You know, I’ve been an M. Night Shyamalan fan for a long time. I liked his directing style, his slow but engaging pacing, his characters and his stories. Where most people began to scoff at him for films like The Village, I still appreciated him. I even like Lady In The Water, which most people deride because of how silly it is — without realizing that it’s a fairy tale written for his kids.
And I’ve always loved the Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon. It was suitable for kids but had a long, complex story during which deeply-layered characters matured and developed and became more and more interesting. It was rooted in, honestly, one of the best original mythologies I’ve ever seen.
So when I heard Shyamalan was set to direct a live action adaptation of one of the best cartoons ever made, I was rooting for it hard. Then the reviews came out and they were less than kind. “A true failure of cinema,” it has been called. Eight per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. People walking out of the theater stabbing themselves in the eyes. Okay, maybe not the stabbing part. So, with heavy heart I bought a ticket to see where it all went wrong. And though it’s not eye-stabbingly bad, I’m sad to report that it’s not at all good.
Stay with me because the setup is actually pretty cool but requires some explanation. In the medieval-esque Asian world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, four nations exist: Water, Fire, Air, and Earth. In each nation there are certain people who can control or “bend” their respective elements through martial arts. Earthbenders can fling boulders through the air with hung-gar kung fu, Firebenders can create pillars of flame with Shaolin kung-fu, and so on. In all the world there is one person who is able to control all four elements: The Avatar. The Avatar keeps the balance and peace, and can communicate with the spirit world. He or she is always reincarnated after their death, so there is always an Avatar.
Then one day, The Avatar vanishes without a trace. Knowing the next Avatar will be born into the Air Nation, the Fire Nation decides to eliminate all the airbenders, and in doing so, takes its first steps towards taking over the world. However, a very young Airbender named Aang escapes the purge. Once he is discovered frozen in a block of ice and freed by two members of the downtrodden Water Tribe, he sets out to learn how to control the four elements and fully become The Avatar, all the while with the Fire Nation on his heels.
I can’t recommend enough that you watch the television show. It’s brilliant and hard to do justice with a simple description. What went wrong in Shyamalan’s interpretation? Well, two big things: 1) All the actors. And 2) The entire presentation.
Dev Patel (aka Slumdog Millionaire) did a decent job as the most interesting character of the series, the exiled Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, but it looked like the extent of his direction was along the lines of “More angry!” I had heard that the boy playing Aang (newcomer Noah Ringer) was terrible. Well, he acts just like you’d expect a 12-year old who’s never acted before to act, but he wasn’t the worst actor in the movie. Unfortunately, the worst actors were the other two main characters, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Socca (Jackson Rathbone).
There’s bad acting and then there’s the kind of acting that you get when you jam a piece of shrapnel in a kid’s forebrain and tell him to recite Shakespeare in binary. Peltz had but one expression in the entire movie (concerned exasperation) and Rathbone emoted like he was being controlled by radio signals sent to him by aliens who only ever watched human soap operas. I was surprised to find out he’s in all the Twilight movies because his performance indicated that he had never seen a camera before.
As for the presentation, Shyamalan used a lot of soulless narration and exposition rather than letting the actors tell the story (although, given the casting choices this might have been a decision of necessity). And there was no flow from one scene to another. It was just, “Well, looks like we’re in the Southern Earth Kingdom now,” and then five minutes later, “Hey, we’re at the Northern Air Temple today, neat.” Scene compositions were often strange, with actors delivering lines totally out of focus, or scenes where the camera instantly jumped to a position three inches away from each character’s face as soon as they had lines. The film was just all over the place with no sense of pacing or flow.
One thing I did like was the element bending. It’s really cool to see someone do a tai chi move and having a tentacle of water whip around, slap some poor fool in the face and then turn to ice around him. Or seeing a man stomp his foot on the ground to raise up a wall of stone and earth in front of him. I think the fight scenes definitely could use some work, but at least they got it partly right.
It’s a shame, because, to paraphrase a friend of mine who had never seen the cartoon, “I think the mythology of the story was way better than the delivery of it.” And it’s true, the concept is a fantastic one. But unfortunately, while you can have the best concept or mythology in the world, if your actors can’t act, your story is schizophrenic, and your character development is nonexistent, no one will care. If Eddie Van Halen had only ever played a banjo in his entire life, or if Stephen King only wrote romance advice columns, The Last Airbender would still be a bigger waste of potential.