I See Dead Filmmaking Careers

Carl Kozlowski at Big Hollywood:

There’s perhaps nothing more heartbreaking to a filmmaker than knowing that their first major film was considered their masterpiece, and that the rest of their career was a slow progression into frustration, mediocrity, or – worst of all – sheer awfulness. Just ask Orson Welles who created what is considered the greatest film of all time, “Citizen Kane,” when he was just 23 but spent much of the next half-century begging for financing and doing work like voice-overs for an animated “Transformers” movie.

If he doesn’t watch out, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan is heading towards the same fate. His latest film, “The Last Airbender,” continues a string of disappointments that began at least three films ago, with 2004’s “The Village” (a film I admired, but which flopped after a huge opening weekend), the misfired 2006 fairy tale “Lady in the Water” and 2008’s utterly embarrassing and inert “The Happening” (or as I like to call it, “The Nappening.”)

“Airbender” is Shyamalan’s attempt to reverse his fortunes and return to the heady blockbuster days of his early films, 1999’s “The Sixth Sense” and 2002’s “Signs.” After the ridiculously bad “The Happening,” no studio would trust him with an original idea again, so he turned to making an adaptation of a popular children’s cartoon series originally called “Avatar: the Last Airbender.” For obvious reasons, he had to drop the word “Avatar” from the title, but unfortunately there’s little else of interest to be found in the film.

Christopher Orr at The Atlantic:

The story, such as it is, follows Aang (Noah Ringer), a bald, tattooed boy-mystic who is found packed in an ice bubble one snowy morning by siblings Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone). Katara and Sokka, we learn, belong to the Water Nation, some of whose members (Katara among them) can manipulate ice and water with their minds; Aang, meanwhile, is the last survivor of the Air Nation (no relation to the Aryan Nation, tattoos and baldness notwithstanding). All three have suffered at the hands of the Fire Nation, which bullies the Water folk and has eradicated all of Aang’s people save him. Aang, as it happens, is the Avatar, the sole being in the world with the power to manipulate all four elements (air, water, fire, and earth). Unfortunately, his Avatar training was cut short before he’d learned to manipulate anything other than air. So he spends the duration of the film hanging out with tribes of the Water Nation, learning to use their element and overcoming various attempts at kidnapping or invasion by competing Fire Nation bands led by ambitious Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) and exiled Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, looking decidedly cranky at the wrong turn his career has taken since Slumdog Millionaire).

It’s a remarkably flat arc, though tolerable movies have been made from less. But I think it’s fair to say that none of those movies boasted quite the array of leaden performances, overscripted dialogue, narrative inertia, and underwhelming visual effects that characterize The Last Airbender. This is a film that resembles a video game in all the bad ways–Manichean premise, non-existent characterization, an obsession with dutifully explained “rules”–while still managing to miss out on the kinetic momentum of Xboxiness. If there has been a duller, more stagnant action film released this decade, I managed, thank God, to miss it.

Keith Phipps at Onion AV Club:

Where to start with this one? How about this: If any movie ever warranted a class-action lawsuit against the filmmakers, it’s The Last Airbender. Not because it’s a terrible movie—though it is—but because its release as a 3-D film becomes false advertising a few seconds after a comin’-atcha gush of water appears behind the Paramount logo. From there, it becomes painfully obvious—even more painfully obvious than in Alice In Wonderland—that a few 3-D elements have been added to satisfy the current 3-D craze, and the higher ticket prices they allow. Worse still, the process makes the already-dark imagery darker, and turns the action blurry. Viewers who see it in this form will pay more for an even shittier experience than the one they would have had in 2-D.

And that would have been plenty shitty already. Adapting a well-regarded, epic-in-scope Nickelodeon animated series, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has failed to do right both by his source material and his own strengths as a filmmaker. Set in a world in which the population is divided amid the four elements, and some skilled practitioners can control those elements to their own ends, the film vomits out complicated mythology in mouthfuls of exposition, when not putting a supporting character’s voiceover narration in charge of relaying major developments. Shyamalan manages a few striking images, most of them involving otherworldly landscapes created in Greenland and Vietnam. But none of the care and craftsmanship evident in projects he originated, even lousy ones like The Happening, find their way into this movie.

Stephanie Zacharek at Movieline:

It’s clear that Shyamalan’s ambition is to create a grand fantasy epic; at times the picture’s production design has an almost Middle Earth-y look. (The cinematographer here is Andrew Lesnie, who also shot the Lord of the Rings trilogy.) But oddly enough — or perhaps not oddly at all — the most impressive and entertaining aspects of the picture have less to do with spectacular effects than with human skill. The movie’s young star, Ringer, is a Taekwondo champ, and it’s fun to watch his hands slice through the air ever so gracefully, or execute kicks and jumps and pirouettes that defy gravity. So many action movies these days are devoid of real human action. At least Shyamalan understands that watching the human body move is one of the pleasures of moviegoing.

Of course, because this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie, the stink of pretension is high: There’s no doubt that these warring, troubled tribes are supposed to be metaphorical, revealing big truths about the messed-up world we actually live in. But some of the actors rise above the sillier-than-silly dialog: Aasif Mandvi (who played Mr. Aziz in Spider-Man 2, but who was even more wonderful in a smallish role in David Koepp’s superb romantic comedy Ghost Town) plays an amoral military commander; he walks a fine line between sending up the movie’s kiddie hokum and treating the material as seriously as if it were Shakespeare. And Dev Patel, of Slumdog Millionaire, shows up as the unfortunately named Prince Zuko. (Would you want to play a character whose name sounds like a sugar substitute?)

Still, The Last Airbender, for all its Shyamalan-style grandiosity, is completely harmless and inoffensive, and at the very least, Shyamalan appears to be having a little fun here. The movie’s finale comes not as a big surprise but as a turn we’re completely ready for. There’s something to be said for giving the audience what it needs, instead of what you think it wants.

Joseph Lawler at The American Spectator:

At 5 percent approval on the film review site Rotten Tomatoes, M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie The Last Airbender is in the running for the title of worst-reviewed movie ever.

Lane Brown at New York Magazine, interviewing Shyamalan:

Have you read the reviews for Last Airbender?
No, I haven’t.

Well, are you aware of the reviews?
No, actually.

Well, for the most part, critics have not been kind. Are you just ignoring them? Will you read them this weekend? Have you just not had time?
Are you saying that in general they didn’t dig it?

In general, no. Roger Ebert, who liked The Happening, did not. The first line of his review is, “The Last Airbender is an agonizing experience in every category that I can think of and others still waiting to be invented.” How do you react to something like that?
I don’t know what to say to that stuff. I bring as much integrity to the table as humanly possible. It must be a language thing, in terms of a particular accent, a storytelling accent. I can only see it this certain way and I don’t know how to think in another language. I think these are exactly the visions that are in my head, so I don’t know how to adjust it without being me. It would be like asking a painter to change to a completely different style. I don’t know.

Critics haven’t been kind to your last couple of films. Do you still worry about reviews?
I think of it as an art form. So it’s something I approach as sort of immovable integrity within each of the stages. So if you walk through the process with me, there’s not a moment where I won’t treat with great respect. So it’s sacred to me, the whole process of making a movie. I would hope that some people see that I approach this field with that kind of respect, and that it’s not a job.

Were you trying to please critics with this film? Did you have an audience in mind while you were making it?
For everybody, actually. It’s just a very cool, spiritual, action-y, family film — a family adventure.


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