The last M. Night Shyamalan movie, hopefully ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The last M. Night Shyamalan movie, hopefully

The Last Airbender
My rating:

I love, love, love Avatar: The Last Airbender. The cartoons of my youth were formulaic, puerile and lame; if this show had been around when I was a kid, it would've felt like a godsend. It was child-friendly yet sophisticated, it balanced broad humour with dead seriousness, it had an epic plot arc as well as terrific character development, and it had awesome, awesome action scenes. I whisked through all three seasons on DVD in about a month, it was that addictive. I'd put it up there as one of the most consistently excellent TV series ever, and one I'd highly recommend to anyone of any age.

Screw you, M. Night Shyamalan.

It is a world divided into four realms - the Water, Earth, Fire, and Air nations - and in each, there are people born with the ability to manipulate their element, called benders. It is also a world in which the rapacious Fire Nation has waged war against the rest of the world for a century. Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), brother and sister members of the Northern Water Tribe, discover a 12-year-old boy frozen in a sphere of ice. His name is Aang (Noah Ringer), he is the Avatar - the one bender able to master all four elements, reborn into every generation to bring balance to the world. But he is hotly pursued by Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) of the Fire Nation, accompanied by his uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub). Zuko has been exiled by his father, Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), and seeks to capture the Avatar to restore his honour in his father's court. But he has a rival in the greedy Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), who wants that glory for himself.

My last Shyamalan movie was Signs, so I've only heard second-hand about his gradual descent into suckiness. But it was evident even in his first three movies. I thought The Sixth Sense was great, as did most everyone else; Unbreakable was an interesting experiment, but only marginally successful; and Signs had a solid buildup spoiled by a truly dumb ending. I eschewed his other three, but when I heard he was signed to direct the live-action film of one of my new favourite animated series, I thought it an... interesting choice. Perhaps the challenge of adapting someone else's material may get him out of the rut he's in. And he's said that he became interested in making the movie because his daughters are huge fans of the Nickelodeon show, which, y'know, sounds nice.

Then he went and made one of the most half-assed adaptations ever put to celluloid. Reams of ink have been spent on how bad it is, but if there's one thing I can add to the storm of opprobrium - which it richly deserves - it is that the film demonstrates Shyamalan's incredible laziness on this job. Yes, the dialogue is laughably bad and ripe with exposition; one particularly egregious example is when Zuko explains his backstory to a child, who already knows it, for the benefit of his uncle who also already knows it. Y'see, this is the real nuts-and-bolts of writing an adaptation of other material, in particular a 20-episode season of a TV series; all that plot, characterization and worldbuilding details need to be condensed into a single feature film. The Last Airbender's screenplay is the work of someone who absolutely does not give a shit.

Shyamalan's lack of shit-giving is evident in so many other respects. Names are mispronounced - Aang, Sokka, Iroh, but the most glaring is when Agni Kai (the ritual honour duel between firebenders) is pronounced "Agni Ki." Appa and Momo, two of Aang's animal companions and beloved characters in their own right, have so little screen time that they're nothing more than bones thrown to the fans. Characterization is all wrong; Aang is dour and morose, Sokka barely cracks a single joke, Katara has zero personality, and Sokka and Princess Yue's (Seychelle Gabriel) romance is reduced to a voiceover telling us that they're in love. Even the special effects are poor; in every scene of waterbending, the difference between real water and CGI is blindingly obvious. And there are senseless changes to the canon; firebenders can no longer generate their own flames, and it takes six earthbenders to move a small rock.

That was in a gloriously stupid scene in which a group of captive earthbenders need to be reminded that there is earth under their feet. What makes this even dumber is that in the series, the earthbenders were held in a metal prison in the middle of the ocean, to prevent them from using their bending. That's the kind of intelligence the cartoon had that this wretched excuse for a movie completely squanders. One episode that is adapted here involves the Blue Spirit rescuing Aang from a Fire Nation stronghold, and the action scene of their escape was just wicked cool - in the series. Shyamalan could've just filmed that scene as is, in live-action - but no, he had to shoot a much duller one. In fact, this and every other action scene is just poorly choreographed; you can plainly see people standing around, trying to look menacing, waiting for their cue to get hit or blown away.

And then there is the racebending. In summary: the TV show was heavily steeped in Asian culture. The world was a fantasy amalgam of Chinese, Japanese, Eskimo, Nepalese and Thai civilizations; the martial arts were actual Chinese kungfu styles; even the writing is Chinese; and the characters are clearly, obviously Asian. The main cast of the movie is Caucasian - hence, accusations of racial whitewashing. Now, what the movie attempts is to create a mixed-race world in which all ethnicities populate every corner of the globe. (Monk Gyatso, Aang's former teacher, is black.) Thing is, this doesn't really work. It's just jarring to see white people dressed in Inuit costumes, or dark-skinned Indians wearing Japanese-style armour and answering to names like Zhao. And it is clear that the studio used this as an excuse to cast the heroes white, because they just couldn't imagine a big-budget blockbuster headlined by Asian actors.

Sigh... this is a terribly complicated issue, and not one I can fully delve into in this review. (There's a terrific article about it here on io9, and some great discussion too in the comments.) But you'd certainly think someone like Shyamalan would be sensitive to such things - which again points to how much he didn't care. And frankly, I would've been okay with white actors playing Aang, Katara and Sokka if they were actually good. Yes, they're bad - very, very bad - but I don't think they're really to blame, because their performances didn't seem like they even had any direction. It's clear that first-time actor Noah Ringer had no guidance whatsoever, and neither did Nicola Peltz, who at least had some acting experience. Dev Patel showed glimmers of talent, but he's saddled with some of the worst lines. Comedian Aasif Mandvi is miscast and ineffectual as the villain. And Cliff Curtis shouldn't even be here - Fire Lord Ozai has literally no role to play in this first chapter.

No, I didn't watch it in 3D, because I value my money and was not about to waste it on a movie with such bad reviews. But I do want to mention a comment in an A.V. Club podcast that said, "background characters have their faces floating on a completely different plane from the rest of their bodies." Again, a director who gave a shit about the movie he is making might have taken an interest in the 3D conversion. Part of a film critic's role is as consumer watchdog, so I feel I should strongly warn against watching this film in 3D. (Better yet, don't watch it at all.)

(And speaking of consumer watchdoggery: I saw this in Cineleisure Damansara. During the first 5 minutes of my screening, the picture was distorted and stretched; I was out of my seat and halfway to the door to complain to the staff before I saw another audience member had done the same. And at the end, it flashed its super-annoying "please do not leave your belongings behind" message over the end credits the very instant the movie ended. Again. This is a huge buzzkill at the end of a movie, or at least it would be in a better movie. I think I'll be taking my business to GSC 1Utama more often now.)

I've just realized that this review is clearly written as a comparison between the movie and the animated series. Apologies to those unfamiliar with the latter for whom my references to it may have been confusing, and let me reiterate again that it rocks epically and you should totally watch it. This movie, on the other hand, is utter suck and fail. It's occurred to me that I rarely give 1-½-star ratings to Hollywood films, and that I've only done it once before. But then I thought of Chris Columbus, one of TMBF's favourite whipping boys, who makes similar family-friendly fantasy adventures. And I realized that, if Columbus had directed this, it would probably have turned out better. So yes, a filmmaker with this much contempt for his source material, its fans, even the general audience, absolutely deserves my critical excoriation on top of all he's gotten. Nice work, Manoj Nelliyatu Shyamalan. I hope your daughter is proud of you.

Expectations: bwahahaha!


Encik Jep said...

dont watch in 3D.
only subtitle floating.
wasting my money u know.

Ken Wooi said...

i think the storyline was okay..
but the magic doesnt mesmerize me =)

faiz said...

Only subtitle floating? -__- not worth it..

Anonymous said...

nice movie..enjoyable but dun bring ur brain inside or too inteligent ppl will cry ..

TMBF said...

Sigh... is it just me, or do I seem to get a lot of visitors who don't actually read my reviews?

McGarmott said...

Hahaha, poor TMBF. ... But at least you get visitors.

And oi, 1.5 stars, wtf? When will you utilise the zero-star rating? (For the record, I got so disgusted I didn't bother to watch the movie. Relying on word-of-mouth.)

Btw, even 1U GSC is not an ideal place to watch 3D movies. The projector lamps are too fucking dim, and I only watch 3D movies there if I'm going for the movie the second time, and desperate. So far the only one I've visited that's satisfactory is GSC Megamall (by comparison, the lamps in GSC 1U is as much as 30% less, makes a huge difference in viewing experience).

Interestingly, the next 3D movie that seems worth it since Despicable Me is, believe it or not, Step Up 3D. Will be checking it out end of this month.

Em said...

i watched it just now, my date insisted on it even though i told him i have yet to read a single review that is in its favour. and we spent the whole movie whispering to each other about how crappy it was. the dialogue, oh lord, it was like a secondary school student trying to write fantasy and failing miserably. and the chinese subtitles were equally laughably horrible.

McGarmott said...

What's depressing about all this is:

(1) Some Malaysians actually felt that the movie was decent ... "not bad wor, quite exciting mah the veesual effex".

TMBF said...

@~*caryn*~: Sounds like a fun date. ;)

@McGarmott: Why not zero stars? Because my cinematic horizons have been broadened by watching crappy Malay movies. Zero stars means there could be no worse, and believe me, THERE IS WORSE.

And as for giving him money: Hey, I'm a critic. I don't know what anyone else's excuse is. :)

profwacko said...

Shyamalan definitely to be blame here.. He is just lazy. I also follows Avatar: The Last Air Bender with all its 3 seasons. There were too much to tell of 1 seasons for this movie. The movie tries to tell all of it but as u said, Shyamalan is just lazy, ignorance of the little details but yet logical in the world of Avatar. Giving us just a little of it.

The acting and scripts sucks, the bending skills ok la, but the animated series for sure far superior. The movie i think have potential to be a hit, but sadly, Shyamalan ruins it. This movie reminds me of DragonBall movie. Didnt watch that movie. Lol

Do you think Christoper Nolan can direct the next 2 chapters of Avatar?? Peter Jackson also can...

Ms and Mr Red Ribbon said...

yeap, i really regret watching it in 3d, i was mistakenly bought the ticket, i thought it was sorcerer's apprentice.

no i wont go to any mr shyamalan movie anymore.... :(

TheBentPencil said...

i quote from my friend:
"this is the worst movie I ever went to. It's the first time that I got out of a movie theater and went blank."
me? watch this? well no, I don't wanna ruin my wonderful memories of Avatar cartoon series.

maybe I'll get some pirated versions.
just to make shaymalan poorer. hahahaha

@profwacko: i watched dragonball movie. and I was a fan of the original manga. go figure how I felt.

profwacko said...

Sorry to TMBF for spamming our comments here...

@The Poyo Me
Im a fan of the manga also, very excited when the real movie version of DragonBall comes out, but after hearing the bad review, i didnt watch it. I just hope that Avatar: The Last Air Bender will be a better movie than DragonBall but its the same also.

TMBF said...

@profwacko: Hey, I'd love it if people discussed among themselves on my blog. :)

k0k s3n w4i said...

i'd like to point out that M. Night is anything but a non-giver-of-shit here. I followed the production of this film closely, and from the multiple interviews and press release transcripts i've read, it's obvious that M. Night is intimately acquainted with the details of the animated series and that the "misspellings" were actually M. Night trying to fix what was not broken. He actually hired a linguist to get the Asian pronunciations right (no doubt after being hounded for the racebending issue). while Aang rhymes with "bang" in the series, it always sounded like how a white person would pronounce it anyway. for the record, i actually know a Chinese guy with that same name and we always rhymed his name like how Aang was said in this film. also, i kept mispronouncing uncle Ay-roh and uncle Ee-roh too, much to my gf's chagrin. I can't help it. as the Fire Nation is clearly inspired by the feudal Japan, Ee-roh is probably the more correct pronunciation. As for "agni-ki", wasn't it just that Fire nation kid who mispronounced it? i told my gf about this and she said that that was because a Fire Nation kid DID mispronounce it that way in the series.

This is a problem with M. Night giving too much of a shit, really.

M. Night was quite obviously a fanboy of the series from what i could tell - since he was the one who asked to direct this. there's no doubt that the movie he created was made entirely out of suck, but it's not because he didn't care.

also, he said that his favourite faction is the Fire Nation, which might explain why they are all brown people.

my thoughts on Tekken: BUTT CLEAVAGE!!!!!!

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