Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Last Airbender (M. Night Shyamalan)

The last hurrah

Surprise, surprise--it’s not as bad as everyone is saying it is.

That doesn’t mean it’s especially good. Seems to me Shyamalan had written The Last Airbender as a much longer movie, and that the movie was drastically cut down to keep the running time under two hours. Long stretches of voiceover narration suture the transitions, in the hope of linking disparate scenes together; at one point a budding love affair has to be telegraphed in terse Twitter-like messages, rather than developed through fully formed dramatic sequences.

The world is divided into four: Fire Nation, Air Nation, Water Nation, Earth; those with the ability to manipulate these elements are called benders--hence: 'waterbender,' 'firebender' so on and so forth. Hook of the story is that the Fire Nation has been naughty, wiping out or conquering all the other elements while no one was looking. Some Water Nation natives discover Aang, an airbender, frozen in an iceberg; turns out he's an Avatar, a bender able to control all four elements, and they look to him to liberate them from Fire Nation tyranny.

I was never a big fan of the original Nickelodeon animated series. The cartoon took a mishmash of Asian cultures, everything from Buddhist concepts of reincarnation, Yoga meditation techniques, Tai Chi exercises and Shaolin fighting stances, and stuffed them all into some kind of postapocalyptic fantasy burrito. The most jarring effect, however, is of seeing boys and girls sport shaven heads and silk tunics, and then hearing them speak English in a broad American accent. Why do things properly and use real Asians in your show when you can do things half-assed and look wishy-washy in the process?

The same sensibility is carried over on the big screen, with the odd proviso that most of the Fire Nation people are distinctly dark-skinned--Prince Zuko is played by Dev Patel, who is Indian; Iroh is played by Shaun Toub, who is Iranian; Fire Lord Ozai is played by Cliff Curtis, who is Maori. Is this some cute conceit of Shaymalan? Is he simply postulating that when one is constantly exposed to and manipulating fire one eventually develops a dusky complexion? Or does he dream of a world dominated by people of East Asian, Middle Eastern and Oceanic descent, granting them absolute power--a power not all that different from what the United States enjoys at the moment--the same time he lays them open to the corrupting influence of that power? One wonders; one even wonders if an entire article can be written on the subject of Shyamalan's casting strategies.

Noah Ringer plays Aang, and he's visibly Occidental; as actors go his performance is serviceable, sometimes less than that, and every time he bends something his forehead lights up like a one-way street, but when he's going into his airbending routine he stops looking silly and starts looking forceful and eloquent (turns out he's a Taekwondo champ). More interesting is Patel's Zuko, who seems to harbor a chip the size of the Empire State Building on his shoulder; his father Lord Ozai has exiled him and refuses to take him back until he has captured Aang. The way Patel plays Zuko you could spend pages upon pages of paper speculating on the frustrated Oedipal anger directed against his father; he's the kind of ambivalent antagonist that makes a conflict that much more interesting (Aang, for all his lost heritage and dead friends, doesn't exhibit much of anything except a wicked roundhouse kick).

Whither Shyamalan? Again, believe it or not, he seems to have grown in the making of this film. He's basically copying from Peter Jackson's playbook when he stages the siege of the Water Nation's walled city (the Fire Nation's assault forces resemble Orcs in Viking ships), and his CGI effects are wretchedly inadequate--I'm okay with second-class CGI effects if they're done with speed and wit and brashness (i.e. Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell), but Shyamalan seems to be under the impression he's producing a straight epic here. It's as if Lord of the Rings were being done on an effects budget the size of Epic Movie.

That said, he's finally learning to do action sequences--here Aang weaves and twists and turns, and the camera whips from him to his Fire Nation target, who is suitably stunned, glides to another Fire Nation soldier being overwhelmed, glides back to Aang, and so forth. It's a devilishly difficult shot to stage and execute and it does more than provide impressive action; it suggests that the world is as the benders say, a constant flow of energies that clash and intersect and balance--in effect a system in restless, ceaseless motion. Only when the camera stops and the actors step up to woodenly deliver their painfully cheesy lines (one example: "I offer my condolences on your nephew burning to death in that terrible accident" being a marvel of clunky exposition) does the life leak out of the movie. One wishes Shyamalan had gone for broke and shot the entire film this way, as a single shot constantly gliding, constantly changing its perspective and focus--call it impossible, call it impractical, call it filmbending, if you like; I'd watch that with unreserved pleasure.

First published in Businessworld, 7.22.10 

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