I was worried. I really was. I was worried that I'd go to see (in a press screening mind you; I wasn't going to spend any money on) M. Night Shymalan's racebending The Last Airbender ... and actually enjoy myself. After all, Shymalan has been known (once or twice) to put on a good movie. It's not inconceivable that he could've made a halfway decent ride out of Nickelodeon's children's animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender -- despite the fact that he cast all white actors in the heroic roles of an Asian-inspired fantasy world, and all swarthy, middle-eastern-looking actors as the villains. So I was worried that the movie would have some aesthetically or narratively redeeming features that would muddy my hatred. I am, at heart, an honest gal, and would have had to, grudgingly, say so, if there was anything to like here.
But fear not, dear readers, there is nothing to like here. The movie has no redeeming features whatsoever. The acting was atrocious. The writing was horrific. The direction looked like a film-school final project. The CGI, around which the entire movie was built, was utterly unimpressive (but at least it didn't stand out.) The 3-D was obviously tacked on at the end and made the whole movie unnecessarily dark. The art direction was good in spots ... because it was stolen directly from the original TV series. Where the costumes didn't rip off the TV series, they were simply cliché. The action scenes were all 50% slo-mo. (Not kidding. I think it's because they did some of the fighting in CGI. Argh. What part of The Matrix Reloaded did he not understand?) The music was like a parody of a cheap film score, half DUNH DUNH DUUUHHH, and half light-hearted strings.
Even the martial arts were cheesy. Here's where Shymalan's inexperience as a martial arts movie director told a sad, sad story. He couldn't seem to avoid the rookie mistake of not knowing how to start a fight. Characters had to do, like, half a kata before anything happened. They were basically doing kata throughout the whole movie, like the tournament scene in Karate Kid III. The antagonists actually had to stop and watch while the good guys wound up. Anyone who, like me, laughed at this teaser trailer -- because of the silly/excessive arm-and-leg-waving that had to happen before any candles got blown out -- is going to die of embarrassment when they see the movie. The whole movie was like this.
And what's worse, at the press screening some genius thought it would be a good idea to get some local martial arts experts to do a little chop-socky demonstration in front of the screen while we were waiting for the movie to start. So they brought in a tiny little boy, an older girl, and a man -- presumably all part of the same school -- to entertain us. They were, however, all Asian, and really freakin' good, and underlined heavily how easy it would have been for Shymalan to snap his fingers and be inundated with Asian children who could speak good Engrlsh and also get the job done. Hello? Hello Shyamalan? Are you listening? Or are you George Lucas?
Speaking of getting the job done, did I mention how bad the acting was? The excuse for white casting usually goes "But we cast the best actors for the role and they just happened to be white!" Usually, it isn't meant to be insulting. Here, it's an insult of the highest order, one worth creating a martial arts revenge movie around. Wow. You insult my famiry! Jackson Rathbone employed the same single "intense" expression he uses in the Twilight series, only this time, without the epically bad blond wig. Nicola Peltz is twice as good an actor: she has two expressions, mostly conveyed by her pooky lips. Noah Rathbone is at an awkward age where his face is too big and full of features to mobilize. He didn't have any expressions ... but I'm sure that'll change after he gets his growth spurt. And Dev Patel? Too bad for him. His undeveloped talent could have shone against the background of amateurishness that is this movie, but he's not experienced enough to act well in the absence of any direction whatsoever. He was wooden, weak, and silly.
And that brings me to the casting of, in Shymalan's words, "a Mediterranean kind of Arab and Indian world," i.e. the Fire Nation. I jeered when he said that, because it was so patently awful, and because he was obviously playing up to the American notion of Muslim = villain. But I honestly didn't expect the casting to have the impact that it had. All of the Fire Nation speaking parts were played by swarthy, middle-eastern-looking actors (although Cliff Curis is Maori, he plays Arabs on TV.) Every face shot in a Fire Nation crowd was of a swarthy, middle-eastern-looking extra. Unlike the other nations -- which were fairly mixed between Asian and white, with some token blacks thrown in -- the Fire Nation looked middle eastern. His race-mixing of extras and speaking characters in the other nations just served to muddy their racial element. But the casting of the Fire Nation was like a slug to the gut: Islamic world bad. What was he thinking?
I don't know if I should even bother to break down the horrible adaptation of this beloved TV series. The one thing I can say for Shyamalan is that he himself clearly loves the series ... since he tried to preserve the arc of as many half-hour episodes as he could. Of course, in a two-hour movie, that means that each of the twenty or so episodes of the first season gets about two minutes here. Thus, the first two thirds of the movie is a frantically "paced" careen through incomprehensible two-minute would-be set pieces. Some of the adaptations are laughable (such as the prison for earth benders, those who can magically control earth and rocks, which was set on a metal boat in the middle of the ocean in the series, and is set in a dirt-floored stockade full of rocks in the movie.) But most of these scenes are simply illegible to anyone who hasn't seen the TV series. The movie only starts to take off in the final third, when Shyamalan finally lets go of the episodes and starts combining and cutting plot points to make things flow more smoothly (otherwise known as adaptation.) Once the script problems have been dealt with, though, we are free to notice the other problems in all their grisly glory, not least the awful awful dialogue, and pointlessly cheesy voice-overs. A hot mess.
As of this writing, the movie has a 00% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That's the first time I've ever seen that. I'm sure that score will rise slightly over the next few days, but it's pretty telling. This movie is a disaster. Don't waste your time. Don't waste your money. Let this franchise die the pathetic death it's been begging for all along. Avatar: The Last Airbender didn't want to be a movie anyway. Let it stay a TV show and stay pure.
ETA: Charlie Anders at io9.com has written the funniest movie review I've ever read, about The Last Airbender:
The brilliance of Noah Ringer's performance cannot be understated — he is the first performer ever to convince me utterly that he is standing in front of a greenscreen. Even when Ringer is filmed on location, in front of a real-life mountain, he still manages to create the impression that his surroundings have been keyed in, and he's actually in a studio somewhere. This is a huge, crucial factor in the way the movie makes fun of its own epic-ness. And I think everybody who has criticized Shyamalan for casting white actors as Asian characters in this film should admit they were wrong. Clearly, Shyamalan tried to cast Asians, but he just couldn't find any whose performances were lifeless enough.
Read it here.
ETA: Via Jaime, another awesome review: