Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Will It Bend? (pt. 2)

I saw The Last Airbender movie on Friday, and already I've forgotten most of it. The reviews are right: it is leaden and pretentious, afflicted with some of the worst child acting I've seen in a long time. In fact, Dev Patel, playing moody Prince Zuko, is the only one who even attempts to create a character, rather than squintily reading his lines from some giant cue card with improper punctuation positioned just offscreen. Yet, unfortunately for Patel, the script betrays him at every turn, offering him little more than ponderous exposition and a fight scene against the Avatar that looks more like two kid brothers wrestling in a cluttered garage. The other actors here do not even deserve our pity, although their characters are written just as badly, or worse. In possibly the most amusing moment of the film, Aang sits down to meditate in a holy place in the Northern Water Temple. "Some monks can meditate for four days!" he exclaims. He positions himself and closes his eyes. Four seconds pass. "Aang, can you hear me?" his friend Katara asks.

I could talk about some of the other bizarre decisions Shyamalan made regarding the story -- probably the weirdest was his decision to have benders execute an entire series of complicated dance moves before their various elements respond, which makes the "action" sequences move about as quickly as a poorly prepared middle school pom pom routine. But the greatest disappointment of this film is that it's not even fun to tear apart. Unlike the truly amazing crap films of the 1980's (including the gloriously depraved Howard the Duck, the epic failure Dune, and Trancers, a gem I discovered over the weekend, which stars Helen Hunt and a boom mike), The Last Airbender isn't mistakenly in love with a faulty, unworkable premise. Where Howard the Duck, for example, answered questions no one in their right mind would want to ask (like, "What would a sentient, midget-sized duck do in bed with Lea Thompson?"), The Last Airbender doesn't answer the basic questions its own characters raise -- like, "How could the earthbenders be defeated and contained when their weapon is the ground beneath their feet?" It's this incuriosity, more than anything else, that makes it suck.

For the love of God, I do NOT WANT TO KNOW.

It's also this incuriosity that makes it particularly lousy as a children's film. Anyone who's gotten on a bus with a second grader knows well the proclivity of man-larvae for the question, "Why?" One of the reasons behind the aforementioned trend of adults reading children's books is, I think, the fact that children's book authors are not afraid to answer this question, sketching out whole fantastical worlds with the resulting explanations. These worlds don't have to be realistic, but they do have to hold up under investigation -- to reveal causal connections, social relationships, customs, and habits that resonate and fit into the whole. In this sense, coming to understand the world of a story is an education in miniature for children who are at the beginning of learning about the order of our world. As I said in my previous post, the greatest strength of the original airbender show was the way that it rewarded the viewer for wondering about details -- about everything from the various nation's cultures to the flora and fauna of the wilderness. By comparison, the film isn't awful. It's just empty.

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