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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Danny Boyle’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ Takes Us on a Journey We Do Not Often Go On

Slumdog Millionaire poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

Some of the best movies take us to places we most likely have never been to before. “Slumdog Millionaire” is one of them as it invites us to travel through different parts of India from the poor towns to the set of the country’s own version of “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire.” The movie starts off with our main character, Jamal Malik (played as an adult by Dev Patel), being interrogated by the police because they believe he is guilty of cheating on the infinitely popular game show. No one can believe a slum kid like him could do so well without having the answers in advance. As the police get to the bottom of how Jamal has succeeded up to this point, the movie flashes back to his childhood as we see how his answers represents the journey he has taken so far. We soon discover his motivation to be on the show has nothing to do with money, and this is regardless of how he is on the verge of either winning a fortune or losing it all.

The movie flashes back to when Jamal was a boy where he and his brother Salim are suddenly orphaned and forced into surviving on the streets by stealing goods to sell and conning naïve tourists (naïve American tourists always turn out to be the best targets) by giving them tours of the Taj Mahal which are anything but factual. During their travels on one homeless night, Jamal sees a young girl all alone in the rain whom he quickly invites to where he and his brother Salim are sleeping. From there, a relationship emerges which becomes Jamal’s one real reason to live.

I have to tell you, Danny Boyle really surprises and amazes me as a filmmaker. Every movie he makes is almost completely different from the one he gave us beforehand. Boyle first gave us “Shallow Grave” which showed us a severe paranoia among a trio of roommates, and then he gave us one of the seminal drug addiction movies with the brilliant “Trainspotting.” From there, he went Hollywood with “A Life Less Ordinary” and “The Beach,” both of which almost made us forget what made him so good in the first place. Then he went the independent route and reinvented the zombie movie genre with “28 Days Later” which he shot in digital and made for dirt cheap. After that, he made a family movie with “Millions” where a couple of young boys come across a big bag of money thrown off of a train and find creative ways of giving the money away. As you can see, Boyle has become an incredibly unpredictable filmmaker, and it shows how determined he is not to repeat himself.

“Slumdog Millionaire” seems to have come out of nowhere, and I didn’t even know Boyle was working on it. He appears to have fallen in love with the lives and culture in India and of everything which has come out of it. While it is portrayed as a place with much squalor many third world countries are forced to deal with, there is a beauty to it as we see different types of people and cultures coming together in ways not easily accomplished. Along with director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle and India co-director Loveleen Tandan, Boyle gives the town of Mumbai a beauty and vibrancy you don’t see in other places as it goes from a poor town to a city growing bigger by the minute.

The story itself is very familiar to as it is one of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl as we see Jamal never stops thinking about Latika (played as an adult by the lovely Freida Pinto) and yearns to find her wherever he goes. She makes his life worth living, and she gives Jamal something to fight for. But unlike a lot of bland Hollywood romantic comedies, it is not at all manipulative or just about rich white people. It is about people coming up from nothing and supported by a cast which does not have a single weak performance in it as the emotions and actions of its characters never feel less genuine.

The other great thing about “Slumdog Millionaire” is how it becomes even more suspenseful and thrilling as it heads towards its final act. The ending had me on the edge of my seat and quickly reminded me of what an exciting game show “Who Wants to Be Millionaire” can be.  Anil Kapoor plays the Indian host of the show, Prem Kumar, and he is basically the anti-Regis Philbin. Prem playfully insults Jamal as he finds out his job involves serving people tea while everyone works at their cubicles. He taunts Jamal into believing he will win because of the trust he has in him, but Jamal keeps his cool even while he has a hard time breaking a smile on television.

Boyle gives the movie a big advantage by casting unknowns here, and they are all wonderful. If he were forced to cast big name stars, I’m not sure “Slumdog Millionaire” would have had the same effect it does here. This one could have ended up like any other romantic movie ever made which would have been a shame considering the passion which went into the making of it. The movie succeeds in showing specific details of the world these characters inhabit, and it sucks us in almost immediately. The actors in the movie don’t act their roles as much as they inhabit them, and this makes their scavenging adventures all the more interesting.

Dev Patel is perfectly cast as Jamal as he never overplays his part or simply acts out the emotions. The same goes for the rest of the cast including Madhur Mittal who plays the adult Salim whose life has taken a different direction from Jamal’s as he heads into a life of crime to where he is employed by a `big-time drug lord in Mumbai.

Along with a great soundtrack I will most certainly purchase when it comes out on CD, “Slumdog Millionaire” is one of 2008’s most memorably exuberant movies which at its heart is a love story. While many of us come into love stories with a deep cynicism, this one gives you believable characters you root for and never want to see separated. Fox Searchlight plans to make this movie this year’s answer to “Juno” or “Little Miss Sunshine,” but don’t let any potential backlash keep you from seeing it as it a big heart and will excite you in a way many movies like this often don’t.

* * * * out of * * * *