The Last Airbender: Bad . . . but Is it ‘That Bad’?

[Ed. note: Ken went into this movie fresh, without having seen the television show this movie was based on, the cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” We’ll submit that the cartoon version is a near-masterpiece that builds its mythology over seasons and years. All the more a shame that it didn’t live up to its source material.]

Eviscerated as it was by critics, one might wonder why anyone would bother seeing M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender.  Well, my curiosity, she is a morbid thing.  I’ve watched all of Shyamalan’s films with an increasing anticipation of their burgeoning badness, and having come this far, I can’t seem to help myself, I just keep being curious enough to see them.

What many critics stated, that while Shyamalan had made a number of bad films, this time he had made an utterly awful film.  An abomination.  An atrocity.  And this made it even more intriguing.

San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle listed The Last Airbender as the “worst film of 2010″ in an article that he wrote about the dregs of moviegoing for last year.  In that article, he stated how he despises having to suffer through bad movies and doesn’t begin to understand why anyone would bother wasting their time watching a movie that is considered unparalleled garbage.  I disagree with a lot of LaSalle’s opinions about movies, but the question will always be asked, “Why bother seeing this movie if it’s supposed to be so worthless?”

Certainly, some bad movies can be fun.  Some bad movies really do make you feel sapped of life, a waste of one’s time.  Sometimes, like a car crash, you just have to look.  How can you really know unless you’ve seen it yourself?  How can you use it as a point of reference, as it might be useful, if you aren’t speaking from experience?

But really, like I said, it’s a morbid curiosity for me.

And you know, the funny thing?  As bad as The Last Airbender is, and it is indeed bad, it’s not nearly as atrocious as it’s been made out to be.  Now, if I’d paid $12 or so to see it in the theater with 3-D glasses in which its uninspiring effects looked all the more disappointing, I’m sure I’d have held more of a grudge against it.  But frankly, I can name at least five other movies from last year that I would consider even worse, ones I despised more greatly and even regretted having seen even more (Jonah Hex [2010], I’m Still Here [2010], Gulliver’s Travels [2010], Get Him to the Greek [2010], Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time [2010], but let’s not name names).

The thing is that The Last Airbender is such a complex and convoluted, yet not very sophisticated, narrative, a fantasy with an ornate yet hollow backstory, that I don’t think that there could have been a good movie made of the material.  Now Shyamalan did write the script, so he’s certainly responsible for this lame action film however you slice it, it’s not even his worst movie.  For my money, his worst film is Lady in the Water (2006) because it’s such a personal, obnoxious and pretentious, condescending…  I’m not here to defend The Last Airbender, just to give it some context.

Adapted from a Nickelodeon television animated show that was developed by Americans but produced to look like anime, it’s not sacred material.  The story of a fantasy world where there are nations of water, earth, air, and fire, who are held in balance by an “avatar” who went missing 100 years before, it’s not terribly compelling.  Certain members of each tribe can “bend” their element (make it move and shape it like a telekinetic power), but the “avatar” can command all four.  It turns out that he was a kid, trapped in ice for 100 years.  In his absence, the fire nation has taken over the world, throwing things “out of balance”.

Interestingly, he’s a lot like a super-powered Dalai Lama, reborn time and again, recognized by monks and raised from childhood as this powerful holy dude.  If there is some meta reading of this narrative about Tibet’s plight in the world, I’m not sure where to take it.  The Last Airbender was criticized for its casting of non-Asians in roles that were clearly and significantly Asian in the original series.  Why the fire nation is the one group that looks Indian, I don’t begin to know what kind of strange readings are available from that angle.

Anyways, it’s a bad movie.  Too much convoluted story, dull performances, non-engaging characters, and a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, certainly.  What happens to Shyamalan’s career after this?  I find myself asking this after each film of his comes out.  They keep letting him make movies.  He’s even producing others that have his “stamp” on them.  Well, I’m sure he’s not done yet.  But it’s a pretty safe bet that this is the last Last Airbender.

For the full, extensive archive of movie reviews by Ken, please see kennelco.com/film_diary

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