Wednesday 11 August 2010

Notes on Crap: "The Last Airbender"

"I knew, from the very first moment we discovered you, that you were a Bender."
(Actual dialogue)

In the interest of fairness, it should be underlined M. Night Shyamalan's adventure fantasy The Last Airbender is aimed squarely at children rather than sniggering teens or adults, and that it's presumably a work-for-hire through which the writer-director sought to redeem himself with his Hollywood paymasters after the non-event of 2008's The Happening (viewed in retrospect, an early example of a big 2010 trend: a B-movie masquerading as a major studio's summer tentpole release). There is, also, nothing anyone can do with that title, which derives from a kids' TV series and must, surely, spark a twinge of brand recognition in somebody somewhere. (I kept wondering how the film might play under the titles The Last Airpusher or The Last Aircutter, but even these alternatives come to sound like euphemisms for flatulence.)

Having sat, generally dismayed, through the film's 103 minutes, my sympathy ends there, though: Airbender absolutely deserves the flop status accorded to it upon its U.S. release, and perhaps a measure more contempt to boot. It begins, as it must, with the defrosting of a young boy from a sphere of ice deposited in the Antarctic. Aang (Noah Ringer) resembles the Golden Child from that little-lamented Eddie Murphy turkey of the same name, only with an arrow inscribed upon his shaven bonce, as though he'd fallen asleep with his head in the road during line-painting day on a one-way street.

Aang is apparently the Avatar - good name, that - using an armoury of kung-fu kicks and punches to control the elements around him: Air, Earth, Wind and Fire. (In this respect, he's like a DJ with especially precocious tastes in soul-funk and French chillout.) Inevitably, his skills have left him much in demand, and see him pursued through such unpromising locales as "The Fire Nation", "The Northern Earth Territory" and "The Great Library" (reference, not lending, evidently) by curiously non-Caucasian forces of darkness. These will include Slumdog Millionaire's thoroughly unthreatening Dev Patel, in the company of whom the film's action sequences come to look like Saturday morning down at the karate club.

In this irony-heavy age, where expertise has generally been devalued, worthless trash such as Mega Piranha can sneak a theatrical release and even obscure follies such as The Room can be revived for the delectation of sneering hipsters, it's tempting to read The Last Airbender as a name filmmaker's deliberate attempt to crack the bad-film market, to make something that might just, in look and narrative and dialogue, rival the dubbed kangaroo kung-fu of 1997's Warriors of Virtue. (Don't knock it until you've tried it.) But humour me here for a moment, and let's assume the intention was to make something good and lasting and worthwhile, a picture for the ages, and not the Razzies.

The Industrial Light and Magic team's most conspicuous CG creation - a furry canine-like transporter the kids clamber onto - is rather too obviously a splicing together of spare pixels: part Star Wars Tam-Tam, part-Wild Thing, the polar bear from The Golden Compass crossed with a similar beast from The Never-Ending Story. Otherwise, the 3D elements (and elements these are: fireballs and duststorms and gobbets of ocean coming right atcha) are some way north of average. Or, rather, they're the film's raison d'être, another example of the new stereoscopic format being used to tart up something that would play as drably undynamic in 2D.

The scale means this is the biggest showcase yet for Shyamalan's fundamental humorlessness, the complete disavowal of irony that made his opening salvoes - the generic rehashing of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs - resonate so. But this is a kids' film, and Shyamalan has cast some of the cinema's least sparky child performers, plied them with gobstopping exposition, and packed them off on a truly tedious quest. The spirit of George Lucas hovers listlessly over the whole production: it's all spectacular backdrops with zero human interest to commend them, save a romance with a drippy princess, and a final round of prizegiving that suggests someone's got their eye on further instalments. (Spare us, Night.)

Accordingly, we have to go looking for wit wheresoever we can find it, hence the snickering delight to be taken in Airbender's bad dialogue ("Bending is forbidden in this village!"); still, the director's self-seriousness proves so relentless it even kills stone dead that outside chance at future cult rehabilitation. That's right: it's a film that even renders boring the business of bender misinterpretation. Coming after a run of critical and commercial flops, it may also be the final blow to the auteur status Shyamalan, his films, and their attendant publicity materials have sought with increasing levels of self-consciousness: I'd argue there are still cases to be made for the batty singularity of The Village, Lady in the Water and The Happening, but The Last Airbender arrives pre-packaged, anonymous, and just quite atrociously dull.

The Last Airbender opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

No comments:

Post a Comment