As a longtime voter in the Razzie Awards, it was hard not to chuckle while watching M. Night Shyamalan's craptastic new film The Last Airbender and picturing Razzie founder John Wilson practically having a cinematic orgasm while watching this estimated $150 million colossal Hollywood gutter ball of a film.
Seriously, it's difficult to fathom how Shyamalan sat through his dailies without sacrificing himself to the spirit gods of Hollywood whom he's undoubtedly offended gravely. If you're Paramount Pictures, I'm thinking you're changing the studio locks, taking away Shyamalan's photo I.D., taking a baseball bat to his car and blinding him with a 3-D lightning bolt.
How is it possible to make $150 million look so, well, cheap?
How is it that Paramount actually has the balls to bill this flick as a 3-D film? It's NOT a 3-D film. It wasn't filmed in 3-D and the post-production 3-D retrofit is so abysmal with key scenes that are so dark and fuzzy it's amazing to ponder that this film is actually based upon Avatar: The Last Airbender, a beloved Nickelodeon TV series that is vibrant, colorful and alive.
There's nothing fully alive about The Last Airbender, yet another nail in the coffin of Shyamalan's career, once filled with such great promise but now collapsing under the weight of larger than life cinematic visions that he either can't recreate on the big screen or they are simply, sadly, woefully uninteresting.
Uninteresting is a terrific word for the script that Shyamalan has pieced together for this film, a chaotic blend of spiritual babble, Buddhist Cliff's Notes, Christian sermonettes and a few words that must've sounded really cool at one time but here they sound like a bad high school acting class trying to interpret The Epic of Gilgamesh without a friggin' clue what they're saying.
I'm not exaggerating.
Shyamalan's dialogue is hideously awkward and funny, both a result of Shyamalan's inability to decide if this is a proper period piece or a teen adventure. "Cowabunga, dude" would not have felt out of place here.
Much of the blame here lies squarely with Shyamalan as writer/director and the control freak we all know he is on the set. There's no doubt that the director had input into casting and while Shyamalan doesn't do the largely inexperienced cast any favors, the cast is clearly overwhelmed with the material. Shyamalan had already caught considerable grief for hiring a largely caucasian cast, an inconsistency with the largely Asian characters noted in the television series. While ethnicity has little to do with the problems that exist here, Shyamalan clearly was not in touch with what would make this film work.
The Last Airbender is intended as the first of a four-part series, complete with opening and closing scenes that very clearly set up future films. We start off with young siblings Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, who also opens in Twilight: Eclipse this week) discovering a young boy, Aang (Noah Ringer), who has been trapped in ice for what we learn has been 100 years or, more notably, just before the world was destroyed and divided into four areas of life including air, earth, water and fire. The Fire Nation has apparently gone whoop ass on the other three elements, enslaving them in many cases and throwing off the balance of the world. This is said to be because of the absence of the legendary Avatar, a highly evolved spiritual being who can control all four elements and, therefore, had managed to keep peace and balance in the world.
Yep, you guessed it. Aang is the Avatar who disappeared during the official ceremony to name him as such and, as a result, the world is now in chaos. Once it becomes known, and it does, that Aang is the Avator, The Fire Lord's son, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire) becomes determined to catch him as does the Fire Lord (Cliff Curtis) himself. Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi, The Daily Show. Seriously) seems to have his eye on taking Zuko's rightful place as the heir to the Fire Lord's thrown.
The journey that follows is one of the least interesting, least involving, least attractive and least entertaining that has been presented on the big screen in quite some time, made even worse by the thought that a studio had enough faith to sink $150 million into this production only to sabotage it by requiring it to open alongside the third film of the Twilight series.
While they are given little to work with, the performances are dreadful across the board with the young actors and actresses faring the worst either out of being overwhelmed by the material or simply being too weak as actors to conquer the material. While he has the least acting cred among the cast, Aasif Mandvi fares the best. This could be simply because he's already so used to Jon Stewart's nightly faux drama that he's able to tap into the film's histrionic dramatics with at least modest success. Jackson Rathbone has decent moments, as well, but often underwhelms in what is meant to be weighty material.
The remainder of the cast, most notably Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel, the young Nicola Peltz as Katara and lead Noah Ringer are horribly miscast here. Peltz delivers her lines with all the conviction of a hesitant spelling bee contestant, Patel can't decide if he wants to recite Shakespeare or punk rock opera and Ringer, a 12-year-old Texan, too often comes off like Jake Lloyd meets Samuel Beckett.
The entire film is absurd.
The Indianapolis promo screening included a martial arts demo, a rather low-key offering not too far removed from the slo-mo melodramatics of the film and the New Age liturgical dance that Aang seems to undertake each time he is learning how to "bend" the elements. The action sequences, and I use that term very lightly, are simultaneously poorly shot and weakly choreographed. Even James Newton Howard's original score disappoints, a predictable mix of thundering drums and over-the-top instrumentals.
Shyamalan's ever increasing army of naysayers will have a field day with The Last Airbender, the perfect storm of virtually everything that is wrong with high-tech, low creativity cinema from a Hollywood that increasingly lacks anything resembling a unique vision or voice. Long time Shyamalan fans may remember his first film, Wide Awake, a Rosie O'Donnell led film that nicely utilized its younger cast. Unfortunately, the same is not true here and the young cast simply can't overcome the myriad of problems facing this film. It's difficult to imagine a weekend where a Twilight film is the weekend's best release and where a film manages to be even less entertaining than All About Steve and Dirty Love combined. Of course, this is bad news for Razzie groupies hoping that the Twilight films would finally receive their first Razzie.
Nah, ain't gonna' happen. The Last Airbender is the worst film of the year.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic