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Friday, July 2, 2010

The Last Airbender: fail fail and more fail


I just returned from viewing the shitfest that is The Last Airbender, and my quick reaction  to it is as follows: this movie seems to be done with such lack of care and detail that it views like Mr. Shyamalan heard about the popular cartoon show from a friend, and decided to make a movie based on a second-hand description.  "Oh, so the brother and sister find this kid frozen in ice, and then they go to some temples, and some Earth Kingdom villages, and then the North Pole?  Oh, yeah, let's throw in that flying buffalo thing...and the lemur too, I guess."

Okay, now to the longer complaints.  First, the racebending, which, if you haven't heard, is the most obnoxious fucking thing about this horrible movie.  What we have is an entirely Asian world.  What  Shyamalan has given us was a cast of white people in leading (good) roles and brown people as side characters and bad guys.  One of the arguments that racist defenders of this casting will cite is that perhaps the white actors that got the parts did better than the other people who auditioned (like Asian kids!).  Yeah, except that the casting call for the part of Aang called for a "caucasion" male.  After having viewed the movie myself, I find it hard to believe that there is not one Asian actor who can out-act any of those awful white kids.  Noah Ringer was somewhat passable--I mean, I'll give these kids some slack--the dialog just sucked big time, but nonetheless it wasn't as if any of these kids brought anything unique to their roles.  Seriously, white Sokka didn't even need to be in this movie.  He was just some white dude hanging around that occasionally felt the need to protect some ladies.

Shyamalan has responded to some of this legitimate criticism to his casting fail.  This one's my favorite:

Here’s the irony of the conversation: The Last Airbender is the most culturally diverse movie series of all time. I’m not talking about maybe one Jedi, maybe one person of a different color – no one’s even close. That’s a great pride to me. The irony of this statement enrages me to the point of … not even the accusation, but the misplacement of it. You’re coming at me, the one Asian filmmaker who has the right to cast anybody I want, and I’m casting this entire movie in this color blind way where everyone is represented. I even had one section of the Earth kingdom as African American, which obviously isn’t in the show, but I wanted to represent them, too!
And I fought like crazy to have the pronunciation of the names to go back to the Asian pronunciation. So you say “Ahng” instead of “Aaang” because it’s correct. It’s not “I-rack,” it’s “ee-Rock.” I’m literally fighting for all this. And who’s getting blamed? ME! This is incredible. And so it’s infuriating, this stigmatization, that the first word about the most culturally-diverse movie of all time is this accusation. And here’s the irony of it, this has nothing to do with the studio system. I had complete say in casting. So if you need to point the racist finger, point it at me, and if it doesn’t stick, then be quiet.
So...pronouncing names the correct Asian way makes up for those names belonging to characters portrayed by white actors?  And you're not racist because you're Asian and you're so aware of diversity that EVERYONE gets to play Asian dress-up?  Yeah, not buying it.  Shyamalan's sense of diversity doesn't even make sense: white kids as Inuits alongside brown Inuits in an isolated part of the (Asian) globe.  Um.  What?

I'm sure there are those who would have defended Shyamalan's utter race fail had this movie had even the tiniest entertainment value.  But, lucky for us, there is none!  I went into the theater tonight really hoping that the movie would at least feed my inner fandom.  But, as I stated at the beginning of this post, it really seemed like Shyamalan never even saw the show.  There were just so many beloved elements missing in this movie.  I was aware going in that nothing good could really come of a movie cramming 20 episodes worth of events into an hour and a half long movie (which is quite short for movies of this type, but nonetheless felt like an eternity.)

It's hard not to compare this movie to the cartoon, but it's especially sad when the movie doesn't even do the cartoon an ounce of justice.  All the movie characters are loosely based on the cartoon ones because Shyamalan exchanged important things like plot and character development for special effects.  In the cartoon, Aang is an almost typical 12-year-old boy, who has to constantly do grown-up things.  He's fun-loving and adorable, but when he's angry or grieving and falls into the Avatar state, we are angry and grieving with him.  The Aang in the movie was a 12-year-old boy whose eyes glowed occasionally when he did some really serious martial arts moves.  Katara in the cartoon is fearless, her love and protectiveness for Aang is endearing, and her skill as a waterbender is underscored by her ambition.  She believes in Aang, but she also believes in herself.  The Katara in the movie does magic with water sometimes, inexplicably follows Aang around, and is overall pretty dull.  I mean, in the cartoon the reason she's excited to meet Aang in the first place is because she's never met another bender before, and they go to the North Pole so she can learn waterbending from a Master--yes, she likes Aang, but with his flying bison (which was horribly underused in the movie--"We haven't seen Appa in awhile, let's throw him in this scene for no reason") she has the ability to go across the world.  As for Sokka...well, he was essentially a prop.  The only reason we even knew he was Sokka was because people were calling him "Sokka."  Where's the sarcasm?  Where's the leadership?  Oh who cares?  Look, special effects!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Zuko was similarly horrifically disappointing.  I really did like the idea of Dev Patel playing him, but with an already horrible script without significant character development, I didn't really care about him like I was made to in the cartoon series.  My favorite part of Zuko in the show, and his uncle Iroh by extension, was how sympathetically he was portrayed.  In most of the series, he's simultaneously the bad guy and a good guy.  We understand him.  We understand his ambitions and the motivation for those ambitions (or, rather, obsessions).  Zuko and Iroh both lost something they cherished, both sticking together in their banishment, both having lost their honor in some way, and both wanting to reclaim it: Zuko by presenting his father with the Avatar, and Iroh by accepting the blessings in life, even if they aren't what he thought they should once have been.  In the movie, we know how Zuko was scarred, we know Iroh lost a son, but it's not developed enough to make the viewer really feel for these characters.  For mere seconds Zuko and Iroh do something "good," but that's not enough.  Shyamalan did a great disservice to the cartoon by creating this movie, where plot and characterizations are just mashed together into something that takes a backseat to the special effects. Special effects, while visually stunning (when done right, and trust me, the ones in this movie were not done right) are no substitute for the audience being able to empathize with the characters, even the bad ones as the series intended.

Here are a few other complaints:

  • Who the fuck gave the okay on this script?  Doesn't anyone know how to get these flat characters to interact with one another?  Oh, guess not.  See why character development is so damn important?  It helps you figure out how the dialog should go.  At least the series had the dialog right.  There were some episodes that left me with chills, and with others I was so moved I was crying.  That's how you fucking do it.  
  • Shyamalan apparently also has no concept of distance: Zhao was able to travel back and forth to talk to Fire Lord Ozai in what seemed like short amount of time.  Does Shyamalan realize it takes quite some time to travel by ship?  I'm guessing no.  I'm also guessing that Zhao didn't have messengers or something.
  • The earthbenders were disappointingly underused.  In the series, their fighting style was always my favorite, and it was such a disappointment to only see them for one short scene.  I know I know.  This was Book One, which is Water,  but still!  And, again, Shyamalan clearly does not understand the series at all, because that scene depicted the earthbenders being imprisoned, not on a metal ship away from land, but in a compound full of (you guessed it) earth!  That just doesn't work in that sense.  In the series, the earthbenders despair because they have lost the means to bend.  They do not fight because they are in a hopeless environment.  In the movie, they're all "Oh, the firebenders got us.  We're done..."  THEY ARE SURROUNDED BY EARTH.  The plausibility of their giving up just doesn't work here.  
  • The female agency was totally removed.  Central to Katara's characterization in the series is her desire to act.  She's the one who initially releases the iceberg containing Aang.  In the movie, it's Sokka just hitting the ice.  And (back with the earthbenders) in the movie it's Aang who gives a speech to boost the spirits of the earthbenders, and they eventually start bending.  In the series, it's Katara on the ship without Sokka or Aang.  She tries to speak to the earthbenders, they are in despair.  They do not fight.  So Katara, with the help of Sokka and Aang, give the earthbenders not only the hope required to act, but also the means.  They're not just sad and surrounded by earth.  In the series, it actually illustrates how the earthbenders need Katara.  
  • I know this one seems like a stretch, especially for someone who doesn't already understand characterization in humans, but Appa and Momo are also characters in the series.  Significant ones.  Not just CG animal props you can trot out every couple of scenes cuz OMG THE EFFECTS.  Fuck.
  • I'm sorry, but Aasif Mandvi just wasn't badass enough to pull off a good Zhao.  I mean, he has the whole douchebag thing down, but was lacking in believable ruthlessness.  
  • This was Zuko's scar?  Really?  Come on.
  • It really didn't seem like Shyamalan understood the Avatar's world.  Firebenders can bend fire without their being a fire nearby.  Zuko demonstrates this by melting the ice underwater.  Yet everyone shits themselves when Iroh makes "fire from nothing!"  That's what a firebender is.  Watching five minutes of the show would tell you that.  There's no doubting that Iroh is a powerful firebender, but this was just lazy.  And while I'm complaining about that inconsistency, when Katara is fighting Zuko, why didn't she just put out the fires?  Because firebenders (apparently) can't firebend without it, and Zuko set fires prior to the fight which he (apparently) needed.  Except firebenders don't need to do that.  
  • SPOILER ALERT:  If you want to see an amazing climactic battle at the North Pole, I recommend watching the two episodes at the end of Book One, because the battle in the series was much more dramatic, engaging, and...well, good.  The movie version?  Well, I'll tell you: Aang's eyes get all glowy.  He waterbends a huge ass wave.  But then makes it go away again after a painfully long build-up.  The Fire Nation ships high-tail it out of there.  Because waves that don't do anything are scary as shit.  Battle over.  I think I screamed "WHAT?" in the theater at this point, annoying some of my fellow audience members.  But seriously.  WHAT????  In the series, Aang, angry at the invasion, angry at the murdering of the moon spirit, loses control and enters the Avater state, becoming a giant water monster spirit thing and DESTROYS THE FIRE NATION INVADERS.  All of them.  Ships too.  Oh, and meanwhile, Zuko and Zhao have an awesome fight that was omitted in the movie.  Their fight is interrupted by the moonspirit seizing Zhao, and Zuko attempts to save him, but Zhao refuses to take Zuko's hand.  So he dies.  Not by a bunch of waterbenders, as in the horrible movie.
Basically Shyamalan took a lot of liberties with this movie.  If there's going to be a trade-off in which certain things are exchanged and events are altered, those alterations should at least be good.  And consistent.  Like the reason Aang ran away from the air temple in the first place: in the movie it was because he didn't want to not have a family; in the series it was because he would have been taken from Monk Gyatsu, who was like a father to Aang, and would have been sent away to train as Avatar, so he ran away because he couldn't deal with losing Gyatsu and having a responsibility he never wanted.  This is a much more heartfelt explanation: fear of losing a loved one rather than being denied potential loved ones.  A 12-year-old kid doesn't think of the family that could never be when he has one in the present.  


If I missed anything important, please let me know in the comments.  Meanwhile, I'll be re-watching the series in an attempt to forget the swill that Shyamalan dared call The Last Airbender.

27 comments:

stufflikemikans said...

Thanks for posting this review. I can save my 1800 yen now.

It's a shame this movie sucks so bad. However, us fans of the show can just pretend it doesn't exist. What I worry is that this movie will cause other people to avoid the source material. "Avatar" was amazing. Hopefully the people who sat through this awful movie will still give the cartoon series a chance.

CaitieCat said...

Yeah, I'm telling people to go out and buy the original series instead of wasting money on the crap film. I've watched the entire series four times now (well, almost; I have the last five eps tonight), and it just gets better every time. Every time I notice more, every time I realize what a marvel of progressiveness it really is. The Suki/Sokka bit, when he's all dudely, and she kicks his ass and he asks for more...so awesome.

And instead? NO FREAKIN' SUKI AT ALL! MY FAVOURITE CHARACTER DOES NOT EXIST! AAAAAGGGGHHH (pronounced ahhhhhggh, just for M. Night)!!!!!

FilthyGrandeur said...

@stufflikemikans--

i'm pretending it didn't exist. i'm hoping that Shyamalan didn't ruin it to the point where people are discouraged from viewing the series, because the series is just incredible. sadly, some teenagers ahead of us were gushing about how awesome the movie was when it was over. i wanted to scream at them. oh, to be young and have no concept of BAD MOVIE.

@CaitieCat:

i read an interview where he decided against having the Kyoshi warriors because he wanted to focus on plot (newsflash--character development is part of plot!) and would have them if, god forbid, a second movie gets greenlit. i do adore Suki in the series. when i first saw the Kyoshi warriors i was so happy--super feminized warrior ladies that kick ass? AWESOME!

my favorite character is Toph, so i'm thankful that she wasn't in Book One, thus Shyamalan couldn't ruin her, especially given how disappointing the earthbenders were. I get chills every time i watch The Blind Bandit, and when she figures out metal is another form of earth, and she escapes...omg, so awesome! She's just so cute and badass.

it was so disappointing that even the main characters were underdeveloped in the movie. i kept waiting for Sokka to say something funny (hug your boomerang already! geez). never happened.

SeaweedJim said...

I went to see it yesterday and well, a lot of what I would say about it I've read other people saying. I'll admit there were occasionally, small things about the movie that I liked. For instance, I like Dev Patel as Zuko. I think he has a great look for Zuko, scar not withstanding, and he's one of the better actors in the movie. Zuko and Iroh weren't perfect on account of the bad writing and lack of character development but it was the scenes with Zuko that kept me from walking out of the theater.

As for the character omissions, I guess I can understand leaving June out, she's a minor character even if she does play a role in the finale. King Bumi is an unfortunate loss but as lovable as he is, his involvement is relatively minor. I don't understand how Suki and the Kyoshi warriors could be left out. The Kyoshi warriors are instrumental to the plot of the second season and by the end of the third season Suki moves from minor to major character. Her and the Kyoshi warriors are a pretty freaking important part of the plot.

The one thing I have to say about this movie that I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere is Night's daughter's connection to Kitara. He's said in interviews that his daughter loves Kitara, partially because Kitara looks just like her. The thing that gets me is that by having white actors play Kitara, Sokka, and Aang, he not only took away that level of connection from all the kids who love those characters because for once the characters look like them. He took that special connection of having a character you can truly identify with away from his own daughter.

Marissa said...

"I even had one section of the Earth kingdom as African American, which obviously isn’t in the show, but I wanted to represent them, too!"

Wow, talk about facepalm-worthy. It's an Asian fantasy, Mr. Colourblind.

It is rather a relief to know that the movie sucks by any standard; cuts down on obnoxious defenders.

I've never seen the cartoon, I've just been following the controversy off-and-on. I think I'll check it out now. I love fantasy, and it sounds really well done.

FilthyGrandeur said...

@SeaweedJim--

totally agree. him pointing out how awesome it is that his daughter looks just like Katara and still casting a white girl as Katara is...just wow. i mean, does he not understand that it's rare for someone like his daughter to see someone who looks like her, and still take that away?? can he really be that dense? how he can still deny his racism is just astounding.

@Marissa--
i strongly recommend avoiding the movie and watching the episodes (if you have netflix, all three books are available for streaming!). they are truly amazing. and if you already enjoy fantasy, you will love this series.

CaitieCat said...

I'll second FG's recommendation: do watch the series, I consider it the best animated series I've ever seen. And it's beautifully progressive, all the way through: POC have major roles (as in, all of 'em), women are portrayed as heroes, villains, powerful and weak, soldiers, rulers, assassins...there's a minor character who uses a wheelchair (and FLIES with it, when he adds his hang-glider wings to it). There's a major character who's blind.

About the only thing missing would be some gay and/or trans characters, but for a show made in Hollywood, and shown in the US, this was a seriously and explicitly progressive show.

Andrea said...

Thank you for this post. I think anyone who loved the show will agree with you when they see the movie. It was just terrible. I was seriously considering asking for a refund.

There was just one thing I wanted to mention. M. Night said that when he first saw the show, he didn't understand why the firebenders could bend whenever they wanted while the other benders were limited by their element. As much as I hated all the changes he made to the movie, I would have to agree that it's kind of unfair.

I'm certainly not excusing him for changing it, and I really really really wish he wouldn't have, I'm merely saying that I can see his reasoning behind it. Perhaps if the movie was better executed and didn't have so many other flaws, it might have actually been a good idea.

CrankyGeezer said...

I'm a fan of the series, and I like the movie. Yes, Shyamalan took some liberties with the material, but geez, people, he was compressing an entire season into a single movie. Are you the same people who bitched about Tom Bombadil being left out of Fellowship of the Ring? Shyamalan did a good job within the constraints of producing a feature film. It's different from the series. They left out your favorite minor character. Dev Patel's character is going through a moral crisis and will become one of the good guys. Get over the rest of it and enjoy the show.

FilthyGrandeur said...

@Andrea--

the change in the fire bending would have made since if Zuko had not been able to melt the ice (which he did without the aid of lit fires). that's a huge inconsistency. plus, if in the movie fire bending is contingent on having fire around, is Katara so unobservant that she wouldn't have, i dunno, splashed out the torch and thus won the fight? i have no problem with directors changing some things provided it's consistent and makes an ounce of sense.

@CrankyGeezer--

i have no issue with Shyamalan taking liberties, but the way he executed them illustrates a lazy sort of sloppiness. plus, this movie was only an hour and a half long! every action in the movie felt terribly rushed. i actually prefer a movie to be three hours if it feels less rushed, if it allows time for me to understand the motivations of the characters. "compressing and entire season" into only one and a half hours resulted in a train-wreck.

there was absolutely nothing enjoyable about this movie. i refuse to believe that anyone who truly enjoys the show would similarly enjoy this shitfest.

and just an FYI: you're in my space. your comment reads as hostile, so watch your tone the next time you want to disagree. i welcome discussion, but i do not appreciate the "get over it" remarks. if you are unable to engage in respectful discussion, further comments from you will be unwelcome.

SeaweedJim said...

I thought about that after watching the movie, that firebenders are the only ones who can create their element and how technically they shouldn't be able to since the other benders can't. On the contrary though, while earth, air, and water benders can't create their elements, it's pretty difficult to completely remove them from their elements. Fire is a lot more situational, it isn't easy to find naturally occurring fire. Given that earth, air, and water can all put out fires, you'd think the fire nation, if unable to create their own element, wouldn't stand a chance against the other nations.

So while being able to create their element does give firebenders a bit of an advantage over other benders, I think it makes it that much more believable that they're such a powerful threat against the other nations.

SnowdropExplodes said...

Given that in the series it's explained that lightning (i.e. electricity) is "pure fire", it could be argued that fire is everywhere anyway - a firebender therefore just has to gather it from its natural state in the environment and then bend it. The bender doesn't "create" her or his own fire but rather he or she summons it from nature and then bends it.

I really cannot see any circumstance in which I would pay money to see the movie - reviews I've read have been unanimously disapproving! Having the entire series on DVD, I'd rather just watch that over again.

Simple Truth said...

I knew about the race-fail going into the movie, too, but was still willing to give it a chance. Plus, we watched it with my martial arts dojo so it's hard not to give into the temptation.
All in all, it wasn't....awful. It was a C movie made from A+ material. It threw out a lot of what made the cartoon so brilliant, which was the fully-rounded characters. The dialog in the movie was utter shit. Sokka was not funny and trying to learn be a leader, Aang was not goofy and sincere, and Kitara...well, I dare you to find another movie that nerfs a female character as hard as they did Kitara. From someone who was proud and talented, angry and mothering, funny when she's wrong....to someone who follows a bunch of boys around and cries. She doesn't even "call the old man out" at the Northern Water tribe for not training her.
I hated everyone's over-eager delivery of crappy lines like, "Come on!" and "We need you!"
One of my bigger complaints is Uncle Iroh. I enjoyed watching him on-screen; I don't have any problems with the actor. What I do have a problem with is the script calling for him, The Dragon of the West, to stand by and watch while he knows Zhao is going to kill the moon spirit. Really? He's already commented on Zhao's lack of piety; he knows exactly why they are there (because Zhao explicitly told him - don't let anyone figure something out on their own, Shyamalan.) Then he just stands there, useless....then reacts. I didn't buy it.
You gals/guys are right; it's time to go back and watch the cartoon. Can't wait for the Collector's Edition of Book 2!

FilthyGrandeur said...

@Simple Truth--

i'm totally with you on the Iroh thing. one of my absolute favorites scenes in the series is when Iroh confronts Zhao and threatens him: "whatever you do to that spirit, i'll unleash on you tenfold." gives me chills every time. you really get a sense of his principles and how he's willing to stand by them no matter what. that was seriously lost in the movie.

Fuzunga said...

Ok, so you get to the end of this crappity-ass movie and you have Ozai, played by an Indian, his son Zuko played by an Indian, his brother Iroh played by an Indian, and then Azula shows up. AND SHE'S FUCKING CHINESE!? HOW THE FUCK DO YOU EVEN JUSTIFY THAT!?

FilthyGrandeur said...

omg Fuzunga, i totally missed that. yeah, that certainly doesn't fit in with Shyamalan's "logic." especially when Azula is Zuko's brother. fail.

harlemjd said...

I think firebenders can bend without a pre-existing fire because fire is something that all humans can make by manipulating heat and friction (unlike water or earth, which we can't just make more of). So firebenders being can manipulate heat and friction to create fire through bending, rather than relying on matches. It's sort of like how Toph can bend metal once she learns to see it as a compilation of minerals and therefore as earth.

SnowdropExplodes said...

I've been re-watching the series on DVD - the reason why firebenders can make fire is explained by General Iroh as he trains Prince Zuko in episode 1 or 2:

"Strength in firebending comes from the breath, not the muscles. We breathe in and our bodies turn our breath into energy, which is the source of our fire."

mihai said...

They totally messed up the plot.
Couldn't stomach watching it till the end.

Anonymous said...

Won't proly watch movie in cinema, even though thats only way its probably watchable.

When they make some mega fail adaptation (i doubt this is first fail adaptation created) , I just behave like its different unrelated movie, or alternative version not adaptation!.
But from what I had read whatever it is, it is BAD. Which is the problem.

When someone gets founded to create something, and insted he makes majority of people just waste money, disrespecting great creation such as tv series, obvious things are obvious. I would make him retire from movie industry instantly with some big fine.

Anyway, this was one of best non anime,animated series I ever watched, second to it would be spawn(however that one is for older audiance, it was canceled sadly). But trust me,there are tons of animes that surpass even tv animated series avatar which were great.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. My fiance and I took our daughter and I enjoyed the idea of the movie, while my daughter loved it. I even got her the series to watch at home. Then I realized all the inconsistencies. Even just watching the movie and not the series, there seemed to be a lot missing.

I couldn't find the inconsistency without watching the whole series, which I don't have time for... luckily I found this article. My thoughts make sense now. I especially did not get how Iroh could make fire out of nothing, which if they're going to put that in the movie, they should explain how powerful he is.

Anyway... great thorough article.

liz said...

Does anyone else think that the only episode MKS ever saw was the play the Fire Nation actors put on during Season III?

FilthyGrandeur said...

lol! i recently rewatched that episode and had the same thought! someone should have told him that was meant to be a joke. haha.

Anonymous said...

I just want this movie of book one to be known as a fail all over the world. I want it to be forgotten and every copy of the movie out there should be disposed of. Records that the movie existed even this blog should be terminated. And I want it to be remade.. Different actors, surely director dialogue.. And so what if the Chinese pronunciation is Ahng. Hearing ''Ahng'' irritates me. Keep the normal accents. And in the remaking.. If each movie were to be seperated in to two parts.. Each half of the movie being 2 hours or so, I won't care. I only want it to be good for true fans of Avatar.. -Tears-

Anonymous said...

just to note if none of you noticed the last airbender movie is just one book because at the very begining of the movie it says water, so im guessing there was supposed to be the two other books, so just because your favourite character wasn't in the movie then they could possibly be ruined in the sequal or trilogy, although based on this movie i dont think any more will get greenlit. m. night shyamalan has officially fucked up an awsome series.

Anonymous said...

I love the last airbender movie. It inspired me. I don't understand why everybody hates the movie. Every movie has bad scenes every once in a while. Thats what happens. Sometimes I feel that they don't like Shyamalan so they gave the movie a bad review.Am I wrong?

FilthyGrandeur said...

people can find enjoyment in bad movies. enjoyment doesn't make plot holes disappear.