Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Airblower, Mindbender

"Don't make me bend an air at you!"

Now here's the Thing, folks. M. Night Shyamalan will, I sincerely hope, continue to be allowed the money and resources to pursue his vision on the movie picture screen. As long as he is permitted to make his screwy, nonsensical, deadly-serious movies, I will continue paying admission and gawking. But in all likelihood, Shyamalan will never again be in a position to make a film as peculiarly insane as the gobbledygook fairy tale Lady in the Water. It just has to be accepted that the filmmaker cashed in his accumulated goodwill and free-pass creative control chips to create that naked, personal, pathological masterpiece of hubris. As demonstrated by his follow-up, the finger-wagging environmental thriller The Happening, in which people ran away from the invisible menace of the wind and not only wore symbolic mood rings but discussed how they "forgot what color love is", Shyamalan may make worse movies in his life, and they may be crazy, but they will be bad and crazy in a different way. He will not likely make a picture so narcissistic and bizarre as Lady in the Water that is also so expensive and has movie stars in it.

Now, The Last Airbender is plenty expensive, and aimed at "families," which means young teenagers who will talk on their phones (to say "I'm watching Airbender," which they are not), look at textual messages and then later drop their phones. I know this, because that is what was happening among the eight people in my theater who were not 1) me, 2) my ladyfriend or 3) this little round kid that was jacked up on Twizzlers and clapped his hands when he recognized characters/scenes/lines fromt he cartoon. Anyway! If The Happening was proud to be the First R-Rated Movie! from the modern master of suspensers, then Airbender is his first little kid movie, non-Shyamalan story, action-adventure picture, and first movie with lots of "bending."

Because Shyamalan's psychology is so interesting, we may wonder why he took this job? He had previously been unable to make the first Harry Potter film (due to scheduling conflicts with his tortured, weirdo un-superhero psychological drama, Unbreakable) and then apparently wanted/was not allowed to make the last two. Maybe he had a very specific yen to adapt a children's property about freak kids doing CGI magic spells, and Airbender scratched that itch? Maybe he thought this kind of thing is a surefire hit that would redeem him in the eyes of The Industry? If so, was this impulse born of logic, that he might better secure funds for his confused social parable thrillers? Or born of ego, a need to demonstrate that he can play on the summer tentpole action-adventure court? Whatever the case, it (sadly) seems like Shyamalan finally taking notes, since he did not cast himself in the film, despite a lot of Indian people playing the villainous Fire People Guys. There is even a messiah figure that he could have cast himself as, but probably even this crazy man knew he could not play a 10-year-old bald child.

Though Shyamalan wrote the screenplay it is not an original M.N.S. story, but an adaptation of a Nickelodeon cartoon which I understand was inspired by the continuity structure, visual style, and emotional/narrative complexity of anime. I'm assuming this means Avatar: The Last Airbender is like Robotech or Mysterious Cities of Gold or something, and not like Violence Jack, but who knows? The movie attempts to smush 20 episodes of the source show's plot into 90 minutes, and drops the "Avatar" part of the title for reasons that are a complete mystery. Shyamalan's only previous attempt at adaptation was the screenplay for Stuart Little, which basically tossed out E.B. White's book and retained the idea that the story is about a mouse. Airbender doesn't have a mouse, but it has a flying lemur and a flying white beaver with a buffalo face. They don't talk or really do anything in the movie, except the heroes fly around on the Luck Dragon Catbus thing a lot. Nobody explains why this animal can levitate.

There is either way too much story inherent in the source material or the writer didn't know what to cut or how to compress. The main technique of story compression is to have characters tell the story as fast as possible in lot of speeches. Everybody talks constantly and nothing happens. Like a dude will give a long, excited speech about how on their way to North Water City, the Airbender and his friends are going to fly around the world stopping in villages (sorry, not that Village!) and beat up the Fire People soldiers they find and start an uprising among the oppressed Water and Earth Guys (the Air ones are all genocided, hence the title The Last Airbending Person). And then there's a 5-second shot of the Airbender in one of those villages blasting a baddie with air. Cut to: they're in North Water City and this chick is like "We started a revolution!" When they did this, and how, and what that means, and how that is going, and if it was fun or interesting, we never, ever find out. Airbender treats all things like this, from being frozen in ice for 100-years (basically this has no effect on a person), finding out your people have been genocided (it makes you look spaced out for a minute), falling in love (this happens between two shots, with a voice-over from explaining that these people who just met fell in love right away), etc.

I'm not a person who believes Shyamalan has ever been a graceful storyteller, but at least his illogical scripts are usually driven by a lean narrative. Most of them are still very talky, but, ever the master of slight-of-hand, he builds in long visual suspense setpieces to make you forget how much garbage pours out of characters' mouths during the rest of the movie. Airbender is dense, rushed, and convoluted, and doesn't have suspenses, but it has special effects action scenes. The main fighting of the Airbender world is that Benders do martial arts moves but don't ever kick each other, just make attacks happen based on the four elements. Like you do a jump kick and it dumps water all over your opponent. The bad guys use fire, which should be the most threatening element, but nobody ever gets hurt by their firebending, or even burned or even caught on fire! It is like how the Ninja Turtles used to have swords that never cut anyone and nunchucks that never bashed in anybody's teeth. What is the fun of that? Perhaps this Bending business is in the tradition of the impressionistic Poké battles of Pokémon and the super-elaborate/outlandish attacks on Sailor Moon: lots of flailing and swirling and shouting about "energy" and no horrific physical carnage (but occasional horrific emotional carnage). For reasons obvious to most grown up people, this kind of abstraction makes more sense in cartoons.

Shyamalan has thoroughly studied how to construct the creeping-dread scene, as evidenced by his other movies which are made only of creeping-dread scenes. He's great at framing shots to impart a lot of information visually, his cutting is restrained and usually makes sense, even when his scripts make someone say the same thing out loud. But in Airbender his action sequences are pokey and rote. There are some creative fight gags and what looks like okay choreography, and the score thunders and trumpets to tell us it's getting exciting/inspiring/emotional, but it is not getting exciting, inspiring or emotional.

There is a lot of awesome stuff here for gawker types. Every performer is horrible in their own unique way in this movie... except the one nice/non-psychotic Fire People general, who is played by Shaun Toub. I liked Toub in Iron Man and he was too good for the foul things he was made to do in Crash (such as appear in Crash). In Airbender he is dignified, spiritual, and seems kind and patient and he makes those qualities seem pretty badass! Shaun Toub: Hot Young Star to Watch Out For!

All the other actors will make you squirm, but this one fellow, Jackson Rathbone (I'm told he was in Twilight, but since he wasn't one of those two monsters that Bella wants to screw, I don't remember him), is a special kind of bad where he clenches his jaw and bugs out his eyes and looks unconvincing even when he isn't doing anything. Andrew McCarthy used to do that, too. Noah Ringer, the main, previously unknown bald child, enthusiastically says many lines which make no sense, has no diction and slurs his words a lot. My ladyfriend said that this boy has particularly puffy beestung lips and that his topless tai chi scenes would appeal to pederasts, but I have no opinion about that.

Anyway, there are parts where Airbender makes jokes and no one will laugh, there are parts where you can't tell if a joke was just made, there are times where you can't tell if a plot development was supposed to be a surprise that was telegraphed too early or you were just supposed to know the information. It's all confusing and complicated except for the things which are repeated over and over. Like this evil general has a map that shows him where the Moon & Ocean Spirits (? don't ask!) are located, and he got this map by raiding the Great Library. He repeats this information no less than five times, often to people who already know. Also there's this Fire Prince who is exiled and has to capture the Last Airbender before he can return. This torments him, but you will be tormented as someone explains again in every one of his scenes.

The climax of this movie is the villain trying to work up the courage to stab a fish that he has captured in a sack. It is a magical fish, but it just looks like a normal fish but glowing a little. Then [SPOILER!! SPOOOOIILLERRRS!] he does stab it, but an Ice/Water Princess whose name I'm not sure we know is selfless enough to sacrifice her lifeforce by giving it to the fish. This is dramatic, because in her only prior scene she told a story about how the fish gave her some lifeforce when she was a stillborn baby, i.e. explains her function in the plot, then does nothing but fill that function.

So all in all, Airbender is a lot like Dragon Wars: D-War, and even has appearances by one of D-War's Imoogies and the Dawdlers, but without their rocket launchers. Sadly, it is not as consistently outrageous a geek show as D-War, but we are in the same sphere of entertainment.

The first scene of The Last Airbender is of these white Eskimo kids called I think Sokko and Katana walking on the frozen ocean. And Sokko sees something under the ice and starts smashing the ice open with his boomarang. And he busts the ice and then all the ice starts to crack and he looks shocked and yells that they better run, because the ice is cracking. But man, you did it to yourself! What did you think was going to happen? Why did you start cracking open the ice if you didn't want it to crack? Then the Last Airbender comes out, and M. Night Shyamalan just keeps banging at on the thin, thin ice under his feet, and I just can't look away.


Anonymous said...

The cartoon Avatar is amazing, one of the best piece of animated series I've seen.

The movie is a racist travesty.

Habitual Q. Rake said...

I'm really impressed by Shaun Toub's eyebrows and your continued devotion to sitting through Shyamalan's films. I predict people will stop giving him money after this one has firmly cemented his reputation as a complete joke, but what do I know?

Jordan said...

The reason Shaun Toub works in the film is because it's basically the ONLY aspect of the cartoon that wasn't 100% mangled and warped in the film. The cartoon begins confusing kids right away by presenting a villain that is warm, funny (well he wasn't in the movie) and generally a...really nice guy.

Anonymous said...

PLEASE watch the toon, Chris. -JS

Chris Stangl said...

All AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER Cartoon Enjoyer People: Now that this goofy movie is out of the way I am happy to investigate the TV show. And I sympathize with any pain that Mr. Shyamalan's movie may have caused, and it certainly does not color my opinion of the source material. I do know the feeling, because right now I'm having angst about this BEEZUS AND RAMONA movie, and worried it will sully young peoples' reading of Beverly Clearly. So I get it.

But I had to go in pure on this one. I couldn't have one of those WATCHMEN situations where I spend days afterward fretting about inept adaptation. I know I'm in a rare position as regards Shyamalan pictures, as I never thought he was The Next Spielberg (see under: "silly things that magazines said") or liked any of his movies, and so am not disappointed but excited as he makes increasingly nutty and terrible movies. Somebody had to go into LAST AIRBENDER hoping that it would be uniquely awful, and that somebody is me. So mission complete, and now there are no more summer movies that I am looking forward to, the end!!

William B said...

I know I'm in a rare position as regards Shyamalan pictures, as I never thought he was The Next Spielberg (see under: "silly things that magazines said")

I heard one Shyamalan fan proclaiming, even more awesomely, that he was "Like Hitchcock, but not dated."

This was unimaginably funny, thanks Chris. Maybe (after, you know, finishing your decade of films and Dollhouse conversations) you should revisit Shyamalan's other movies besides this and Lady in the Water and make us all laugh.

Jim Emerson has a very good appreciation of Unbreakable, btw--have you seen that? (I haven't watched Unbreakable, so I don't know how well it represents the film.)

Ed Howard said...

Shyamalan has become one of those directors whose movies I no longer have any desire to see, but who continues to entertain me regardless because of how much funny writing he inspires. This is great stuff, and a nice substitute for actually sitting through this sludge. I never thought Shyamalan was the next Spielberg or Hitchcock or anything silly like that, but I did think that Unbreakable at least was a very good movie, and that his other early films (ie everything before Lady in the Water) showed at least flashes of promise, albeit often sabotaged by gimmicky contrivances, lousy scripts and uneven acting. He showed signs, at that point, of becoming an idiosyncratic director of interesting suspense films, rather than the near-universal punchline he's become since then. Lady in the Water and The Happening were just painful, although in retrospect they are also pretty funny in totally unintentional ways.

Jordan said...

I have to go on record here that I HATED Unbreakable. Before me and my friends had grown accustomed to M Night's awfulness, we rented Unbreakable with some enthusiasm and curiosity. We absolutely hated it. Within 20 minutes we were pointing out all of our problems with it, groaning and making fun of it.

It still surprises me that many many people, including other friends of mine, go on about Unbreakable being any good.

Also, the first time I saw Sixth Sense, on DVD, I disliked it also, but even worse were the bonus features, where M Night rambles on and on and on and on and on about himself and his childhood and his talent. We instantly did not like this guy.

Habitual Q. Rake said...

I was an Unbreakable fan when it came out, but seeing it in a context where superhero films are as common as air robs it of almost all of its charms. The rest...well. It's bad form to speak ill of a dead career.