The Last Airbender: Bending a career

The movie isn't as cool as this picture.

Every time I see M. Knight Shyamalan’s name on a movie poster, hope wells up inside of me. Hope that I’ll see something that was as beautiful and human and brilliant as Unbreakable. There have been moments in his last few films. In The Village when he takes her hand and pulls her safely inside or when the knife slowly slides out of him only to be sunk in again and again like a warm spoon into ice cream. Lady in the Water has even fewer of these moments, and in turn has more of M. Knight on screen. In his newest film The Last Airbender you see him only briefly and he’s in full costume, but you know its him. Why? Because he’s worse than a horrible actor. He has anti screen presence. Even the brief moment he’s on screen it’s almost like a black hole is created. Hitchcock was smart and never gave himself lines.

(I’ve concluded that the more times you see Shyamalan’s name in the credits, the worse the film will be.)

This movie isn’t about characters, but about having the characters say things so the story can continue on so you don’t have to concern yourself with thinking about what’s happening. One of the characters says “I’ll wait here with him.” And she does. The voice over says, “They prepared for war” and the next scene they are looking at a map of the town and talking about where to fortify. Toy Story 3 had an entire sequence in which one of the characters spoke in Spanish and it was subtitled and children too young to read were still laughing uproariously.

I sound like a nagging wife, going on simply because that’s all I know, but to see someone with so much potential forget the language of telling not only a story but a cinematic story hurts. In one case Shyamalan is like a comedian who tells you neither the joke nor the punchline and expects you to laugh and in the other case he’s a village idiot who  thinks he’s telling a joke but repeats the same details endlessly and without cause until he finally (and thankfully) falls silent. I’m being cruel, and with good reason, because it may mean that he wises up and takes a few script notes, OR lets someone else write his screenplay.

The first shot in the film tells you all you need to know. Our young heroine, who is manipulating water in the air, as that’s what she does, she bends water. Forms a ball of water and moves it across the icy tundra surrounding her. Then suddenly the water drops. A moment later a young man stands up into frame from the side of where the water fell, walks to her and scolds her. Only moments later do we realize that the water must have fallen on his head and he’s upset about that. He makes no sound when the water hits him. You don’t see the water hit him. He doesn’t look wet. You don’t even know that he’s there until after any moment that could have been created has past. The audience watched in silence at something that should have been a visual joke. Only there was no visual!

As a director, somewhere inside of me, I still believe he has talent. He has to get out of his own head space, and obviously working with material by someone else still won’t get him there, not until he actually hands the keyboard over to another do I believe he’ll overcome whatever hurdle he’s stuck crawling under.

Not to offend my friend who I saw this film with (and who loved it – so there’s a chance), but to an 8-year-old, this may be great fun. I love the genre myself and saw many bad 80’s fantasy movies when I was a child that this reminded me of (bad acting, storytelling, dialogue and all). For brief moments when characters weren’t inanely speaking in anime style one sentence proclamations as if they were badly dubbed (was that on purpose M. Knight?), I found that sense of wonder that this movie should have had from beginning to end. There are beautiful special effects, some wondrous fight sequences and a few moments that within a better told story could have been profound. I saw that, I felt that and I won’t deny that I did. There’s great material here worthy of being told. Unfortunately to that same 8-year-old who picks up the film 20 years later, as I have with so many fantasy films from my childhood, they will be disappointed.

Oh… What was the movie about? There are four cultures that can bend (manipulate) one of the four elements. The Firebending clan has ruled all the lands with an iron fist since the Avatar (the original title, not used for obvious reasons) disappeared. The Avatar can bend all the elements (when trained to do so.) Two teenagers from the South Water Clan discover him, moments before the Fire clan takes him. The two teenagers get him back and the race for the boy before he can learn to use the element of water is on.

There’s a very fine performance by the actor who places the Uncle of the fallen Fire Prince. How he manages this with all the proclaiming, I don’t know. How M. Knight is allowed to continue to have free reign, I also don’t know. The best way for Shyamalan to learn, in this case relearn, is to be put under house arrest. Studio system…go to work.

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