12 August 2010

Avatarded- THE LAST AIRBENDER Review

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

In The Last Airbender, a war that has raged on for a century puts a mystical world at the mercy of a powerful Fire Nation. Certain peoples of the world have a telekinetic relationship with the elements, and the Avatar, the only one who can control all four- Air, Water, Earth and Fire- has long since vanished. His return in the form of a young boy called Aang threatens the supremacy of the firebenders, as it is this young airbender's destiny to restore balance and end the war.

I watched the first season of Avatar- The Last Airbender, the storyline of which is covered by this film adaptation, over the last two weeks. I'm not going to deploy comparisons too much except where it fits my argument, because I've always said that adaptations should be assessed on their own merits rather than how they measure up to the source material. In any case, to say where they deviated from the unspeakably excellent animated series is to only scratch the surface of what is wrong with this version of the story.

For one thing, it's an exercise in world-building rather than story development. The reason why fans of the series are fans of the series is because its creators, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, managed to do both. Instead, this film is pre-occupied with building the story into a potential trilogy on the scale of The Lord of the Rings. To that end, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie does some fantastically good looking work, but at least the thrill of seeing Middle Earth come to life was complemented by Peter Jackson's direction and script.

Here, Lesnie's working at the behest of M. Night Shyamalan, who is entirely wrong for the material. Yes, I'm busting out the "wrong for the material" label because Shyamalan's talent and capabilities have now finally disintegrated before the filmgoing audience's eyes. Can we now accept as a cinematic axiom that he only makes good films if Bruce Willis features in them? And those two films he made with Willis are so very good that it just makes the sheer ineptitude of The Last Airbender hurt even more.

He told Empire Magazine around the time Unbreakable was being released that he had unlocked some great secret of filmmaking that only he, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg were privy to. If you didn't think he was talking out of his arse then, you certainly will by the end of this film. While the visuals are fine and occasionally great, the film is swamped by the same interminable dialogue from The Happening and the same hokey acting that has plagued Shyamalan's downward descent. The best I can say as far as he's concerned is that he at least refrained from acting in this one, and from making a twist ending beyond the clumsy sequel hook.

The main thing that will bug everyone about the film, whether you're Avatar-literate or not, is how didactic it is. Heavy amounts of dialogue are dedicated to explaining the plot, and more annoyingly, recapping what's just happened. Narration is clumsily delivered throughout by Aang's friend Katara, lazily explaining stuff that even the younger audience is clever enough to figure out if they'd only represented it visually. Other characters, especially the villains, exposit with the exact same diction and delivery as Charles Muntz's dogs in Up. Film is a visual medium! I haven't made a single feature film and I know that! Why doesn't Shyamalan know that after making nine films?!

The actors they've got to deliver the dialogue aren't a lot better. Almost the entire cast are Narm artists. Jackson Rathbone is notably awful as Sokka, a character who is supposed to be a well-developed if comic relief-friendly sidekick in the mould of Ron Weasley but pans out as a non-entity, and Aasif Mandvi is by far the worst as Commander Zhao. For those who aren't familiar with Mandvi's role on The Daily Show over the pond, his presence here is the equivalent of casting Ian Hislop or Russell Howard as a straight-faced antagonist. Having seen Zhao, you'd be hard-pressed to remember a villain more fruity than him, especially one played by an actor so willing to milk the awful dialogue with ludicrous pauses and drawn-out syllables.

Dev Patel is the only one who escapes this mess unscathed, making a pretty decent turn as the disgraced Fire Lord prince, Zuko. His portrayal is the closest to that in the series, and he's about the only character you can latch onto. The only problem with this is that he's a villain, and we spend more time with villains standing around telling each other things they already know than we do with our three heroes. To understand how big a problem this is with a more widely seen example, it'd be like a Harry Potter film where you saw more of Voldemort and Draco Malfoy than Harry, Ron and Hermione. Katara and Sokka, the Hermione and Ron in this equation, suffer the most.

And more than that, the villains come from the gloriously inept world-dominating model of the Empire in Star Wars. Sure, we see powerful badasses at the head of the enterprise, but their will is enforced by a bunch of utter nincompoops. In the series, firebenders could generate fire by themselves and then manipulate it, making it a deadly fighting technique that you could believe would bring a world to its knees. Here, they need an external fire to manipulate. When your enemies can control water, air and earth, all of which are plausible extinguishers to any fire you don't materialise yourself, you have enforcers who are inferior even to the Stormtroopers. They're more on a par with the stupid comic relief droids in the prequel trilogy, especially seeing how goofy their fighting style is.

I'm only now comparing to the animated season this is based on because these are fundamental issues with how the story is translated. The most part of the film is the climax, based around the three-part season finale, but in animated form, this had followed an entire season of character and story development. In the case of a film, and this film in particular, it just follows because that's how the formula goes. As adaptation goes, this is the way you would make a film based on the series if you were drunk. That would also explain why so much is repeated, almost as if Shyamalan had forgotten the parts he'd already explained as he slurred his way through the story.

What's annoyed some fans in particular though is the pronunciation of Aang as "Aung", but that's actually quite fitting. "Aung" is a noise I would make if I were hit in the face, and The Last Airbender amounts to 103 minutes of M. Night Shyamalan hitting fans of the series in the face with a film that I fear will forever make this story a laughing stock in the broader public consciousness.

Shyamalan has taken a beloved, colourful and witty animated series and manipulated it into the most stingy, lifeless and poorly assembled film of the year. In the time you'll spend thinking about how bad this was after seeing it, you could have watched 20 episodes of the animated equivalent, so do that. Go and watch the first season of Avatar- The Last Airbender, because this film has done it a great injustice. I implore you not to go and see The Last Airbender, lest Shyamalan be allowed to get his poobending mitts on the story once more. And if there were any justice, this would at least be the surprise twist ending to his career. 

The Last Airbender is screening in advance in 2D and 3D at selected cinemas nationwide, and opens everywhere else tomorrow.
If you must see The Last Airbender, why not leave a comment on the film and/or my review? I strongly advise against seeing it though, even for the LOLs- if you have to know, here's the biggest LOL to be had.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch. 

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