Guest Review: Mike Cherniske Takes On The Last Airbender

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender was so badly made, I find myself sitting here at the computer at 12:15 a.m., a full 3 days after seeing it, in an attempt to bring some sense of closure to what may have been the most disappointing movie experience of my life.

Now, there are some movies adapted from shows or comics that, while poor, are still worth a hoot or two and worth collecting--if only to show to my kids one day, so we can laugh at them together (I’m looking at you, Ghost Rider). Airbender, however, is something best forgotten. It is so bad, in fact, I’m predicting $5 movie bin within one year of this date.

To be honest, I am a fan of the cartoon upon which the movie is based. However, in the past, I also considered myself a fan of Shyamalan’s work (though now, sadly, ONLY in the past). So, while it is possible that my opinion is influenced by my affection for the cartoon, I consider the movie just as much a disappointment for any fan of Shyamalan.

In reality, Airbender failed in four major areas, three of which are crucial in ANY film: acting/direction, writing/dialog, writing/story, plus respect for the source material. Though the source material handling was an issue, the rest of the movie elements (found in every movie) were handled so poorly that nearly any movie viewer would be disappointed.

Acting/Direction--While the delivery of a line is really up to an actor, the director is the one who tells the actor what kind of a performance he wants. While the child actor who played Aang, err, “Ong” (more on this later) was trying his best, his performance was stilted, disjointed, and very wooden. At one point, after a very badly delivered line, I turned to my friend and declared “Wow, sure was lucky he had the script page right there to read off of!”

While I wish this young newcomer was the only example, in truth the entire cast suffered from the same problems. The actor who played Zuko gave what was perhaps the strongest performance. However, the poor boy is so lop-sided and wide-eyed throughout the movie that he looks just plain silly and comes across as just short of ridiculous.

Furthermore, the fights, while occasionally visually impressive, are often slow and labored to the point that Han Solo could wander in, shoot both combatants, and wander out before the first punch is thrown. Consequently, the audience feels no concern, no sense of danger, for the characters. Not only do the characters talk funny, but they fight so slow, they could just lazily dodge the next blow!

Writing/Dialog--While the acting was terrible, especially in line delivery, the truth was that very few actors, if any, could overcome the vast problems with the script. While watching the movie, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of words and dialog repeated by numerous characters only minutes from each other. Characters would awkwardly fit in plot summaries, repeat what was just said to them, and recite long factual statements at the most awkward of times. One frightening example follows:
General: “We do not need to worry about the ocean and moon spirits.”
Uncle Iroh: “Why do we not need to worry about the ocean and moon spirits?”
General: “I have found a way to neutralize the ocean and moon spirits.”
Really and truly. How I wish I was exaggerating. I have read a few reviews to see if anyone agrees with me and have been surprised at the sheer number of people who feel the same way. One critic described the dialog in a way I had also considered: it was as though the script had been translated into Japanese and back into English, creating the feel of a badly dubbed Godzilla movie. And he couldn’t be more right; that’s exactly how it feels. The most frightening part of this realization is the thought that perhaps the dialog was not an accident of an inept writer but rather a stylistic choice! [Kate, who hasn't seen the movie but has seen most of Shyamalan's films, thinks this probable. See her comment below.] The mere idea is ludicrous but after watching the movie, one has to wonder if a person could create something so horrifically terrible by mere accident.

Surely M. Night saw the dialog wasn’t working! Why didn’t he change it!?!?!?!

Writing/Story--The story of Aang is an epic tale that stretches over three seasons. While there is a lot of story there, there are also a lot of stand-alone episodes and mini-arcs that, while they add character development and background to the world, have little impact on the main storyline and outcome of that story. And so, in theory, one could shave off a lot of the “fat” from the series and come up with a much tighter story.

While it seems that M. Night tried to do this to a point, he messed it up something awful. Instead of trying to link key events from the seasons together into a cohesive whole, the director (referred to hereafter as “Sir Stupid Head”) tried his best to summarize the entire season in the first 2/3rds of the movie. And the movie was only 90 minutes long! As a result, some stuff didn’t make it in. The most surprising part was what hit the cutting room floor. Sir Stupid Head has confirmed that the kyoshi warriors were filmed but were cut. It’s heartbreaking to think of what other major things also went missing in order to fit the film into such a short running time. Though one has to wonder if making this movie any longer would have done anyone any good.

Because of the vastness of the material covered, the movie zips along at an absolutely insane pace, taking a break for badly timed flashbacks and monologues. The movie moves so fast, in fact, that major parts of any successful movie, such as character moments, character development, and bonding moments, are completely abandoned. The movie moves so fast, in fact, that no one thinks to wonder why the characters don’t learn each others' names until they have already traveled THOUSANDS of miles together! Seriously, watch the movie. The trio leaves the South Pole, travels to Aang’s home temple (which seems to be in India), waiting till they are there to learn each others' names! Without character building moments, the audience cannot connect with the characters, and thus does not care what their eventual fate is!

While some treasured moments from the show do make it into the movie, like the blue spirit, they are inserted with almost no structure or explanation, so much so that newcomers to the mythology will be completely confused by the events. While fan service is appreciated, you simply cannot portray an event in which a main antagonist behaves against his character without explaining how he did it (How did the prince learn that Aang was captured?!?!) and why he did it (Wait, doesn’t he want him captured?!?!? Why is he helping him escape?).

Respect for the source material--Sir Stupid Head, in several interviews, stated that the movie was an opportunity to correct mistakes in the show and insert “deeper ideas” into a big budget picture. Unfortunately, for an ADAPTATION, correcting the “mistakes” of the source material will not be seen as a favor, only tampering by a self-indulgent, egotistical narcissist. For example, the aforementioned “ONG” as opposed to the show’s “Ayng.” Sir Stupid Head cites that it is impossible for an Asian to pronounce the name AANG as “ayng” with that spelling . . . completely forgetting the fact that the source material is a SHOW, not a novel!!!! As I was sitting in the theater, you could hear a slow groan from every audience member when the narrator first said, “Ong”.

I understand that for the source material to be adapted, some things had to change. I even agree with some of the changes. I felt the way Zuko’s origin story was worked in was very clever, however badly shoe-horned into place. But other changes, such as changes to the rules and mechanics of the world, were just mind-numbingly stupid.

The most blatant of these changes was the bending, which was altered in two major ways. First off, the movie changed the rules of fire bending, so benders needed a source of fire. This is a change that affected some major plot points; if Zuko couldn’t make his own fire, how did he melt the ice that encased him, or the ice covering where he was swimming? While I do understand the thought--to put fire benders on the same playing field as everyone else--by doing so, the movie removed the thing that made the fire benders so powerful and so frightening: they could create their own fire! It burned from within! By removing this characteristic, the movie also removed the one major aspect that allows the viewer to believe that the fire nation has the power to dominate the entire world!

The second big change to bending was the process itself: instead of the elements bending to the will and movements of the characters, the benders had to perform a long series of perfectly executed steps to get the slightest reaction from the element. It reminded me of performing a finishing move on Mortal Kombat! Because of this, the bending never seemed organic, or natural; it also created a labored sense of slowness to the fights. All the fights seemed more like casual demonstrations of power than actual struggles for survival!

The truly sad part about all of this is that I could continue. While I have dealt with four major problems, the truth is that Airbender failed on almost every level a movie can fail on. Even the casting was awful, though not for the reasons that the racial equality people claim. A true tragedy is that the movie did have some good points. But they were so thoroughly overpowered and obscured by the bad that they are easily ignored and forgotten.

What could have been a fun, action-packed epic was instead a dreadful, plodding, hurried mess of a movie that squandered the potential of the source material in order to serve the whims and motives of a man whose career this disastrous movie has most likely ended.

10 comments:

  1. Yours is not the only negative review I've encountered, Mike, although yours was much more to the point, and you cover the problems from a non-fan point of view (although based on your review, I could see why the fans would be upset. One wonderful thing about LOTR for me was how exactly the characters fit my vision of them from the books).

    I'm sort of surprised. I think Shyamalan has been going downhill ever since Signs. In Signs, he presaged the mistakes he would make in his later movies: belabored "surprises" that don't really pay off.

    But I still enjoyed Signs, Lady in the Water, and The Village (which I think had the most problems) and thought they moved well. So he writes stupidly plotted scripts, but he knows how to make the action move and to evoke an emotional reaction. (Still, see Eugene's blog for a review of The Village that completely dismantles Shyamalan's premise there.)

    So it does surprise me that he wouldn't be able to at least make the movie hang together. And that the child actors are so bad; usually, he is good with child actors if nothing else.

    I'm wondering if this type of film was so far outside his compass, he just didn't know how to handle it right. I postulate three reasons Shyamalan flubbed it. One, writing for children without condescension is extremely hard (especially if one never forgets, "I'm writing for children!") Two, he saw only the wooden/sometimes hooky nature shared by most cartoons and missed the underlying grand myth that pulled the fans in.

    Three, he tried to impose a super-stylistic tone unto the story when a straight telling would have been far more effective. (This is true of his latest films as well.)

    It's like he is still the boy wonder of The Sixth Sense, and he's still trying to recapture that moment. But that moment was probably partly captured because he WASN'T trying so hard. It can't be reclaimed merely by desire as people like Salinger discovered to their cost.

    Poor guy. How do artists recreate themselves to avoid the pit of has-beenism?

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  2. I think you're right about him writing to kids- because, from most reports I've heard, younger kids LOVE this film. That angle might also explain why everything is so laboriously explained and broken down in dialog, almost as if the kids aren't smart enough to understand it without help!

    I've thought about this a little, and it's been suggested that perhaps, as a kid's movie, it just doesn't appeal to adults. While I admit this is a something to consider, I think back to my favorite kid's movies from when I was younger- Labyrinth, for example, and they hold up really well.... mostly.

    I do like M. Nights other films, though i do agree that they have become weirder and weaker since the village. The happening was down right laughable- there is a chase scene in that movie that got me laughing so hard, I actually rolled off the couch and laid in a heap, weeping from waves of mirth.

    Oh, how I WISH that airbender was even a fraction as funny.

    I think sir stupid head's biggest mistake (That's really how I feel about him now) is his need to "Fix" the show, or educate the fans on what it should have been. That NEVER goes well.

    I don't know for sure, but I'm willing to bet this is his last film. I honestly can't see him getting a job after this.

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  3. One of the delightful things about the Airbender series is the secondary comedic plots which are hilarious. (Digimon: The Movie also did this with aplomb.)

    My wife and youngest two kids went yesterday (Shyamalan/Stupid Head has long joined Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino and James Cameron on my s--t list of directors who won't get my money.) They liked it, though my wife conceded several of the criticisms. Then again, all three liked Transformers 2.

    PS. I honestly never understood the thrall of The Sixth Sense. It was entirely predictable and way too long. Oddly enough Stuart Little wasn't so bad, though Stupid Head "fixed" the book in pointless and baffling ways.

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  4. I'm a big believer that the film is a different medium than the novel/television show . . . it'll have to be changed, etc.

    However, I have NEVER, ever, ever understand why people (i.e. studios) bother to buy the rights to things they don't have enormous affection and respect for. Or at least (since the studio is just trying to take advantage of the latest trend), why the studio gives the project to directors/writers who secretly loathe the thing they are working on. It's like they are saying, "I haven't the creativity to make up my own stuff, so I'm going to mess with someone else's world."

    This isn't the same as saying, "I LOVE this. I want to write myself into it and create my own stories around it." If the writers/directors don't understand why a work is beloved, they shouldn't be working on it!

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  5. Mathew Park7/06/2010

    I just saw the movie a few hours ago. I saw it AFTER reading the reviews. In spite of the overwhelming evidence that the experience would be bad, I still saw it. There are reasons why, and I’ll try to explain them, but first some comments on the movie.

    I know Formalism is a literary theory device, but I think it applies to movies as well. My theory is a bit rusty, but if I’m correct, Formalism is the one where in you are only supposed to deal with the text, or in this case the film, for what it is, and not one thing outside of it. In the case of the Last Airbender we would have to forget that there is a Cartoon already done. Since I have never seen it, this is easy for me:

    To me, the movie was a little silly, but was visually pleasing. Yes the acting was pretty poor, but I didn’t expect much from a bunch of kids I had never seen on screen before. Dave Patel was nice, and Assif Mandvi plays evil like no one else ( I want him to be the next Bond Villain just to hear him say “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die’ in that Indian accent he has.)

    Would I see this movie again in theaters? Heh, no.
    Would I get the Dvd? Probably not
    Would I watch it on Cable? Mmm if nothing else was on.
    Would I tell anyone else to go see it? No, but then I don’t believe I should tell anyone to go see anything anyway.

    Now, why though did I go see the movie, and why do I think it was actually a good experience for me. I believe it was the Stoics who said “Nothing that happens to you can be bad”. So even bad movies are not really bad. There are lot of ups: Ac, big screen, Dolby Surround Sound. But the best part of the experience, was the experience.

    I am a writer who’s wellspring of ideas is, shall we say, shallow at the moment. I walked out of there with a whole new spot in my head for ideas. I loved how they bent things. I liked how they tied martial arts to magic. It was cool that it was not as simple as ‘I point my finger at you and I make fire blast at you!’. There was a whole host of other things that it stirred up in my head.

    If something can do that, can it really be considered a bad experience?

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  6. Matt- you make some very valid points. Seeing the positive side, or the "silver lining" has never been a strength of mine, though I do try to be as positive as I can- prone to negativity or not, I depress even myself sometimes, so thank you for pointing that out.

    At very least, as a hopeful writer myself, it's a good experience to see those things that do and don't work in fiction.

    Now, one quick justification, err, I mean, clarification- I feel I did make a solid effort to take the film on its own merits. While I do compare it to the cartoon, I also acknowledge that changes MUST be made. There are changes between the Show and Movie that i both agree and disagree with. Despite these though, I don't feel it is the discrepancies between the two the prevented me from enjoying the film. Rather, it was the overall quality of the movie, which I felt was very poor, that led to my disappointment.

    We can divorce the piece from other influences all we want, but where's the fun it that? Surely the point of art is to examine our emotional response to it, even if that response might be complete disappointment and disgust!

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  7. Matthew: your comment reminded me of a quote by C.S. Lewis. (A lot of things remind me of quotes by C.S. Lewis). It is in a fascinating book he wrote called Experiment in Criticism.

    In one chapter of the book, he discusses myth. He argues that unlike anything else, myth survives even a bad telling or reading experience. There is something intrinsic to the thing itself that grabs our attention no matter what or when or how it is conveyed.

    I haven't seen the series but based on what I've heard about, it seems to have that core, intrinsic whatever. Of course, it would be nice if was displayed in an appropriate, fine setting but since it is myth, it can survive even cheap plastic.

    Of course, I should see the movie to judge, but . . . I think I'll wait for my local libraries to buy it.

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  8. That's too bad it was so awful. I loved the anime and was looking forward to the movie. It's disappointing to think that it got so messed up in the translation. I'm still planning to see it, but I'll probably just wait until it's out on DVD. (I see most movies on DVD anyway - I have to be really excited about a movie to go through the hassle of getting a babysitter and clearing time to make it to the theater. I would have done all that to see Airbender, so it's good to know I should reserve the effort for something else.)

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  9. As a side note, I also saw Jonah Hex, which also got very low reviews. Despite this, I enjoyed it! I posted a review on facebook and rotten Tomatoes, and even though I did have to concede that the film made many mistakes, I still had a blast watching it!

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  10. Mathew Park7/08/2010

    I guess it just goes to show you that art cannot be experienced by the masses, only by the one.

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