4/15/10

R104 The Last Airbender

(2010, Fantasy/Action-ish, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy

His light-up tattoo looks fancy, but it’s really just to remind him where his nose is.

Rating: ***1/2

In a Nutshell:


Magical fantasy kids wander the world righting wrongs, etc.

Summary:

AKA The Thing With Two HeadsA “bender” is a person that can manipulate one of the four elements. An airbender can control air, a firebender controls fire, while waterbenders and earthbenders control their own respective elements. In the semi-Asian fantasyland where our story takes place, each category of bender has its own tribe, kept in balance by the Avatar. Able to bend all four elements instead of just one, the Avatar is the continuously reincarnated enforcer of inter-tribe peace.

That’s the setting, now the backstory: The latest incarnation of the Avatar was born into the Air Tribe, a bald and heavily tattooed child named Aang (Noah Ringer). He fled upon learning about his responsibilities and subsequently became trapped in the ice for a hundred years. Without the Avatar to keep the world in balance, the Fire Nation got all uppity and murdered rest of the Air Tribe. Then, for good measure, they enslaved the Earth Tribe and half of the Water Kingdom.

The movie doesn’t start us out with any of this information, by the way. There’s a lot—and I mean a truly elephantine amount—of narration, voiceovers and expository conversations. These get salted pretty evenly throughout the movie, but they’re disjointed and not in any kind of comprehensible order. At one point the Fire Lord (Cliff Curtis) and his most evil general (Aasif Mandvi) start talking about the plot, continuing their conversation while the screen fades to the next scene. Then they stop for a while only start again after that next scene has given way to yet a third unrelated scene. “Who’s talking there?” Bill asks at this point. “I think that’s dialog leaking over from the next theater,” Mike responds.

Place Nose HereCan you tell I’m trying to avoid discussing the plot? It’s not that I don’t understand it. I’m pretty sure I grasp the basics at least as well as writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, though M. Night’s understanding of his own movie could easily be called into question. The movie actually begins with Water Tribe child Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone). They dig Aang out of the ice after a hundred years of Fire Nation tyranny. The three of them decide to journey towards the unenslaved half of the Water Kingdom, liberating bits of Earth Kingdom as they go. Meanwhile, exiled Fire Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) pursues, trying to capture Aang to redeem himself with his evil father while simultaneously trying to keep the evil Fire General from stealing his prize. Also meanwhile, Aang feels really bad about letting the world down for a hundred years and has occasional dragon-related hallucinations.

They finally reach the Water Kingdom, where Aang learns to bend water in addition to his air skills. Sokka falls in love with a white-haired princess, who sacrifices her life to resurrect a sacred fish while the Fire Nation attacks in steampunk boat tanks. Aang eludes Zuko and uses his dragon hallucination’s nonsensical advice to raise a wall of water between the Water Kingdom and the Fire Nation’s invading ships. The Fire Nation retreats. Everyone bows to Aang. Aang does a startled tai chi exercise. To be continued...

Thoughts:

Extra Fish Life falls in love with Vampire Harpo.How does one even begin to discuss this film? Of course it’s terrible. Almost indescribably so. But how to describe its particular flavor of badness?

Imagine The Phantom Menace, with even flatter dialog and seventy-five percent of the action scenes removed. The remaining twenty five percent have been diluted and stretched so that they still take up the same amount of time.

Imagine The Room without that movie’s enthusiasm (its sole redeeming quality). Slow, ponderous martial arts sequences have replaced the squick-inducing sex scenes.

Imagine you get invited to a party by a guy that, well, he’s put on some really great parties before. He’s also put on some parties that were, frankly, not so great. Upon hearing your concerns this hypothetical guy waves them aside, assuring you that this party will really rock. So you go, fearing awkwardness but hoping for fun, and when you get there you find a literal rock. Not an interesting rock, mind you. In fact, strictly speaking, large hunks of broken concrete aren’t actual rocks. You’re disappointed, because this rock-like object is not an enjoyable gathering of friends. You are also relieved, because this rock-like object will not park its car behind yours and disappear, trapping you in the house with a drunken philosopher who’s decided to follow you around explaining The Meaning of Life. As an inert, lifeless object, it cannot entertain or offend you, and any bad feelings you may have toward it stem solely from way you’d been misled to believe it would be party.

Which explains why this is the most poorly reviewed Shyamalan film yet. Even bad films are enjoyed by some percentage of the attendees. As a filmmaker, no matter how much you offend, no matter how grossly you miscalculate, at least a small minority of the audience will possess tastes that match yours. In the case of The Last Airbender, audiences showed up and saw a more-or-less random series of words and images instead of a film, and if they showed up for the retrofitted 3D version, they didn’t even get the images part. No one liked it because there was nothing to like, nothing to hate, nothing to inspire any kind of feeling, really.

A few favorite comments: After the first few minutes of dialog, Mike asks, “That was a conversation? What is this, Jim Henson’s Lobotomy Babies?” While Aang slowly works his airbending into a battle scene, Bill says, “Looks like a lot of effort. He should just buy a gun.” Kevin has a great time shouting “Woo-tini!” every time Aang dons his Jawa-esque hood. After the film is over, Bill cuts off M. Night’s funding, suggesting that he “go to refrigeration school or become a locksmith. Do something worthwhile with your life!” (If there’s any justice in the world Bill will be right, but remember: people gave him money to make this unfortunate film after The Village, Lady in the Water and The Happening. Like a Batman villain, Shyamalan will eventually be loosed on the public again.) The film’s basically a blank slate—a gray, clunky, mercifully short slate—and the riffers make it entertaining by projecting their own personalities onto it. The movie sure doesn’t do them any favors, though.