Movie: The Last Airbender
Writer(s): M. Night Shyamalan
Director(s): M. Night Shyamalan
I had never even heard of the TV cartoon series this was based on until I heard about this film about a year ago (back then I mostly thought it was weird making a live-action film of a cartoon when it's usually the other way around). I guess that's a good thing, because it sounds like fans are disappointed. Me, not so much. Contrary to most critics, who are blasting this thing, I didn't have a problem with it. Now I had low expectations going in, so perhaps that helped, but the big thing was not knowing anything about the story and setting. Sure, the dialog was lame and hokey, the mostly no-name actors lived up to their billing, and there are serious problems with the script, but I found the fantasy story fascinating and interesting, and the unusual setting more than offset those negatives.
Basically in this fantasy world there are four groups of people, each corresponding to a different basic element (earth, wind, fire, and water). Some of these people can "bend" their element -- i.e. use their mind to manipulate matter. One special guy -- strangely called the Avatar -- can manipulate all four. Because of that, he's incredibly powerful and keeps the four nations in check. He's continuously reincarnated so he's always around in some form to keep the balance over the centuries. But 100 years ago he vanished and hasn't been seen since. The fire nation took over and started to beat up the other nations, and now they've taken over most of the world. At the beginning of the film two children of the Southern Water nation discover a child hidden beneath the ice: he turns out to be the Avatar, who thinks only a few days have passed. Unfortunately, his training is incomplete: he only knows how to master air, not the other elements. So begins a grand quest to fight the Fire nation. The Avatar must be trained, and there are interesting elements going on within the Fire nation camp as well. The plot is dense and has the feeling of an epic adventure, a la Lord of the Rings. I worried about how they could cram that into a 105-minute movie. The answer: they didn't. The film ends in the middle of a sentence, really, with everything set up for future films. In this one, there is resolution to a battle and there's a terrific sacrifice made (I loved that plot point). I can see enough of this grand story to understand both why fans loved the original series and why they are upset with this condensed version. This is deep, epic material, and it does not translate well dumbed down to a single film. This shows throughout the film, which feels choppy and awkward in many places, as though things were missing. Many scenes feel rushed or cut short, and some events are implied, rather than shown or explained. Sometimes this was confusing, but most of the time it was just odd. For instance, in one scene the children are in a forest with other people with no explanation of how they got there and no introduction of the others. Since the children are on the run, I found it odd that they would be hanging around near civilization where the enemy soldiers are located, and that's never explained. But while these flaws no doubt bother the purists and hard-core fans, I was intrigued by the wonderful scenery -- fantastic venues of landscape and ice worlds -- and compelled by the complex story. I never quite got the reward I wanted from the story, which felt incomplete, but the scenery at least made the ride pleasant.
I came out of the theatre satisfied. I got what I expected: a rousing adventure with an unusual setting and interesting (though not spectacular) special effects. I didn't expect great dialog or acting and I didn't get it (though one or two actors and scenes stood out). I was puzzled because I'd heard that critics thought this was awful, but it's not any worse than other big Hollywood action flicks such as Iron Man 2. This is a popcorn movie. Go, relax, and have fun. Most of the critics seem to be judging Shyamalan, not the movie, and expecting too much from a once-great director, and most of the disappointed viewers seem to be fans of the TV show who are annoyed at all the changes and chopped up bits. That the film also has myriad small problems makes it ripe for picking, but this film is typical Hollywood in my book. I don't get all the outrage. Sure, this premise had great potential that's unrealized, but it's not that bad. I wouldn't exactly recommend it, but it's watchable.