In which our heroes are still super busy. WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM US?!
Part-Time Gamers is one year old! Matt and Neil celebrate it by talking about Steam trading cards, and video games. Neil picked up Bioshock Infinite and the guys talk quite extensively about it.
BIOSHOCK INFINITE SPOILERS: 35:04 – 49:57
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“Watermelon Flava” by Joshua Morse, posu yan
In which our heroes must help Poochie return to his home planet.
When You’re Older – Jenny Mayhem
I’ll Stand By You – The Pretenders
I Need A Lover – Pat Benatar
Total Eclipse Of The Heart – Bonnie Tyler
What About Love – Heart
In which our heroes catch up on some summer movies, celebrate all things not Kristen Stewart, and try to determine when they can and can’t talk.
When You’re Older – Jenny Mayhem
Seasons In The Sun – Terry Jacks
Hungry Eyes – Eric Carmen
New Age Girl – Deadeye Dick
Stacy’s Mom – Fountains Of Wayne
Everyone gives M. Night Shyamalan so much crap. He deserves it. While The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are cracking little thrillers, and I will defend the quality of Signs to the death, we all found the pattern. And by the time The Happening came out, we figured we had seen the last of the man (or he would perform a stunning three-decade run of the same exact trick, scraping by with just enough money, respect, and clout to get him to retirement).
But Night defied all odds and expectations and came back with a big-budget, summer blockbuster adaptation of a very popular (and really quite fantastic) animated show aimed at kids. And it’s…so much worse than The Happening. Don’t give me that look. The Happening is at least fun, in a schlocky drive-in-reject way. But The Last Airbender is so lackadaisical, so un-engaging, and so incomprehensible that even die-hard fans of the animated series had no idea what to make of it. Come to think of it, the same can be said for Night’s recent spectacular bomb, After Earth. It’s un-engaging and incomprehensible, but the worst part is how much Shyamalan didn’t seem to care.
Make no mistake, as a fan of the show I do have a personal interest in the outcome of this autopsy. But I will be professional; I will examine this dried husk of a film as if it were a medical school cadaver, and I will cut no slack for (and seek no vengeance upon) the dirty, rotten bastards that did this.
A BRIEF SYNOPSIS:
Examining this movie as if I have never seen the series was not easy. But here we go. We are given a Star Wars exposition crawl explaining that the world is divided into four nations based on the four elements. This is because each nation has citizens that can alter that particular element through forms of martial arts called “bending.” Within this world, there is only one person who can bend all four elements, and that person is the Avatar. The Avatar is kind of like the Skywalker-bring-balance-chosen-one-golden-child. But the last Avatar disappeared a hundred years ago, and since then the world has been living in fear of the evil Fire Nation, who seeks to conquer all.
This opening crawl is actually written proficiently. It’s brief, but informative. It has a proper amount of pomp and mysticism. But…it’s being read aloud to us in a cold, dead voice. I understand that many children watching this may not be able to read. But make a choice…voice-over exposition, or text. Not both. You’re starting off by treating the audience like idiots. And even though we see that “Avatar” is spelled…like I just spelled it, the cold dead voice pronounces it ah-vatar. This is not a fanboy nitpick, either. “Avatar” is a word in the English language. It means something. Ah-vatar is not a new word within this universe. It is a mispronunciation of the word “Avatar,” that we can see in the text crawl. Odd choice.
Also, after the title The Last Airbender is finally revealed, we are given a subtitle, “Book One: Water.” Establishing a franchise is smart. But to anyone who hasn’t seen the show, we have just been told that the lead character is probably an “airbender,” and yet this first “book” is now going to be about water. Okay. I guess.
Anyhow, the movie starts by introducing us to two dead-eyed, vapid, pale people riding a canoe across an obviously fake ice floe. They are brother and sister named Katara and Soaka, from a Water Tribe. They discover a mysterious boy in a block of ice (mysteriously preserved under their Nickelodeon soundstage), and then find out he’s the Ah-vatar. He’s an airbender named Ong, who has been frozen for 100 years and (we find out in a series of needless flashbacks) avoided the Fire Nation’s genocide of the Air Monks. This kid eventually (after pitching a few crying fits) decides that he needs to be a hero and learn all four elemental bending powers, starting with water (since he’s already got air down pat). So, all three kids head for the North Pole (where waterbending is taught, I suppose) on a flying six-legged water buffalo.
No bullshit. Why can he fly? We are not told, but I gather it’s because he’s from the air nation and has special air powers. Why is he six-legged? Yeah. I don’t have any guesses on that one. But suffice it to say, these three kids ride this poor genetic experiment like a big, fuzzy zeppelin.
Upon their first pit-stop in the Earth Kingdom, they are immediately captured and thrown into a prison camp with a group of earthbenders. This makes little sense. Earthbenders have power over rock, dirt, sand…pretty much anything classified as “earth.” And the Fire Army just erected some shoddy fences and tents, and these earthbenders are completely pacified. Aha, it seems they needed Ong to tell them something as obvious as, “there is earth under your feet” in a big, blustering, Henry V speech. Then they go nuts, doing some form of Zumba dance to…fling pebbles. Really? No badass landslides or anything? Earthquakes? Boulders? Okay. Just pebbles. Delicious, fruity pebbles.
After that paradoxical adventure into This-Is-Too-Dumb-For-Small-Children-ville, they have numerous adventures in the Earth Kingdom and are pursued by a snotty Fire Prince and his really bored uncle.
At least, we are told they have numerous adventures. Through voice-over. And it’s the same cold, dead voice. Katara’s voice, it turns out. No, these adventures are glossed over in a Karate Kid-style training montage, which could be over the course of a week, or a month, or a year. Not sure. Apparently, these adventures were not important enough to the plot to be shown to us. Instead they are told to us.
Also, we find out that snotty Fire Prince Zuko is hunting the Ah-vatar because his father the king fought him and gave him a little, unnoticeable-in-every-other-scene scar. Apparently, bringing the captured Ah-vatar home is the only way to regain the honor that this child lost when his father beat the shit out of him and burned his face. And his uncle came along because…I think he’s disgraced in some way, too. By the way, we find all this out because Aasif Mandvi from “The Daily Show” shows up and starts dredging it all up. Yep, that guy is a principle villain in this. And he likes mocking emotionally-and-physically scarred teens for no discernible gain.
This leads into a minor bit where Ong tries to visit another Air Temple, only to be captured. Just as Mandvi is relishing his victory that night, a goofy-looking swordsman in a blue mask breaks in, kicks the ever-loving piss out of the Fire guards, and steals Ong out of his cell. It turns out to be Zuko, trying to capture the little bastard for his own purposes. This doesn’t really add to the plot, as Ong gets away from him, too. Glad we got to see that epis–, erm, that scene.
Moving on, when the kids reach the North Pole, Ong starts his water-bending training, while Soaka quickly and dully courts the North Pole Princess. Meanwhile the rivalry between Zuko and Mandvi comes down to assassination attempts and faking death. Between scenes, a few weeks pass. We are again told this through more of Katara’s disinterested narration, because otherwise we would have no visual reference to it.
When the Fire Navy shows up to capture Ong at the Pole, a lackadaisical invasion takes place. This results in Ong meditating next to a koi pond, where his big CGI dragon spirit essentially tells him to use the Force. Also, the koi glow. Mmm-kay. Everyone still with me, here? Why don’t we take a short break, get some caffeine, stretch our legs…
So, Ong gets captured—again–and gets away one more time for good measure, and a whole lot of talking about the “moon spirit” and how to kill it ensues. Turns out the Water Princess dies to save the “moon spirit,” which is actually one of the glowing koi. Mandvi is captured in a big ball of water and drowned in excruciating detail. And then Ong uses the Force to create a big tsunami that…destroys the Fire Navy, right? Nope. Just turns the ships around, as if they have no way of steering back. This not-so-miraculous feat causes everyone in the big, poorly-lit battle (including the baddies) to stop and bow to this little kid. I…I don’t know. Look, we’re almost done.
We cut to the Fire King, Zuko’s father, who exposits to a window that a comet is on its way, and it will increase firebender powers. For some reason. And so he needs someone to hunt down the Ah-vatar, to…make sure he doesn’t spoil their plans, or something. No mention of what these plans are. Just that the Ah-vatar could gum up the works. Then we see that he’s assigning that task to a giggling schoolgirl. His daughter. And boy am I disappointed we don’t get to watch that awful sequel. The non-end. There is no real ending. Because this is only Book One: Water, remember? Get ready for Book Two: Will Smith and His Son Do a Box Office Belly-Flop.
Okay. It has become apparent to me while trying to type out the synopsis that nothing in this movie makes a bit of sense, unless you already have an intimate knowledge of the cartoon show it is based on. This is perhaps the major failure of the film, but it is not necessarily the cause of death. After all, many films based on previous intellectual properties have the same “insider baseball” kind of problem without being complete garbage, like Serenity or Watchmen, for instance.
So, let’s proceed without taking the show “Avatar: The Last Airbender” into account. Let’s just focus on what’s on the slab.
This script is dogshit. While the basic plot is easy enough to follow, important details are glossed over so casually. Where or how do benders get their powers? Why is there an Ah-vatar? What is that big CG dragon spirit? Why does the Fire King want to destroy/conquer the world? Even Darth Vader had legitimate motivation in the first Star Wars movie. He wanted order. He wanted citizens of the galaxy to obey the laws dictated by the Emperor. He wanted to quell dissent. Here? Nothing.
No character development at all, actually. There are no characters. Any person in the movie is inherently evil for the sake of evil, or they are painfully earnest and good. They are plot devices. The most interesting character, bar none, is Prince Zuko. And that is only because he has a shred of conflicting emotions while performing acts of douchebaggery. Katara is an exposition machine, Ong is more a prop being carted around to perform miracles, Soaka is…I don’t know. What’s his job, again? Right, teen romance device, for about ten minutes.
Setting aside plot, the dialogue is painful. No one speaks this way. Want an example? “Show them that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in their beliefs.” Or, “Look, that bison-creature-thing can fly!”
These are horrendous, lazy script issues. And that’s on top of the indecipherable in-universe stuff. I can grasp that this kid manipulates air, this kid does water, etc. But I can’t grasp why the “moon spirit” has anything to do with the fighting abilities of the Water people or the Fire people. Or why it’s a koi fish. I also don’t know why the bad guys keep capturing the Ah-vatar, and no one thinks to kill him. Also not sure why the earthbenders can’t escape a prison when they can move the earth underneath them, or at very least why they fail to realize this until a little kid points it out to them. I know all of these things are better explained elsewhere, but within the confines of this movie, they are not.
Anyway, let’s talk about the technical aspects of this movie. The majority of the movie is filtered pale blue, making everything look like a day-for-night shot. This is annoying. I suppose it was there to make things look cold and wintery, or maybe it was a reference to the “Book One: Water” framing. In that case, would the second one be entirely green-filtered? And the third red-filtered? That would have made more sense, but again within the confines of this movie it is just annoying and unnecessary.
And then there’s the camera work. There are many “surprising reveal” shots of characters and developments that we have already seen. As if it was edited out of order or specially made for folks with neurological disorders. Also, tons of reaction shots when something remotely unexpected happens (or in many cases, when something happens at all). This would be fine, except the actors don’t react in these reaction shots.
And my real big beef with this movie: there seems to be a misconception as to what filmmaking is. Filmmaking is a visual medium. In other words, the picture that we, the audience, see is usually more important that what we hear. But in The Last Airbender, entire chunks of plot (be it Zuko’s backstory, Ong starting a rebellion, or the weeks at the North Pole that lead to Soaka’s romance and Ong’s water mastery) are simply told to us in narration, as if they are incidental happenings that have no major bearing on the plot.
Perhaps this is more of a script issue than a technical issue, but I put it here because the writer-director should know better. If the script is badly paced, that’s one thing. But if the badly-paced script isn’t even represented visually, that’s a technical problem.
The child actors are either really confused as to what their characters are feeling, or they just plain don’t care. Or they don’t understand emotions that well. And without a single exception, every single adult actor in this movie looks ashamed and bored. That’s saying something, because they were aware it was a kids movie. They were aware that it was silly and stupid and hard to understand. But even after months of rehearsals and preproduction, they have the nerve to be surprised that a.) this movie is awful, and b.) they are in it. And even if that surprise were legitimate, these people are actors. It is literally their job to pretend that it isn’t stupid, embarrassing, or boring.
What doesn’t help is the cast that Shyamalan assembled. The casting is strange. I’m not talking about the inherent racism (all villains are Indian, all hapless bystanders and imbeciles and victims are East Asian, and all our supposed heroes are white). I’m just saying that a “Daily Show” correspondent, the kid from Slumdog Millionaire, and Harpo from the Twilight movies are all very odd choices. And they don’t seem to fit their characters.
A Lazy Adaptation of the Plot with Horrendous Dialogue- While it might make sense in the show, the plot is all over the place (with large chunks missing/glossed over) and the dialogue is redundant filler that only serves to move us to the ending. However, I recognize that adapting a season of television with such an in-depth premise in one film is difficult.
A Cobbled-Together, Non-Visual Filmmaking Process- Narratively confusing material is not helped by visually confusing material. The movie is crafted like a very broad stage play, or some sort of soap opera. While it is distracting and condescending, it’s really just the battered carton that already contained spoiled milk.
An Oddly-Cast Pack of Bored/Embrarrassed/Unskilled People- Kid actors are, in general, not very good. So when you grab a large amount of them (many of whom don’t fit their parts at all) and film them speaking bad dialogue, their acting will be twice as bad. But then there are adult actors who apparently never heard that pearl of wisdom from W.C. Fields: “Never work with animals, never work with kids, never work on live-action adaptations of cartoons, never work with a script you don’t understand, never work with creatively-stunted shitbags who think they are God’s genius gift to filmmaking.” I think he was talking about Charlie Chaplin at the time.
Shyamalan Made This Movie- If this were directed by someone like Chris Columbus, the worst you could say is that he has a distinct lack of style. If it were directed by Tarantino, you could say that he was attempting something that didn’t quite land. But because this is Shyamalan, we know the odd pronunciation of words, the confusing camera work, the annoying filter, and the wooden acting and crappy dialogue all have something to do with him. This movie could have been bad no matter what, but it’s because of Night that this movie is unbearable. His stink is just all over it.
Cause of Death: Shyamalan Made This Movie
I mean, sure. It’s a bad adaptation of a good thing. So clearly the script will have some problems, the actors will be confused and embarrassed, and no one will have a clear idea as to how to shoot a live-action interpretation of something that really only works in animated form.
But take away all the details. Boil this down to the core problem, which is that this movie is so focused on propelling the difficult plot that the pacing, characters, and technical filmmaking take an excruciating backseat. It’s not incompetence, it’s negligence.
And that’s M. Night Shyamalan. Looking at his entire filmography, there is not a single character who was essential to the film’s success. Be it The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, or even After Earth, we never remember the characters. We only remember the premise. The twists, the narrative. That’s where Shyamalan dwells. He regards characters as vessels to propel us to the next narrative moment. This is why each of his protagonists is a quiet, brooding blank slate (Willis in Sixth Sense, Willis in Unbreakable, Gibson in Signs, Joaquin Phoenix in the first act of The Village before he is discarded and re-written as Bryce Dallas Howard). This is probably why all characters in The Last Airbender appear so wooden, so awkward, so useless. It’s because there’s so much plot to get through, and Shyamalan is under the impression that as long as the characters are visible, they are involved.
Armed with this information one could argue that Shyamalan was just the wrong writer and director to do The Last Airbender, as the strength of the animated series was watching a group of very well-developed characters become even more three-dimensional as they mature over the course of three years. One would be correct. But one would also be ignoring the bigger sin here:
M. Night Shyamalan is a very capable filmmaker, or at very least he was back when he was young and eager to tell stories. That young buck who made Unbreakable could have been the ideal choice to direct Man of Steel this year, if he ever bothered to develop as an artist. Instead, he got more and more self-indulgent (going so far as to change Sokka to Soaka, Iroh to Ee-roh, Aang to Ong, and Avatar to Ah-vatar for the purposes of his own passing whimsy) and crapped out this movie in the hopes that a built-in audience would gobble up the merchandise and make him George Lucas rich.
And that’s really the conclusion I draw from this movie. M. Night saw that his daughter loved this cute cartoon show, and he decided it would make a great franchise to hang his hat on and pay his Hollywood A-lister bills (which are now admittedly much larger than his up-and-coming Indie Spirit Award bills were in 2000) while his creativity falls by the wayside in middle age.
But because he’s a plot-driven storyteller and the show is essentially a Star Wars or a Seven Samurai that focuses more on characters, he had no idea what to do with it. So he kind of shrugged his way through it and added little “artistic flourishes” (as referred by Tarantino when he inexplicably misspelled the word “bastards” in the title of a movie, thus making such a thing less “artistic” and more “screwing with people for no real reason”) to prove to everyone that he was still the quirky little fart that made those spooky movies a decade ago.
If you read my Autopsies often, you’ll notice my reluctance to pin a bad movie on the director. There’s a reason for that: the common misconception is that the film is a singular message from one person (the director) to many people (the audience). This is an understandable view of the art form, especially after a generation of directors kicked the doors down in Hollywood and established themselves as visionary, game-changing storytellers who were so far ahead of the curve.
The Spielbergs, Scorseses, and Kubricks were then studied meticulously as the standard for a new “video store” generation who were quite literally too cool for [film] school. This new generation happened to include Manoj Night Shyamalan. So when his movies suck, the knee-jerk reaction is to call him an asshole and dismiss his work as the finger-paintings of a lunatic, despite logic telling us that hundreds of people had a personal investment in this project. After all, there were producers, and a studio, and the original creators of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” and so on and so forth.
Having said all that, in this case you are totally justified in following that very natural, normal inclination to make fun of M. Night Shyamalan. In this case the “studio” was Nickelodeon. Despite being the Hitler Youth arm of the creepily large conglomerate Viacom, Nickelodeon has been puttering in theatrical feature films for almost 20 years now, and they never seemed to figure out how to do it like Disney.
Consider that the very first Nickelodeon film was Harriet the Spy, which was a live-action venture during a time when Nick was only known for popular animated shows. Then follow them down the rabbit-hole of Good Burger, Snow Day, and Clockstoppers before they decided to stick to making movies out of their cartoons. Then they were fully acquired as a label for Paramount. As far as Nickelodeon goes, chock it up to ignorance.
Paramount is probably responsible for hiring Shyamalan as the writer-director, but how could they say no when he shows up and says, “My daughter loves this show, and I think it’s gonna be my Star Wars!” without looking really dumb to their parent company…also Viacom.
And the original creators of “A:TLA” can’t be blamed for this. That’s like blaming Bob Kane for Batman & Robin, isn’t it?
No, there’s no one else. The blame fits squarely on M. Night’s shoulders, and everyone in show business has agreed with me. Which is interesting, because The Last Airbender is the reason why Night’s name was left completely out of the marketing for After Earth.
A smart move…but it didn’t help.