Saturday, 21 August 2010

73: Review - The Last Airbender

CAUTION: Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.

The Last Airbender
(2010, 94 mins, Dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

Quick disclaimer: I'm not at all familiar with the TV series that this is based on. I know it exists, I know it's had good press, I just haven't seen it.

Quick plot synposis: The four nations (clans) that each control one of the elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) are in disarray after the disappearance of The Avatar - the one individual who can control all the elements and bring peace and unity (and balance to the Force, I suppose). When the Avatar arrives after a hundred year absence, the Fire Nation is on the verge of completely taking over. Only the power of The Avatar, with the help of his new friends can blah, blah, blah...

Yeah, I know. The setup isn't actually that bad, really. It's classic mythology, and that works in the film's favour. The viewer doesn't immediately have to know the back-story, as there's a comfortable familiar feeling about it. That being said, when the audience is required to know some back-story, M.Night Shayamalan isn't shy about telling it. Telling, that is. Not showing, as you might expect with a visual medium like film.

There's an old guideline in writing, "Show, don't tell". It's even more imortant in visual storytelling. In short, it's better to experience the events through the eyes of a character than have that (or another) character standing on-screen, clumsily reading thirty seconds of expository dialogue. You can allude to events, certainly, in the way that Ben Kenobi mentioned the Clone Wars, or the way that Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf reference their earlier adventures. But too much of The Last Airbender is spent listening to the cast mumbling their way through catch-up routines that aren't even essential knowledge.

And it's not like there aren't and flashback scenes. At one point, Aang (the titular character) recounts how he ran away from the monastary where he was raised... then an hour later we see the scene from his point-of-view as a flashback. The hell? Although the young actors in the film act maturely (character necessity), it still ruins the flow to have them reading out entire paragraphs of history that could have been shown at the start of the movie in a montage. In fact, if the exposition had gotten any denser in this film, it would have started to develop it's own gravitational pull.

This leads to the film's other major weakness: the script appears to have been written by a twelve year old. As I said, in the hardened times the film takes place in, the youngsters have a corresponding maturity. It's not that their dialogue is child-like, it's that it's been childishly written. And the adults dialogue, too. The words sound like the stuff I used to put in stories in early comprehensive school. Awful.

It says a lot to me that the last ten minutes of the film are the most engaging, and there are only three or four short lines in there.

That aside, I quite enjoyed the film (honestly). The visuals are absolutely stunning, and while the 3D is relatively good, it never becomes intrusive (which I guess is good, right?). All the elements of the visual and audio design are excellent, and despite my grumbles about the script, the acting's on-par, too.

I just felt the film was disappointing. I mean that in a genuine sense, because I wanted to like it more. I'd heard it was getting bad press in the US, but when I saw the trailer, I thought "that looks pretty damned good!" I'm also aware that there's a growing backlash against M.Night Shayalaman, which I don't quite get if I'm being honest. His previous works that I've seen I've enjoyed for the most part (well okay, maybe not The Happening, but that had a strong premise and just drifted off into eco-nonsense). But people seemed to take this movie as an opportunity for bashing his 'twisty-turny' writing - which doesn't apply for this movie, as it's essentially a mythology. Still, people moaned at George Lucas for Jar Jar Binks, irrespective of his decreasing screen-time in the prequel trilogy...

Which brings me on to what I really wanted to blog about. As you may know by now, when I review films, I ultimately end up comparing them to other films (which isn't too far away from what reviews are, anyway), but what I really like doing is comparing things to Star Wars. In this respect, The Last Airbender did not disappoint.

For the things I'm going to point out here, I should make it clear that they didn't detract from the film, they're just things I noticed.
I'm not claiming "OMGz STaR WrAS DID THIS 1ST! RiP OFFs!". No, this is just how my mind works.

First up, Aang rides a creature name Appa, a kind of flying bison who looks a bit like a Dewback from Star Wars, one of the Wild Things, and Falkor from The Neverending Story:

^^ Click on the image for full-size.

And a whole slew of lesser ones...

• Jackson Rathbone's Sokka reminds me a lot of Hayden Chistensen's Anakin Skywalker, both in look and in mannerisms.

• The Fire and Southern Water nations both reminded me of Theed, Naboo from The Phantom Menace

• If the flying bison reminded me of a Dewback, the Fire Nation's Komodo Rhinos just are Dewbacks, albeit the slimmer versions from The Phantom Menace.

• And I'd just about put Sokka reminding me of Anakin to one side, then he meets Princess Yue, and basically just re-enacts the romance-thread from Attack of the Clones. Including the two of them completely falling in love within a couple of days.

^^ Click on the image for full-size.

Like I said, I'm not shouting 'ripoff', these are just the things I noticed. To sum up:

The Good: The visuals. Plus the word "bender" is said a lot, which amused me greatly.

The Bad: An awkward, often unconvincing, script. Not as much combat as the trailer suggests (not necessarily 'bad', I know).

The Ugly: The huge streams of unnecessary exposition within that script.

I reckon: 6/10. It looks great on the cinema-screen, but you shouldn't lose too much by watching it on BluRay with a good TV. This movie had so much more potential that it didn't quite capture, I've got to mark it down to a 6.

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.

• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organizations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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