M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Last Airbender’ is a Cinematic Atrocity

the last airbender movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010. I also want to dedicate it to my good friend Ed Mahoney who was brave enough to endure this cinematic monstrosity with me.

I couldn’t help it. I had to see this movie for myself. Ever since it opened, “The Last Airbender” has received some of the most atrocious reviews of any movie ever made. Audiences all over have been calling for M. Night Shayamalamadingdong’s blood for the last decade, and they just may get their wish with this monstrosity posing as a summer blockbuster.

But nothing could keep me or a friend of mine from witnessing the cinematic carnage of what was an eagerly awaited motion picture. The reviews were getting increasingly abysmal, and public perception made it look like a car crash you drive by on the freeway which you can’t help but look at. We knew we only had ourselves to blame since we paid $10 bucks each for our tickets, but we were willing to make the sacrifice.

Well, I came out of “The Last Airbender” laughing hysterically. In fact, I couldn’t stop laughing for an hour after I walked out of the theater, and it was for reasons Shyamalan didn’t intend. Everything you have heard about it is true. It is a complete and utter disaster and fails on just about every level a movie can. It proved to be so boring to where I almost passed out even when the soundtracks and explosions increased in volume. Furthermore, the plot is almost completely incoherent, and the dialogue will make you howl in disbelief. Shyamalan’s career has officially hit rock bottom with this atrocious adaptation, and no one is going to ever let him off easy for all the things he got wrong here.

I could tell from the start the movie was going to be terrible as the opening scroll fails to make any back story seem the least bit comprehensible. Then words “Book One” appeared, and it quickly reminded me of what Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi were once told by Irvin Shapiro when they were selling him a certain horror movie:

“Fellas, if you call this movie ‘Book of the Dead’ they’re gonna think they have to read it! Call it ‘The Evil Dead!’”

Campbell and Raimi thought it was the worst title they ever heard, but what did they know?

So, what is “The Last Airbender” about exactly? Well, it’s about this kid named Aang who is brought up out of the water where he has either been hiding or accidentally entombed in, and he is revealed to be the new Avatar. In plain English, the Avatar is the only living being capable of controlling the four elements: water, fire, air and earth. But wait, he wasn’t actually trained on any of them, and yet people take him at his word. What happened? Doesn’t it make more sense for him to be resurrected and have him be fully trained? Or are we going to watch him perfect these so-called talents in future sequels? You know Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon are just begging for a franchise here.

Oh, I see! Aang found out 100 years ago he was the new Avatar and ended up running away because he didn’t want the responsibility. Also, this meant he could never have a family. Now that sucks! You haven’t even gotten laid yet, and then you find out you have all these powers and can defeat anything and anybody in your way. But you know sooner or later, this kid is going to hit puberty and really scare the crap out of everyone. The question is, will he hit puberty in this movie or the sequel?

Those who know me best know how sick and tired I am of movies which have characters forever reluctant to accept the fact they are “the one.” We end up having to spend almost three quarters of the movie’s running time watching Aang bitch and moan about his unfair predicament, and all the time I found myself getting infinitely impatient as we know he will eventually accept the role the universe has given him. Look, you’re “the one,” so get on with it already! Take pride in the fact you can defeat so many enemies without ever having to use a gun!

The two innocent looking kids who accidentally resurrect Aang are Katara, one of the last waterbenders of her tribe, and Sokka. These characters were originally Asian in the television series this film is based on, but Shyamalan chose to cast Caucasian actors instead. To say fans were angered is one of the ultimate understatements of the year. If Shyamalan was such an ardent admirer of the show, he would have honored the source material without question. His casting decision is even more bewildering when you take into account he is an Indian American filmmaker, an ethnicity sorely underrepresented in movies. Furthermore, the actors he cast are personality free and spend way too much time emoting when they should have been acting.

The main antagonist of “The Last Airbender” is the fire nation which appears to be comprised of men who have had all the joy sucked out of their lifeless faces. All of them seem to be on the same emotional wavelength, and none ever appears to enjoy being pyromaniacs for life. Would it be too much to show the bad guys enjoying what they do even as we want to see them fail?

Most of the cast here are unknowns which I thought might give Shyamalan the power to discover some incredible new talent as he did with Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense,” But from the start you see that these actors are not going to even compare to that kid who saw dead people.

Aang is played by Noah Ringer, and his job seems to be playing the emotion more than the character. We never fully buy into what Aang is doing because Ringer is not able to give us a character worth rooting for. Nicola Peltz plays Katara, and Shyamalan said he refused to make the movie without her, but she is not given much to do other than pine for Aang who is way too young for her. She keeps coming on to Aang like some stalking fan, and I kept waiting for Aang to drop his polite guard and yell at her, “COULD YOU GIVE ME A MOMENT TO MYSELF???!! PLEASE???!!!!”

The biggest name “The Last Airbender” has to offer is Dev Patel whom we all remember from “Slumdog Millionaire.” Patel plays Prince Zuko who spends an obscene amount of time moaning and groaning over how he was once heir to the throne but has since been exiled by his father. The only way back into his dad’s good graces is to capture Aang. After a while, I couldn’t figure out if Zuko was a good or a bad guy. Maybe that ambiguity was supposed to be there in the screenplay, but it gave me a headache just thinking about what role this character was supposed to play in the story.

As for the screenplay, it features dialogue which sounds like people listlessly reading facts from some outdated history book which should have been removed from circulation seven years ago. Much of it cannot be digested without cringing in utter horror. This is the same problem I had with the “Star Wars” prequels as they too contained characters made to sound like they are in some stuffy period piece when they should sound relatively normal. Compared to those three movies, however, George Lucas’ dialogue sounds amazingly fresh compared to what comes from Shyamalan’s pen.

I’m not sure what else to say about “The Last Airbender” other than it is a monumental failure, and the blame for its epic awfulness lays solely at Shyamalan’s feet. One has to wonder how the director of “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs” could have stumbled so badly. He has gone from being a wunderkind of cinema to its abandoned stepchild, and I think success has spoiled him too much to where the creative freedom he has at his disposal needs to be reined in. This is the same guy who pulled off one of the most brilliant twists ever in a movie with “The Sixth Sense,” and now he has given us a summer blockbuster every bit as inept and infuriating as last year’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

Do I regret watching “The Last Airbender?” No, not really. It was worth it just to watch the finished result so I could analyze everything wrong with it. But with so many movies out there worth watching, I would encourage you to avoid this one at all costs. Watching paint dry will prove to be a far more invigorating experience. Better yet, watch the Nickelodeon animated television series it is based on instead. You do not need to convince me it is better than this cinematic atrocity.

Maybe Shyamalan should just direct for the time being. No more screenwriting. Lord knows how long it’s going to be before he gets over this creative disaster. Considering the talent involved, there’s no excuse for it to be this atrocious. None whatsoever.

ZERO out of * * * *

 

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Mother’s Day

mothers-day-movie-poster

Mother’s Day” is the kind of movie I feared “The Meddler” would be, a formulaic comedy filled with overused stereotypes and cinematic traps filmmakers easily fall victim to. But even though it was directed by Garry Marshall who is well known for overdoing sentimentality in his films, nothing prepared me for how cloying and utterly contrived this movie ended up being. It’s like a network sitcom which never made it pass the pilot stage but somehow got turned into a movie for no discernable reason. Having already laid waste to New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, Marshall shows no hesitation in belittling another holiday, and one with much more meaning than others.

The movie starts, of course, a few days before Mother’s Day which allows us to meet a group of people who at first have little, if any, connection with one another, but we know this is going to change from the get go. There’s single mother Sandy (Jennifer Aniston) who’s raising her two young boys by herself while her ex-husband Henry (Timothy Olyphant) spends time with his new wife Tina (Shay Mitchell) who looks like she has yet to reach the age of 30. Next we have successful book writer Miranda (Julia Roberts) whom we see selling jewelry on television and is dedicated to her career more than anything else. Then there is Kristin (Britt Robertson) who lives with her boyfriend Zack (Jack Whitehall) and their baby girl. Zack is an aspiring comedian who longs to marry Kristin, but she feels not yet ready to commit for reasons which eventually become clear. And let’s not forget Jesse (Kate Hudson), wife to Indian doctor Russell (Aasif Mandvi) who knows her parents will never approve of him or her sister who has since come out as gay.

Oh yeah, there’s also the grieving widower Bradley (Jason Sudeikis) whose wife died while serving in the military overseas, and he is left to raise their daughters on his own. The women at the fitness club he works at are eager to set him up with somebody, but he is hesitant to start dating again. And then he runs into Sandy at the local supermarket and… well, you have a pretty good idea of what happens from there.

What bothered me so much about “Mother’s Day” was how cloying and artificial the whole movie felt. Granted, not every movie can feature down to earth characters in relatable situations like “The Meddler” did, but everything here felt so one-dimensional and done by the numbers. Marshall has directed great movies in the past like “The Flamingo Kid,” “Nothing in Common” and “Pretty Women” which turned Julia Roberts into a movie star, and he’s the same guy who gave us the television classics “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mork & Mindy.” I even have good things to say about “The Princess Diaries” which introduced Anne Hathaway to the world. But after all these years, you’d think he would be able to give us a movie filled with more than standard situations and cardboard-cutout characters. I refuse to deride his horrible direction as the result of old age because that’s just cruel, but he has done so much better than this tripe.

It’s a real shame because the cast is great and they do their best with material which is far beneath them. Aniston is wonderful as a single mom, and that’s even though her work here doesn’t compare to her underappreciated performances in “The Good Girl” and “Cake.” Sudeikis has proven, in a way he should not have had to, how he can be a strong actor thanks to his performance in “Race,” and he’s wasted here in a role he is far more believable in than many would expect. Hudson, who has attracted mediocre material ever since her star-making turn in “Almost Famous,” does look very relaxed in her performance which gives us hope she will eventually star in a movie worthy of her talents.

But if there’s anyone in “Mother’s Day” who pulls off a truly emotionally honest performance, let alone a powerful moment, it’s Roberts. The scene where she explains to her daughter why she gave her up for adoption proves to be more heart-rending than what the rest of the movie ever could have promised us, and it reminds us why she remains a beloved movie star after all these years. Never mind how the situation is completely contrived as it is presented here. Roberts plays it with a lot of heart and wins us over regardless of how bad this movie truly is.

It’s a shame to see Mandvi, so great on “The Daily Show,” playing nothing more than an Indian stereotype who just happens to be a doctor. Loni Love plays Kimberly, an African-American who is taking pole dancing classes but fumbles them as she is overweight. Kimberly proves to be as funny a character as any Eddie Murphy played in “Norbit,” and no one should mistake this as a compliment. The more Marshall relies on stereotypes, the more this movie sinks into an abyss of awfulness.

But the actors I felt sorriest for were Margo Martindale and Robert Pine who played Jesse’s parents in the movie. They are presented as a couple of very conservative parents who are about to wake up to just how liberal their daughters are. Of course, they are shocked by the love partners their daughters have chosen to spend their lives with, but that they eventually come to accept their decisions in life as well as their grandchildren comes across as no surprise whatsoever. Martindale in particular is a tremendous actress, so her role here feels like an enormous waste of her time as she is forced to portray a type rather than an actual character.

The more I watched “Mother’s Day,” the more nauseous I became. This is such an emotionally manipulative movie that I couldn’t wait for it to be over. This movie has a running time of two hours, and it became increasingly torturous the longer it goes on. While it may have its heart in the right place, it still feels like a gigantic insult to the intelligence. Surely everyone involved with this crap could have come up with something infinitely better, right?

“Mother’s Day” is meant to give tribute to all the mothers out there, but there are so many other movies out there like this which put this one to shame. Regardless of its intentions, it is inescapably awful and deserving of the derision bound to come its way. If you are going to take your mother to a movie this year, take her to see “The Meddler” instead. Taking her to see “Mother’s Day” won’t seem all that different from taking her to see the camp classic “Mommie Dearest” or Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible,” and that’s saying a lot.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

½* out of * * * *