Thursday, July 1, 2010

Air Master: THE LAST AIRBENDER


M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, adapted from a well-regarded Nickelodeon cartoon unseen by me, arrives with breathlessly negative reviews. Going into the theater, I was well prepared to witness a complete debacle, wrongheaded in every decision. Having now seen the film, I can only assume that the wave of overwhelming negativity arose from a combination of Shyamalan’s diminished reputation and the reportedly terrible quickie 3D-conversion cash grab applied in post production. I saw the movie in regular old 2D and I still view Shyamalan as a filmmaker of talent and promise. I admire the earnestness he seems to bring to each new project. The Last Airbender is a flawed movie, to be sure, but it’s not nearly as bad as some – okay, most – are saying. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the bad reviews, just their intensity.

I could talk about all the flaws of the film. I could say that the acting is wooden, the dialogue is weak, the exposition is burdensome and omnipresent, and the rules of the fantasy world are poorly explained. That’s all true, but I’d rather start by talking about what I liked about the film, which has plenty of matinee charm.

Shyamalan conjures an interesting fantasy world (even though I assume he lifted it faithfully from the cartoon series). It’s a place where different tribes worship different elements. The special among them, the benders, can control these elements. The plot of the movie concerns the reappearance of, in the form of a young boy, a special bender who can control all of the elements. The fire people, who have long ago slaughtered the air people, rule cruelly over the water, and earth people. This special boy threatens to overthrow the ruling fire people and bring about a more harmonious existence for all of the elements and their people. Naturally, the fire people want to stop him.

It’s in the not-so-grand tradition of the mid-80’s explosion of post-Star Wars fantasy-based copycats like The Beastmaster and Willow. Though, granted, The Last Airbender is better than the former and about on par with the latter. The movie is fairly typical fantasy stuff about tribes and kingdoms, warring factions, Chosen Ones and magical powers. But Shyamalan has a good eye for composing interesting shots and a good sense of pacing. The movie looks good and moves nicely. (It’s even blessed with a very likable score from James Newton Howard). I enjoyed admiring the costumes, creatures, and vehicles, especially a many-legged flying beast and strange steam-powered battleships, which are used by the people of the film’s universe. I liked their powers and the ways in which they are used; tendrils of water and bursts of fire pop nicely in the slick style of the production (at least in 2D). It’s a nicely rendered place that seems consistent with its own rules.

But those rules are also a big problem. Shyamalan doesn’t lay them out clearly or efficiently. Instead, exposition weighs heavy on every scene, coming unceasingly and not often convincing or palatable. It’s enough to give a viewer mental indigestion while trying to process every new back-story, legend, and piece of magical knowhow. It all feels just strange enough to need additional decoding and just familiar enough to not need any points belabored.

Of course, Shyamalan isn’t helped by having an especially wooden cast of central protagonists any more than the cast is helped by having to recite his creaky dialogue. The young bender at the film’s center, played by newcomer Noah Ringer, fits the look of the part but adds little else, adrift in the condensed silliness. He’s given help by a couple of young water people (Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone) who also do little more than read lines and stare off at the effects. The older members of the cast fare a bit better. I particularly enjoyed the attempts at scenery-chewing villainy from dependable character actors Cliff Curtis and Shaun Toub as well as Dev Patel (of Slumdog Millionaire) and Aasif Mandvi (a current Daily Show correspondent).

On the whole, The Last Airbender is not a film worthy of intense scorn. It’s a pleasant fantasy adventure that’s messy, goofy, and deeply flawed, yes, and it’s probably not as good as its source material, but it’s hardly the worst movie of the year. It’s not even the worst movie in wide release this weekend. I like what Shyamalan’s up to with this film, with his attempt to branch out from small-scale character-driven supernatural thrillers and get into epic mythmaking of a grander design, even though I don’t entirely like the result.

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