Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Last Airbender Postmortem

"There is no war within the walls of Ba Sing Se."

This is my MSN status message for months now.
It's not a direct quote actually spoken within the series but my bet is, fans would know it for sure.

Let me first preface this post by coming forthright with the fact that this is not so much a review as it is an autopsy, as it is not possible for me to offer completely objective criticisms when I am so emotionally invested in an intellectual property like Avatar: The Last Airbender. To put it mildly, the film which M. Night Shyamalan so lovingly and ineptly adapted from the much beloved Nickelodeon series has inspired murderous intents in my psyche.

From this point henceforth, I shall refer to the original Nickelodeon series as A:TLA, and the film adaptation as simply The Last Airbender, sans Avatar.

I was a late leaper onto the bandwagon as I only saw the series earlier this year after my girlfriend urged me, whom I usually ignore on such matters, to check it out - and I saw all of its three seasons or "Books" in a couple of weeks during my university exam study break, a time during which I was expected to, you know, study. Of course, my vow to always make an attempt to be familiar with the source material before watching any film adaptation (along with the recommendations from my partner-in-geek, Shaki) were also integral to my decision to see the original cartoon. To all my readers and friends who have discovered excellent books, films and TV shows through my urgings; I urge you to trust my taste once more and go watch A:TLA, the series - and pretend that the movie, currently playing in theatres, doesn't exist.

I have read a number of reviews of M. Night's jerkwad of a film from multiple non-fans of the source material which praised the mythology behind the world, the special effects and fight choreography while rightfully deriding the acting, direction and the script. All the good things they have mentioned should be credited to the original animated series, which did them several order of magnitudes better (which people should totally look into if they are intrigued by the world Aang inhabits after watching the film). For the last three things which made The Last Airbender a bad movie, the blame lies solely on M. Night's shoulders.

The Last Airbender
I know the poster looks cool, but seriously, fuck M. Night Shyamalan.

For the plot synopsis, go look at Wikipedia or something. This post is long enough as it is.

My Expectations.

Unlike most film geeks, my regard for M. Night Shyamalan as a writer and director had been lukewarm at its best. I have decided not to see The Sixth Sense after having its ultimate twist spoilt for me through pop-cultural osmosis but of Shyamalan's body of work, I have at least watched Unbreakable (incredible concept, great film), Signs (the stupidest alien invasion story ever; wrapped in religious themes of the "everything happens for a reason" persuasion), The Village (mostly meh, but what the fuck?) and The Lady in the Water (has the same boring religious themes of Signs, but this time, M. Night cast himself in the role of the messiah). Just to be clear, I have no problem with religious and spiritual themes done right, my being an atheist notwithstanding (I actually liked Alex Proyas' Knowing and Ridley Scott's director's cut of Kingdom of Heaven, for example), but Mr Shyamalan's brand of existential wankery really doesn't do it for me.

M Night
No, you're not fixing anything. Don't touch anything I like ever again.

What really piqued my interest in his adaptation of A:TLA is that one, he's not making a movie based on an original story he wrote himself and two, he's a real fanboy of the animated series! That's the vibe I got from him after reading several interviews and press releases of him talking lovingly about the world and mythos of the series. He liked it so much he volunteered to make the movie! And he's also doing it for his daughters, sort of! Oh, I hope they grow up hating him for destroying their favourite show.

It simply does not compute for me that someone with so much respect for the source material can fuck it up so royally.

Anyway, The Last Airbender was released in theatres over at the States a month ahead of us, and was almost universally panned. While I did not exclude the possibility that M. Night can birth another flop, I really didn't expect the deluge of hate this film was getting. It is literally one of the worst - if not the worst - reviewed film this year. That's the impression Shaki and I had going in last week. We were quite sure it's going to be fantastically unwatchable but we still felt compelled to pay our last respects. Besides, there might be a few laughs in it for us. And there was, but a few.

About Racebending.

There was a huge outcry during the film's production because M. Night "whitewashed" the main cast. It is most succinctly explained by this infographic which was making its rounds on the internet,

"Now that you put it that way..."

M. Night, a brown guy himself, mind you, thought that all the Inuit or Oriental protagonists should be white and the entire evil Fire Nation (the fairest people in the world of A:TLA) should all be made brown. While I agree it was one of the most contrived example of "white people good, brown people bad" casting decision in cinematic history, it honestly didn't bother me all that much in this case - and I'm speaking here as a yellow guy. But as a side note, fuck that Chinese people are yellow shit. The Simpsons are yellow. I'm a very light shade of brown, thank you very much.

Of course, I live in a country (one my parents and I were born in) where I am discriminated against politically, religiously and economically based on my ethnicity according to the Constitution and the law while all the vast majority of the Malay people here are complicit in perpetuating such injustices upon all the other minorities. It's like the apartheid in principle here but with less press. Not seeing people of my own race rightfully represented in a film is honestly not that big a deal.

M. Night said that he casts his actors according to how well suited they are to the parts regardless of their races and he went on record saying that the ones he got are the absolute best he auditioned - to which I shall reply, "My ass."

Nicola Peltz as a block of driftwood Katara.

Still, say what you will about the race issue, but I think the girl they got to play Katara was as close to a Mongoloid as they'll ever get. Was what I said offensive to people with Down Syndrome? I sure hope so. Being compared to Nicola Peltz should be offensive to anyone. I'm not sure if we can even blame M. Night's direction here but as Haley Joel Osment proved in The Sixth Sense, the guy was perfectly capable of working with child actors. That expression you see in the still above; that's pretty much her default look through the entire movie. Eyes dull and unfocused. Jaw slack with idiocy. Plus, the lines M. Night wrote for her were bad enough without her stilted and disinterested delivery. She made me think that I was watching a high school stage production.

Noah Ringer as Aang, who is all glowy because he's in the Avatar state - something the film did not explain.

I was initially happy with M. Night's choice of Noah Ringer as Aang, the eponymous Last Airbender. The kid's an actual martial artist and looks like he has a mixed ancestry too - though the fact that he's really white isn't a strong point of contention for most people because Aang does look kind of ethnically universal in the animated series. I got a little worried when I saw him in the teaser and subsequent trailers because they did not depict any scenes of him delivering any dialogues; and I thought he was far broodier than the animated Aang, who is actually an optimistic, childish and fun-loving kid. It was only when I saw Ringer on the big screen that I realised that he and Peltz were in competition with each other in some sort of bizarro world Special Olympics for Bad Child Actors. To be fair though, I felt that Ringer's physical acting in the action scenes were commendable, if unremarkable.

I might get some flak for saying this but I thought Dev Patel (of The Slumdog Millionaire fame) was fun to watch as Prince Zuko, which I though is a pretty hammy character in A:TLA to begin with - but he did get one of the most ridiculous scenes I have ever seen in any movie ever (more on that in a bit). Shaun Toub, who played Uncle Iroh, was probably the best actor in the cast, but there was honestly not a lot of room for him to flex his acting chops here. And speaking of chops, he's certainly not fat enough.

Cliff Curtis was Fire Lord Ozai, the menacing off-screen Big Bad in the first season. If I remember correctly, we did not even get to see his face until the second season but in this film, he was brought up front early, dissipating much of the tension his non-presence brought to the narrative.

Comedian Aasif Mandvi plays Zhao, Commander and later Admiral of the Fire Nation's fleet of iron-ships and I had to stifle my laughter every time he says his own name, "Zhao", with an Indian accent (and he says it every chance he gets, just in case people have forgotten it in the last 5 minutes). But then again, every time he came on screen was a cause for giggles.

Aasif Manvi
I mean, just look at this guy!

Now that we're on the subject of mispronouncing names, I read that they actually hired a linguist to get a better handle on how the characters' names should be pronounced in their cultural contexts - which is odd considering how little the production cares about representing the correct race. Aang (rhymes with "bang") became Ahng. Sokka and Iroh were likewise mangled. I'm an Asian guy used to Asian names, and while I agree that the changes did make them more phonetically accurate, fans of the series - the main source of revenue - is going to find the alteration jarring. Personally, I loath how Aang is pronounced in the film but I am completely willing to forgive this in Sokka and Iroh's case since I pronounce them as "soh-ka" and "ee-roh" anyway, in spite of my girlfriend's innumerable frustrated attempts to correct me.

The only time the racial dissonance became really noticeable to me was during a dinner scene in a Fire Nation warship where everyone was eating out of claypots and Shaki, an Indian bloke, cheerily commented, "Oh, they are all eating bak kut teh! With chopsticks!"

My Autopsy Report.

Do not see this movie, but if you have to, do not see it in 3D. While I did not see it in 3D personally, I know for a fact that it was up-converted from your standard two-dimensional footage like Clash of the Titans and Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland were, and we all know how the fake 3D in that two movies sucked. One reviewer I've read, in particular, said it was like watching a movie through "a dirty screen door". I don't understand why anyone would pay extra just to see a shittier version of the same movie. Do a bit of research, people, please.

The script for this film, credited to one Mr Shyamalan, was absolute trash. There were comedy gems like Zuko's "Bring me your elderly!" and Yue's "We have to show The Fire Nation that we believe in our beliefs just as much as they believe in their beliefs." There was a scene when Aang and company came across a concentration camp full of crestfallen Earth Kingdom prisoners nestled within a fucking canyon, and our hero actually had to remind them that there was earth under their feet, that there was earth all around them, before they actually had the stone (sorry, bad pun) to revolt. The equivalent scene in the animated series made a hell lot more sense since the earthbenders were incarcerated on an island build entirely out of metal.

The scene which absolutely took the cake for me was Zuko emo-ing about his daddy issues to an unconscious Aang. Never mind how stupid it is to be confiding in your enemy in the middle of a full-blown siege, but why the fuck was he talking to some kid who was clearly comatose?! It's appears to me that he's explaining his own sob story to himself, and boy did I laugh long, hard and loud at that. There are good exposition scenes and bad exposition scenes, and M. Night has officially broken through the bottom of the barrel of it with this and several other painfully interjectory voice-overs narrated by Katara of all people, who we really don't want to hear more of.

The extras in this film provided the most entertainment for me (aside from the many "I am Commander Zhao" ham-and-cheese scenes). There's that memetic earthbender dance-off scene, of course. And during the Fire Nation's invasion of the Northern Water Tribe, people were mostly just running around comically and aimlessly. One women was just standing calmly in the middle of the melee, as if waiting for a cue. Then she suddenly dropped the basket she was carrying and started fleeing. I think M. Night is really having lots of trouble directing large numbers of people in elaborate scenes.

The pacing of this film is scattershot and viewers unfamiliar with the story might find things a bit epileptic and disjointed. M. Night tried to showcase too many highlights of the animated series without preserving their heart and soul. While an epic, overarching storyline pervades throughout the series, there is always that lighthearted feel to Aang's adventures. M. Night sucked all the joy out of it and what we got from him is the dry bones of the plot. I could still see some glimmer of M. Night's talent as a technical director in the way some of the shots were composed in The Last Airbender but he really should bin his pen because he has proven time and time again that he can't write for shit.

What I Like About the Film.

Incredibly enough, I didn't hate everything about The Last Airbender. What pained me most was the supercriminal waste of potential it represents, and I could clearly see a genuinely great movie underneath all the horrible acting, script and and direction. In other words, we would have a film franchise which I believe can rival the Harry Potter films in both scope and mythology if we had a director proven at adapting copious amounts of story elements at the helm. Like Peter Jackson, for example.

One of my favourite things from the animated series was the martial arts element associated with the art of bending the elements - which, to my untrained eyes, looked stunningly authentic. Such depth is almost unheard of in what is essentially a kid's show. Waterbending is quite obviously based on Tai Chi Chuan and firebending has its roots in the Nothern Shaolin school of kung fu. The earthbenders uses the stolid Hung Gar style and Aang, the last airbender, utilises Baguazhang. The fight choreography in The Last Airbender followed the philosophy of the series loyally, even if M. Night decided that the benders should have to do far more elaborate actions before moving anything (reminding me of combo keys in fighting games).

That Cool Escape Scene
"Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start!"

The escape of Aang from Zhao's stronghold with the Blue Spirit's help was a pretty enjoyable sequence, and it climaxed with Aang standing in the middle of some kind of training ground surrounded by Fire Nation goons. It was a long continuous shot where Aang uses airbending to flip heavy looking wooden panels open and close at his attackers. There are several more comparable setpieces in the film but if I'm ever rewatching them again, it'll be through a YouTube montage of the fight scenes exclusively. In fact, that's what people should do instead of seeing the actual film.

The costume design was also incredibly faithful to the series and the CGI used to animate the element-bending effects were also top notch; both of which we also don't need to thank M. Night Shyamalan for.

There was a single massive change to the conclusion of the film which departed from what happened in the A:TLA series, one which I actually thought was an improvement over the original. To venture into spoilers here for the rest of this paragraph, Aang essentially routed the Fire Nation by raising a tsunami over their armada in an overwhelming display of raw power, without betraying his pacifistic principles. In the series, he merged with the Ocean Spirit (which took the form of a koi fish) and became a titanic, monstrous being the fans lovingly dubbed as "Koizilla" and he wreaked holy and probably fatal vengeance on the Fire Nation troops. Granted, that would have looked awesome on screen as well.

The downside to this change is that it will render most of Aang's angst (haha) in the second season unintelligible and yes, M. Night is going to be adapting the second season of the series as well. Cod help us all.

In Summary.

If you haven't already caught this in the cinema, please vote with your wallet and refrain from supporting bad films such as The Last Airbender, and please, check out the wonderful animated series it was based upon instead. If you're planning to see it for its "so bad it's good" value, I caution you to just download it illegally when the DVD rip comes up in torrent because most of the laughs it got out of me were bitter. If you're intimately acquainted with the original series, you would have already made up your mind to either boycott or see it, so nothing I say will persuade you otherwise.

P.S. This is just something that bothers me immensely (warning: spoilers for the series!) but in the film, Aang ran away after he was told that he's the Avatar and that he cannot have a family. This is in direct contradiction to the animated canon where Avatar Roku's lineage played a crucial role in the storyline.

P.P.S. I realise that I have left out discussing Sokka entirely (who is my favourite character after Toph, by the way). What little we saw of Jackson Rathbone in the role suggests that he could have been good, but...

P.P.P.S. My most anticipated films this year are Kick-Ass, Inception, The Last Airbender and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. Both Kick-Ass and Inception did not disappoint, and now that Scott Pilgrim is already out across the Pacific, the reviews filtering through to me pretty much confirms that it is going to be as unbelievably good as I expect it to be. Now, I'll just have to wait till November when it opens in Malaysia. Fuck.

Thinks M. Night is a stupid name anyway,
k0k s3n w4i


Michelle Chin said...

It irks me the most when the characters are suppose to be Japanese but they have a Chinese cast ( familiar much? ) or when the film have German characters, they have an all-American cast muttering German here and there ( familiar much? ).

Terri said...

Dear Michelle Chin,

So Hamlet should only be played by Danes? And the characters should only speak Danish?

A movie is a reenactment. It's not meant to be totally real. The important thing in a movie or play is that a story is being told to an audience that understands it.

I don't like it when a story is told badly, or inaccurately when it's supposed to be historical. You know, like Chinese women wearing kimono or whatever. Still, sometimes I couldn't care less, like in Memoirs of a Geisha (the film) where the actresses wear these awesome kimono-inspired things. Sure it's totally non-traditional and pulled out of an American fashion designer's ass, but Gong Li and the rest look gorgeous!

Storytellers, or directors, or playwrights, or what-have-you, are entitled to certain liberties in artistic creation. I think the language-swapping thing is fine but it does get confusing such as when French-accented English is supposed to be French but so is American-accented English (in a movie set in France.)

However it's all meant to be representation rather than reality.

That said, I totally did NOT enjoy the Airbender movie. Simply because it butchered the series I know and love. In the same way the Harry Potter movies just don't do it for me. I only go to these sorts of movies for the high-budget visual effects 8D

k0k s3n w4i said...

Michelle Chin: you're referring to memoirs of a geisha and valkyrie i presume? did you watch tarantino's inglourious basterds? i think you might like it a lot :P my girlfriend developed a fetish for the german language after she saw it.

Terri: my reaction to both the memoirs of a geisha book and film were pretty meh. my contetion is, at no point did zhang zi yi broke out a katana and FIGHT 20-FEET TALL SAMURAI MECHAS in a windswept snowy courtyard. this i simply cannot countenance.

also, to respond to your argument (it's a free for all right?), hamlet is a stage play. you can't have subtitles on stage - hence the need for it to be in english, or whatever language the audience can understand. a film, on the other hand, is a medium kind to the practice of subtitling, and the less disbelief i need to suspend, the more immersive the fiction gets.

not that it bothers me terribly, but that's the reason why i watch japanese animes subbed instead of dubbed (even if miyazaki hayao wishes his films to be consumed in the consumer's native language).

phoebs said...

you forgot to mention michael fassbender :3

Terri said...

aiya it was an example. what about movies like 10,000BC or those mythological movies set in Greece/Sparta?!? what language do you want people to speak T______T again i say it's not meant to be realistic. aren't movies all about suspension of disbelief? well, i guess movies are getting closer and closer to reality now what with all the developements in CGI. but that's another issue for debate.

i love subbed anime! their voices just sound more right than the dubbed ones.

Nana Eddy said...

I watched it and my sister had to check if I was sleeping through the movie. lols. and yes, as fans of the animated series, me and my sis are ultimately disappointed.

People who read your review before going to the cinema will either cancel their intents, or, decided to go see it after all - just because they want to see if it's that bad.

btw, people who haven't seen the animated version, actually enjoyed and loved the movie - well, at least the people around me.

k0k s3n w4i said...

phoebs: i just didn't think the obvious needed mentioning.

Terri: i realise that in any discussion, debate or argument, i need to quote myself a lot,

"the less disbelief i need to suspend, the more immersive the fiction gets."

i tend to anticipate points that the opposing side will make, and then build my counterarguments before they even make them :) when it's not possible to replicate the linguistic reality in a film, we'll just have to suck it and make do with the best we can get. but there's no reason why we shouldn't do it when it's perfectly feasible.

Nana Eddy: even if i'm not a fan of the series, i can't see how i can consider it a good film. i'm not a fan of the prince of persia games and i hated that film for being so damn mediocre - but yet, so many malaysian viewers said it's a great film. malaysians are very, very stupid people.

Terri said...

condescending donkey! :P i agree but only if you're talking about conscious suspension of disbelief. aren't the best fictatious worlds so believable we get sucked right in? while suspending disbelief of talking animals and whatnot.

re the linguistic angle, what are we arguing about again?

Michelle Chin said...

Yes. That's true. You really do watch a lot of movies!

k0k s3n w4i said...

Terri: i read fantasy a lot so i know all about the importance of suspension of disbelief. not that this issue of foreigners speaking accented/unaccented really bothers me anyway. i just fancied a go at you :P

reminds me of this bit in mel brooks' 1981 History of the World: Part 1 (that sequence about the french revolution),

Madame DeFarge: We are so poor, we do not even have a language! Just this stupid accent!
Fellow Revolutionist: She's right, she's right! We all talk like Maurice Chevalier!
[impersonates the Chevalier laugh]
Fellow Revolutionist: Au-haw-haw.
Crowd: Au-haw-haw.

you might know mel brooks as the guy who made Robin Hood: Men in Tights and appearing as Rabbi Tuckman in it.

Michelle Chin: what can i say? i like fiction :)

jtf said...

When I first got the news that A:TLA was to be adapted for live-action, I was terribly apprehensive. Then when I saw the cast list, I threw a mini bitch-fit internally (no one to share the pain with, sigh) and spent an entire night fighting a mad urge to break my precious laptop in half.

Now your review affirms that my despair is well-placed...thanks for the heads-up! Gonna save on my money and trawl Youtube for the fight scenes, hopefully they'd be available in HD since I'm a huge sucker for awesome fight choreography.

k0k s3n w4i said...

jtf: good for you that you're able to stay away. i'm too much of a geek to miss seeing any movie i am emotionally invested in, regardless of how bad i know it's going to be :)

戏痞三赖 said...

how u see the value of peter jackson to direct this film as
like mine..kekeke...

somehow i think peter jackson is suitable for is because the anime series is actually showing more eastern culture value than any others anime series and that is wat
peter jackson good at to portrait the truth meaningful eastern culture through camera..u can notice clearly M.MALAM SAYAMALANG
is clearly lack of research for
eastern culture and value as evidence the mandarin word from the roll credit also cannot be portrait
correctly...the simplicity cannot
be achieve than what to stated on the complexity?

anyhow his best thing still
"i see dead ppl" kaka...^^

k0k s3n w4i said...

戏痞三赖: m. night works best with small-cast thrillers, i think. all his attempts to step up ended in disaster. i just saw the sixth sense recently and thought that it's good even when i already know both the twists in the film. check out unbreakable. that's a solid movie too.