneven pacing. The writing is just downright atrocious. Seriously, the detractors of James Cameron should give The Last Airbender a peek. You'll find yourself wanting to watch Avatar again, because that film told a better story, with more interesting, well-rounded characters.

The dialogue in this film is some of the worst I've heard in a long time. It's just so flat and uninteresting, and most of the time, laughably bad. Most moments meant to be dramatic, intense, or emotional just come off as corny and cringe-worthy. It's not as bad as Clash of the Titans, but it's still pretty awful. For example, there's this moment where the Earthbenders do this choreographed bending form altogher, and a pebble floats. Everyone in the theatre just laughed our asses off because it was so silly.

The editing is a major issue too. This didn't even feel like a Shyamalan film at times, which are usually great at maintaining a steady pace and great editing to build atmosphere and mood. But this film felt choppy, uneven, and all over the place. At times, there seemed to be an entire reel of footage missing because the scene transitions didn't flow at all. Things just kind of happened and didn't really make much sense.

In terms of the bending, let's just say that outside of the moon enchanced Water-bending in the final battle and some instances of Fire-bending, there isn't much bending to begin with and it all looks pretty lame. A shame, since it all looks fantastic in the show. Maybe there were budget constraints, but the bending should have been something we've never seen before. Instead, it looks halfway awful and halfway cool.

There have been complaints about the acting, but I think you can only expect so much out of a cast of newcomer child actors. That being said, outside of the Fire Nation actors, the acting in this film is pretty atrocious. Their facial expressions don't even match what they're saying half the time. They would be smiling but talking about something awful in their past. It's very disconcerting, and disheartening, seeing as how M. Night has been able to get such great performances out of child actors before. The Sixth Sense? Signs? Unbreakable? Lady in the Water? All had brilliant child actor performances. So why is the acting in The Last Airbender so awful? There are so many other things I could point out were wrong with this film, but they all are specifically complaints about silly and cringe-worthy changes to the source material, so they'll be lost on readers who aren't familiar with the show. Just know that it's awful.

There's a few good things to point out. On the acting front, Dev Patel and Shaun Toub nail their performances as Zuko and Iroh. Both have had better performances, sure, but they definitely do very well. Dev in particular pretty much saved the film for me. And thank god, since Zuko is my favorite character in the show. I take comfort knowing they didn't screw his character up. Secondly, the tech aspects of the film are great. It's a visual feast. The cinematography, visual effects, and art direction are so ridiculously beautiful. James Newton Howard's score, which has been available on iTunes for some time now, remains my favorite film score of the year. Too bad it accompanied such a flat film. Oh well, I'll still listen to it, just with images of the TV show dancing in my head. Also, the martial arts were great. Noah Ringer was already a black belt martial arts champion when he wast cast as Aang, and from what I saw in this film, that little twelve year old boy looks like he could kick my ass six ways to Sunday. Same goes for Dev Patel, who trained his ass off and it shows, since he performed all of his own stunts. Once again, Dev Patel comes to the rescue and saves the film. At least, redeems every scene he's in. Speaking of which, my favorite part of the film was the Blue Spirit scene. That is the one and only part M. Night got right. For the gorgeous cinematography, score, martial arts, and Dev Patel's performance, I have to give this film a higher rating than I normally would.

But really, sight and sound can't save this film from being a big fat disappointing mess. It's such a shame too, since this looked like a sure-fire winner. And as I've pointed out many times before, the animated series it's based on is nothing short of brilliant. How could they have screwed it up? All you have to do to make a successful adaptation of a now iconic Emmy Award wining show is copy and paste. Seriously, forget this film and check out the show on Netflix streaming, you'll be glad you did. Nothing has the right to bore and disappoint this much, but M. Night Shyamalan seems to have totally lost touch with what makes a good film. Fool me once, etc.


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