Friday, July 2, 2010
Movie Review: "The Last Airbender"
Dear M. Night Shyamalan,
It's not me, it's you.
When we first met, you were the director of "The Sixth Sense." You swept me off my feet with a terrifying, yet touching supernatural drama featuring a final twist that made me woozy. You impressed me even more with your superheroes-in-the-real-world drama "Unbreakable" and continued to charm with "Signs," in which you wove a scream-inducing tale of faith amidst alien invasions. While others panned "The Village," I defended it as a clever political cautionary tale with a "Twilight Zone" twist.
Then you began to change, and I wondered if the accusations of pomposity and limited range were true. I felt betrayed when you directed "Lady in the Water," a fable that squandered creative potential in favor of turgid exposition, clunky dialogue and ham-handed symbolism. I was willing to say it was just a phase, the one slump that all geniuses have. Then you made the movie where Mark Wahlberg talked to a rubber tree.
I hoped that your next project would restore my faith. "The Last Airbender" seemed promising. Based on the popular children's program, it has a rich mythology and an intriguing cast of characters. The premise itself - what if there were people who could "bend" the natural elements to their will - is interesting fodder for a rousing action adventure. And it has that mixture of myth and spirituality that you have tackled so well in your best work. This project, I believed, would be the perfect comeback for you, enthralling us with a gripping, exciting and adventurous narrative.
And yet, after viewing the film, I realize you are no longer the filmmaker I so admired. It hurts to say this, but you've taken an idea that should have been easy to spin into a thrilling adventure and turned it a dull, incoherent mess. I'm telling you this for your own good: I think you have forgotten the basics of storytelling and it may be wise to step out of filmmaking for awhile.
I know it seems unfair to blame such a debacle solely on you. But you were its writer, producer and director. I still don't understand exactly what world this takes place in. Is it the future? The distant past? We're told that different nations are at war - but why? What are the stakes? Who are the two Eskimo children, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), that we should frame the movie around them? Why should we care when they discover little Aang (Noah Ringer), the chosen Avatar, who can master the elements and bring peace to the world? By the end of the movie, is the Fire Nation's Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) a hero or a villain? Why, exactly, do all the characters end up at the ice city at the end?
You've plopped us into this world without giving us context or grounding. We're not told the rules or given any back story. When you try to widen the scope, you do it through expository dialogue that lands with a thud instead of showing us the betrayals, sacrifices and tragedies that have placed these characters together - you know, the exciting stuff we go to movies for. The oldest maxim in writing is show, don't tell, and yet the film consists largely of characters delivering stilted dialogue to explain things we'd rather see for ourselves.
Scenes come and go with no context or coherence; it often takes a few seconds just to understand where the characters are and what they're doing. Entire arcs are explained away with narration or a simple expository line. When a hero makes a sacrifice at the end there's no emotional impact because we haven't gotten to know them as a person. There's a love story that has no resonance because instead of seeing two characters blossom and grow, we simply get a narration telling us "they became friends fast" and then see them make googly-eyes at each other. Aang is supposed to inspire the world, but you give us a few short sequences of him doing martial arts and then move on without ever letting him have any impact. Aang hints at having some conflict as to being the Avatar, but quickly shrugs it off and embraces his position, although I'll note that he never looks too joyful about it. In fact, I don't think anyone smiles in this cold, detached movie. Aside from when they're making googly-eyes, that is.
Night, you may have written one of film's most oft-quoted lines with "I see dead people," but your dialogue now reads like unused takes from "Attack of the Clones." Although you've directed Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment and Mel Gibson to fantastic performances, your actors here have all the nuance and personality of a middle school drama club production. The teens speak in flat monotones, exuding no charm or excitement, and the adults chew the scenery as if it were coated in sugar. Poor Dev Patel, so winning in "Slumdog Millionaire," alternates between angry scowls and giggle-inducing outbursts. I couldn't tell whether he was a tragic hero, a villain or just holding his place until the inevitable sequel. Maybe the fans of the series know about Prince Zuko's history and role in the mythology, but the uninitiated don't have any clue about what's going on. What's worse, by the end, we don't care.
You said when you took on the role that you were a fan of the "Last Airbender" mythology. But there's certainly no sense of joy or emotional investment to your work here. I can't figure out why. There's a good idea here. I'd watch a good movie with this plotline, characters and mythology - but it would require actually creating characters we liked and a mythology that had some sense of awe and importance.
I'll give credit where it's due, though. You've made a pretty film. I like the ice worlds, and the use of forests and mountains in the Earth kingdom. The action sequences have some style and I'm glad to see someone using long takes in martial arts sequences. Given that your only other experience with special effects was that horrible alien at the end of "Signs," you show some flair for the fire and water-bending sequences, and the movie twitches slightly to life when the characters shut up and start fighting (although, given the film's Buddhist leanings, that may not have been your intention). Maybe you should put the story-telling on hold and go into business as a cinematographer or a second unit director.
I will say that I'm not mad, as I was with "Lady in the Water." With that film, you were egotistical. Here, it's obvious you just don't care or, worse, don't have the chops. The film reminds me of "The Golden Compass," another adaptation that lost all of the energy and excitement of its source material in favor of boring us with exposition. Your film also seems to exist just to set up a series of sequels. What you fail to realize, though, is that by the end of this, we're so happy to be leaving the theater that promising us a second film is tantamount to the IRS promising an audit.
So, Mr. Shyamalan, I think it's best if I don't see your films for a while. Perhaps you'll want to take a break and hone your skills. Perhaps I'll want to see good movies. And perhaps one day you'll recapture the spark you once had and I'll be able to look at this letter as just a bump in our cinematic relationship.
Originally published in the July 4, 2010 edition of The Source newspaper.
- ▼ July (5)