There's an interesting phenomena that occurs when a movie (or anything, really) begins to get extremely negative reviews. Other reviewers see it as a green light to really let loose with their negative comments. Reviewers pride themselves on their wit, and nowhere else can it better be utilized than on a subject that is widely accepted as crap.
The problem here is that I think it causes reviewers to look past any positives in a subject, and just focus on trashing the hell out of whatever unfortunate thing is in their sights. I am a reviewer. I know this. I am guilty of this. With the new movie “The Last Airbender” getting such horrible, vicious reviews, I really think this is happening here.
I've seen the movie. It's bad. It's really not very good at all. Is it the worst movie ever? No, not by a long shot.
As of this writing, on movie review site Rotten Tomatoes, The Last Airbender is coming in at about 8% fresh. Meaning, 92% of reviews are negative. They are not just negative reviews, they are vicious.
Full disclaimer here: I LOVED the animated series. I loved it so much that I told everyone I knew to watch it, and those that did loved it as well. New episodes became a family event in my house. When the series was over, we were crushed, but we had this hope: a live action movie was in the works.
Full disclaimer also: I'm not going to discuss Shyamalan's casting regarding race. People have beaten it to death. Either it bothers you or it doesn't.
The live action version of Avatar (now called The Last Airbender, because James Cameron had more money and wanted to name HIS movie Avatar), was to be directed by M. Night Shyamalan. I liked him, I liked his movies: The Sixth Sense, Signs, Unbreakable, even The Village, all good films in my book. I never saw The Lady in the Water or The Happening, which I hear are not so good. Regardless, I am a fan of his work, and a fan of Avatar, so I though the two would be a good match.
When the reviews started to pour in, I was shocked, and nervous. Could the movie really be that bad? Worse than Battlefield Earth? Seriously? I had to find out for myself.
I took my family to an afternoon showing at Chunky's Cinema Pub. I figured, I could have a few beers and some cheese dip to lessen the blow. Also, they don't show 3D there, so we wouldn't have to deal with that. If a movie isn't originally shot to be in 3D, I don't want to see it in 3D.
First, the spoiler free review:
The acting is bad. The dialogue is bad. The whole first 45 minutes of the movie is really terrible. You sit there and wonder if you are actually seeing what you are seeing. Most of the SFX are fine, but there are a few shots with actors in front of CG backgrounds that look like blue screen from the 80s.
If you can make it through the first half of the movie, however, then the action actually picks up and the story starts to come together. You still don't care about anyone in the movie, but the action and story move along well, but that's only if you are familiar with the cartoon. If you have never seen the show, and you can't fill in the plot holes, well, good luck to you.
That being said, kids will still dig it. People throw fire, have cool metal ships, ride strange creatures, etc. My 5 and 7 year old loved it.
AHOY- SPOILERS AHEAD:
Like I mentioned before: If you have seen the cartoon already, you know the story, and some of the lapses in plot can be overlooked. Right from the get go, however, you can tell this is not the same as the cartoon. First off, the pronunciation of the names have been changed for some reason. Aang has become “Ahhng”. Sokka has become “Soh-ka” and so on. I have no idea why. It's jarring.
The initial plot moves along much too fast. The opening of the movie is much like the opening of the show, showing each bender doing his thing, and then Katara's narration about the Avatar. Then within five minutes, they find Aang, defrost him, take him to the village, and he's taken away by Prince Zuko. There's no “Getting to know Aang” like the cartoon did. When Katara and Sokka want to go free the Avatar, you have no idea why they care so much, because in screen time, they just met him.
That's the first big problem of the movie: things just happen, and you the viewer have to fill in the blanks. Aang's training, his acceptance of his role as Avatar, his relationship with Katara, none of it is on screen. Some of it is covered in narrative from Kitara, but I would have much rather seen it. It would have been a good opportunity to build the character of Aang, but as it is, he has no character. The actor who plays Aang is wooden and emotionless. There is no joy in him.
This brings us to the second big problem. The movie is joyless. One of the great things about the cartoon is that it balances great mature storytelling with humor and joy. For each difficult choice Aang has to make, it is balanced with a light hearted moment. Aang is a kid. He has fun. They all do, but not in the movie. You can see glimpses of Sokka being the comic relief, but it's not nearly enough. In the cartoon, Sokka, while the butt of many jokes, actually proves his worth as a brilliant strategist, but here, he is reduced to yelling “We have to get out of here” every five minutes. So many wasted opportunities.
In interviews, Shyamalan has stated how much of a fan of the series he is. He even can spout individual episodes, and what happens in them. So how can it be that he misses the mark so greatly with what Avatar is truly about? My only thought is that because he is so familiar, he assumes his audience is as familiar, and cuts out so much information that to him seems obvious. This however does not excuse the acting... and the dialogue.
It's not without its redeeming qualities. Once the plot (?) moves itself to the northern water temple, things aren't too bad. The story moves along fine enough, with the exception of Sokka's courtship of Princess Yue. Once again, it just happens, without so much as a word between the two of them. Once again, Aang's training takes a backseat to narrative. Once the Fire Nation attacks, I found myself forgetting the last hour and getting into it. The action was good, the plot moved along, the interaction with Zuko and Aang was good. It finds Shyamalan playing to his strengths: the ethereal moments between moments. The fight scenes, the journeys to the spirit world, those are done well. It almost makes you want to forgive the previous hour.
I also want to point out that the characters of the Fire Nation, Prince Zuko, Uncle Iroh, and General Zhao, those characters are probably the only well acted and well written characters in the movie. When Iroh is with Katara, Sokka and Yue at the spirit pool, you finally buy into the whole mess. Unfortunately, by that time, it's probably too late for most.
Finally, it is capped off by Aang's showdown against the Fire Nation, where he enters the Avatar state and kicks the Fire Nation's ass. Oh wait, that's the cartoon. In the movie, he just makes a big wave, and the Fire Nation decides to just leave. There's no giant "Water Spirit Aang" throwing ships around. That might have been actually cool.
So what was Shyamalan thinking? How could he have been so misguided with a subject so clearly near and dear to his heart? I can only think of one reason: George Lucas.
With Star Wars Episode 1, George Lucas was so close to his subject matter that he didn't let anyone else produce, write or direct the movie. This resulted in a scattered narrative that left viewers confused. We can look at the movie now to see what it was trying to do, and what was being set up, but ultimately Episode 1 suffered from Lucas's over controlling nature.
The Last Airbender suffers a similar fate. M. Night has a plan, a plan that stretches more than one movie. He envisions this as his Star Wars trilogy, but I think that in looking at the big picture, he neglected the details that would have made The Last Airbender a good movie.
The end of the movie leads directly into the next book, Earth. Unfortunately I doubt he will ever get the chance to make it. Oddly enough, I hope he gets the chance. I think his big stumbling block was establishing the characters, but once he could get to the main narrative and action, the movie wasn't that bad.
We had to have The Phantom Menace to get to Revenge of the Sith. Perhaps we need The Last Airbender to get to the third book, FIRE.
Is this a good movie? No. Is it an okay movie? Not really. Is it the worst movie ever? Not even close. Does this movie deserve the vitriol reviewers have spewed towards it? Not hardly. You would put this movie in the same league is Battlefield Earth? Kangaroo Jack? Gigli? Pluto Nash? Hoodwinked? CATWOMAN? This is just reviewers having a field day with negative reviews because they can, not because the movie deserved it.
I'd go see this over any of the Twilight movies any day. Those movies make me want to slit my wrists.
But I digress.