November 22, 2010

The Last Airbender

So. I saw The Last Airbender last night. Is it as bad as they say ('they' being every sentient being in the universe)? Well, yes, it's as awful as you'd expect from the man responsible for The Happening.

Is it as bad as Southland Tales? Well, of course not, since nothing can be as bad as Southland Tales. Despite Kim Ki-duk's repeated attempts to make the shittiest movie ever made by a human, his odes to misogyny remain outclassed by the titanic suckitude of Richard Kelly. M. Night Shameamalan's latest pile of crap can't compare to the awesome badness that is Richard Kelly's latest attempt to destroy all life as we know it through artistic incompetence, but it's in some ways more depressing because M. Night did make one decent film and one great film, whereas the films of Kim Ki-suck and Dick Kelly have the combined artistic merit of a Kesha single. At least M. Night doesn't loathe women with such a passion that he feels compelled to portray them as devious imps who delight in using their feminine wiles to corrupt any man unfortunate enough to blunder into their web of lies, but M. Night does seem to loathe Indians. More on that later.

"But Carl Eusebius," I hear you saying, "M. Night Failamalan made The Happening, a movie that makes the wind a force of evil and features scenes of Marky Mark Wahlberg attempting to emote. Surely The Last Airbender (2010) will have some comedic value!" Okay, there's no denying that The Happening is a serious contender for the best comedy of the last ten years, its ostensibly being a horror film notwithstanding. Any time Wahlberg or that guppy-faced woman tried to act, I dissolved into a puddle of derisive laughter. Every instance of wind-induced suicide was funnier than the last, until that joker driving the hatchback full of people carefully stopped in the middle of the street and then zoomed headlong into a streetlight. Nothing could top that one. I don't think I've ever seen a scene so funny that wasn't in Dr. Strangelove.

At no point did I understand anything that was happening in The Last Airbender. I would say it was edited by a blind person with advanced Parkinson's disease, except such a person would be more professional and would have turned in a better piece of work than whoever assembled this mess. Characters teleport from one scene to the next. Entire reels seem to be missing. I've never seen a film that explains so much yet remains so incoherent. Scenes happen, and then characters tell us what happened in the scene we just saw. That's if they don't flash back to the scene we watched five seconds ago. At least when they flash back, there's a voiceover to explain the action we're watching for the second time in ten seconds. Excuse me, did I say action? I meant, characters telling us about action. Characters declare what they are going to do. Then, after doing it--off-screen--they tell us what they did. Then, in case we missed it the first two times, the next scene inevitably begins with another character telling us again. And it still never makes any sense. I'll give you the gist I pieced together:

As near as I can figure, the world of Generic Earth-type Planet (it doesn't get a name that I caught) is divided into tribes that color-coordinate their wardrobe with one of the four traditional Greek elements. (Why no, a world that consists mostly of Asians isn't based on a traditional way of conceiving the universe from an Asian society, such as the Chinese Five Processes. I mean, why would it?) These tribes are earth (East/Southeast Asians), water (Inuit), fire (South Asians), and air (dead). Into these tribes are born people known as benders, who can be trained to mentally control the element of their tribe. Aang (Noah Ringer) is the last airbender and is also the avatar, a superbeing reborn every generation who can be trained in the bending of all four elements and is charged with keeping the tribes from going to war. He has been inexplicably absent for a century, until he is busted out of some sort of orb prison by two members of the Water Tribe, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Harpo from *sigh* Twilight). He finds that the Fire Tribe is making war on the others, having already subjugated some of them.

What is this prison, and how did Aang become trapped in it? Has the war been going on for the entire century of his absence? Why did the Fire Tribe launch this war? What happened to the other airbenders, so that Aang is the last? Why does Aang need to learn how to bend all the elements when he is virtually unstoppable simply with his air powers? Why is he captured only to escape later in the same scene three times? How can grown human beings, some of whom are partially educated, keep giving Shyamalan money to make films? These and many other questions will remain unanswered by The Last Airbender.

This is filmmaking at its most inept. I recall Ken Begg's review of Jaws, a classic film that gets almost everything right. In that review, Begg discusses the importance of blocking and how often it goes unnoticed. After all, when it's done well, you aren't supposed to notice. The Last Airbender can't even get the basics right. There's a scene in which the Fire King(?) is talking to General Daily Show Guy. They are walking down a corridor in conversation, when the king suddenly stops and turns his back to the camera. At this point, the general is to the king's left, and as he talks he moves over to the king's right, momentarily blocking our sight of him behind the king's head. If this doesn't sound so bad in text, try watching it onscreen. Even if you know nothing about blocking, you'll know that something's off; the actors should be blocked to move so that our view of them is not obstructed, because when that happens we become aware of the camera and, by extension, of the fact that we're watching a movie. It's the kind of error a film student would lose points for on his final project, and Shyamalan, who had directed eight professional films at this point, let this shot into his movie. Then it gets worse, as the king suddenly resumes walking, only to stop and turn his back to the camera again seconds later, at which point they repeat the same blocking mistake that obstructs the speaking actor's face behind something in the foreground (namely, the other actor's head).

Well, at least the incompetent cinematography distracted from the dreadful acting.

Oh M. Night, how did you go from casting Haley Joel Osmont in 1999 to casting the human-tree hybrid who plays the titular The Last Airbender? I haven't seen this much wood in a film since I watched the 78-hour cut of The Return of the King. This kid is as appealing as Rosie O'Donnell is to any human being with a modicum of decency or self-respect. His delivery of the dialogue in this flick was so lifeless I leaped from my chair shouting "The power of Christ compels you!" until I remembered vampires aren't scared of Jesus anymore. Of course, even Tony Todd couldn't have made the dialogue in this film work. Borat's English sounded more natural.

If you thought Marky Mark's attempts to show emotion were awful in The Happening, then you have taste and a sense of artistry. But you haven't seen anything until you see living fossil Noah Ringer giving a speech to the earthbenders to rise up against their Fire Tribe oppressors: "Earth benders! There is dirt under your feet!" That's it. That's the speech, and, hilariously, that's all it takes to start the rebellion. I'm serious. Aang says there is dirt all around them, so why aren't they using it to fight, and they get a "Luke turning off his targeting computer" look of Zen enlightenment and overthrow their oppressors in a brief, poorly-choreographed fight scene mostly consisting of guys whipping their arms around like they're making fun of Bruce Lee and tossing poorly-animated CGI flames into walls of dirt. Apparently dirt is invisible to East Asian-looking people. Good thing the Master Race--represented by Aang, Sokka, and Katara--is here to enlighten the coloreds. Yes, I did say that the Water Tribe is Inuit, and no, the film doesn't explain or even acknowledge that Sokka and Katara are white.

Poor Noah isn't alone in the terrible acting department, though, as no-one in this film gives a good performance. In fact, I hesitate to call what anyone put forth in this film "a performance". Everyone is lifeless and dull. If your movie has Harpo giving the best performance, you may want to consider taking that job at Wendy's your uncle offered you. And if you remember how bad he was in Twilight...then I'm terribly sorry you saw Twilight.

Here's where I get academic, Oh My Brothers. I'm no fan of Edward Said. For all the good his seminal work Orientalism did, the vast majority of those who came after him largely missed his point and took his thought in insane directions that sullied his original insight (see also Foucault, Michel and Nietzsche, Friedrich). But really, if you ever needed an example of self-Orientalism (and God help you if you do), look no further than M. Night Flopamalan.

In this movie, the heroes are white. They have pseudo-Japanese and Chinese names, but they are Newt Gingrich white. Donnie Osmond white. Mayonnaise-eating, soft rock-listening, Third World-exploiting white people. Oh they might be named Aang, Sokka, and Katara...but they don't mean it. This is the sort of film you can show your racist great-grandmother. There are colored people, sure, but they don't, like, do stuff. Good clean-cut folk take the lead in all things good and pure.

But every good Matrix rip-off faux-wushu film needs good villains. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had the legendary Cheng Pei-pei. Fist of Legend had Kurata Yasuaki. The Last Airbender has Dev Patel. If I learned one thing from M. Night Pleasegodnomoreamalan, it's that Indians are evil.

Folks, white people have truly won. I'm not much for making PC movies in which actors are cast to appeal to every ethnic group. (I'm looking at you, George Lucas.) Star Trek was dead to me when the creators cast a black Vulcan for no other reason than to say they had done so. I thought the whole point of that show was that diversity was a human strength. Shows what I know. The creators knew that what we unwashed stupid masses wanted to see was a terrible non-actor do a bad Nimoy impression, solely so those same creators could impress the rest of the Hollywood intelligentsia with their progressive cred. 'Well, you know,' we can picture them saying to another fat white tub of crap in a suit, 'I cast the first black Vulcan.'

But really, the nation of evil people, struggling to extinguish the flame of civilization carried by the morally perfect white people --who, after all, are only struggling to protect the East/Southeast Asian and Inuit people, backward primitives that can't protect themselves--are all Indians? This is why I say white people have truly won: An artist of Indian descent with total creative control over a multi-hundred-million-dollar project painstakingly crafts a story in which the noble master Aryan race is opposed by dastardly brown people.

Glenn Beck must love this movie.

I haven't said much about the special effects because, well, they suck, but not in a remarkable way. What's remarkable is that the film fails on every level. The acting is atrocious, the characters are flat and uninteresting, the world is fuzzy and indistinct, the story is nonsensical, the dialogue is stilted and unnatural, and the film is permeated with a weird sense of self-loathing and discomforting racism.

It'll be huge in France.