Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Last Airbender Movie Review

I remember somebody telling me that a director who directs his own screenplay has a better chance to make a bad movie. Maybe it's because the director-writer isn't objective. Watching M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender, I got that feeling about objectivity. It's not that bad but it certainly could have been much better.

The Last Airbender is based on the Nickelodeon anime "Avatar, The Last Airbender." Hmmm, I wonder why they dropped the "Avatar" part? The story takes place during the early history of man. And it has a distinct Chinese flavor. Man is divided into four tribes, Fire, Water, Earth and Air. Some members of each tribe can manipulate the element of their tribe, called bending. A person who manipulates an element does so with moves from Kung Fu and Tai Chi. With the remake "Karate Kid" about kung fu and not karate and this movie having many non-Chinese actors, I'd be kind of pissed off, if I were Chinese. Hold on, I am Chinese-American. Okay, I'm a little annoyed. But I digress. Bending is like using Star Wars' force manipulation, similar to telekinesis. The avatar is the one who can bend all four elements and bring harmony to the four nations. When the avatar went missing or was killed, Fire Nation rose to prominence and waged war on the other nations.

Our story starts with Katara, (Nicola Peltz) of the Southern Water Tribe and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) finding a frozen Aang (Noah Ringer). He's taken back to the tribe who look like Eskimos except for the WASPish looking Katara, Sokka and their mother. I'll get to the casting later. Anyway, Fire Nation's Prince Zuko (Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire) invades the tribe and takes Aang. On the ship we find Aang is actually the next incarnation of an Avatar. Aang fights his way out and escapes with the help of Katara, Sokka and Aang's furry flying bison which looks like a big furry beaver with the face of Gary Coleman. They flee to Aang's old condo where they find out that Fire Nation has wiped out his homies, leaving him to be the last Avatar. Fire Nation has conquered many of the other peoples including Earth Nation. During their travels, Aang starts a rebellion with the Earth benders. This leads Fire Nation led by Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) to seek Aang and stop him. However, Aang realizes he has yet to master water. So, he and his entourage flee to the Northern Water Tribe to seek training. However, Zhao has discovered where Aang is heading and has amassed an army to attack the Northern Water Tribe.

The problems with this movie are many but let's start with the casting. Dev Patel is all wrong for the conflicted Prince Zuko. A weird haircut can't give him the darkness he needs to play this character. Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, and Jackson Rathbone all need seasoning. They're emotionally inert. But the biggest miscasting is Aasif Mandvi as Zhao. This is the guy who plays a faux correspondent on the Daily Show. His act is a reporter who says a bunch of crazy things. I can't take him seriously for this role. I keep waiting for him to look for Jon Stewart so he can trade zingers with. Check him out with this funny segment on the G20 protesters. He's hardly the evil commander who wants to subjugate the world.

M. Night Shyamalan. The writing. You get the feeling that this film was made with a strict rule to keep it under two hours. At a 103 minutes, a lot of exposition is left out. We miss any dialogue between Aang and his teacher at the temple. Sokka in the cartoon, is used for comic relief. In the movie, he's glum and hapless. There's no scenes fo how Fire Nation put down the other nations. Think about it. I mean what are the rules of the war? If this were rock, paper and scissors; fire has to be defeated somewhere. I mean both earth and water can put out fire. Which brings us to the howler of the movie. Aang is told that water can defeat fire by a spirit. You think? Last time I looked water puts out fire. If the other nations are that dumb, no wonder Fire Nation owns them.

The direction. Some of the lazy performances must be the responsibility of the director. I wonder how many takes he did of scenes. Because during some of the inert ones, you just wish Shyamalan directed the actors to use more intensity. Fight scenes are terrible. You get this feeling, there's another rule to make it look like nobody is getting hurt. Watching the fight scenes is like watching a martial arts demonstration on stage. There's no sense of danger. In one scene, Aang parts the fighting parties like Moses did with the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, and that's all he does. It's just lame. I would have Aang throwing people all over the place like they do in the video game "Mass Effect 2." And I'm sorry if that's too violent. People die in war. The only good thing about this movie is the score. Composer James Newton Howard (Dave, The Prince of Tides) is an old master. He captures the majesty of the legend and the adventure.

If you're a fan of the television series, you might like this movie. There's no need to see this in 3-D. It's a conversion from 2D and you can tell no thought was taken while filming about 3-D effects. Plus, the movie is dark in 3-D. Save the two bucks. Otherwise, this movie is nothing more than a time waster. The grade is C +.

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