You giggled at The Happening. You snorted at The Village. But now, for the first time ever, former indie auteur M. Night Shyamalan has set out to make a gonzo comedy on purpose, with The Last Airbender. Spoilers ahead!
M. Night Shyamalan has always been fascinated by playing with genre conventions. His famed love of twist endings is really an obsession with tweaking his audience's expectations, and his best film, Unbreakable, is a superhero movie that comments on the superhero genre. It was inevitable that he would slide into full-on genre pastiche.
And The Last Airbender is a lavish parody of big-budget fantasy epics. It's got everything: the personality-free hero, the nonsensical plot twists, the CG clutter, the bland romance, the new-age pablum. No expense is spared — Shyamalan even makes sure to make fun of distractingly shitty 3-D, by featuring it in his movie.
This is the part where I would insert a quick plot synopsis of the film, but it's really unnecessary - Shyamalan has boiled every epic heroic story of the past 20 years down to its most basic, primal soup-y essence, so he can spray it all over the audience, in a kind of Hero's-Journey bukkake. You will be finding chunks of Joseph Campbell's calcified spooge behind your ears for three days after watching this film, no matter how many times you bathe.
Shyamalan's true achievement in this film is that he takes a thrilling cult TV series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and he systematically leaches all the personality and soul out of it — in order to create something generic enough to serve as a universal spoof of every epic, ever. All the story beats from the show's first season are still present, but Shyamalan manages to make them appear totally arbitrary. Stuff happens, and then more stuff happens, and what does it mean? We never know, because it's time for more stuff to happen. You start out laughing at how random and mindless everything in this movie is, but about an hour into it, you realize that the movie is actually laughing at you, for watching it in the first place. And it's laughing louder than you are, because it's got Dolby surround-sound and you're choking on your suspension of disbelief.
The comic recipe starts with the actors, who manage to recite every line of dialogue as though they're ordering lunch for the fourth time that day. (Because they were still peckish, or because their lunch order got lost the first three times.) Nicola Peltz, who plays Katara, has one line of dialogue over and over through the movie: "We need to go!" She says this every few minutes, because this is Shyamalan's way of letting us know that one set piece is over and it's time for the next set piece to begin. "We need to go!" Depending on how badly the heroes need to go, she may pout, pushing her lips out into a trombone-player's embouchure, for emphasis. The film is simultaneously frenetic, racing at top speed, and yet totally disaffected, like the monomyth with mononucleosis.
Katara's the girl sidekick and sorta-love interest to Aang, who's an 11-year-old monk with a bunch of cool tattoos and elemental powers. We're told that Aang is struggling with a lot of heavy shit — genocide, man. It sucks, you know? — but mostly he's just sort of there. The brilliance of Noah Ringer's performance cannot be understated — he is the first performer ever to convince me utterly that he is standing in front of a greenscreen. Even when Ringer is filmed on location, in front of a real-life mountain, he still manages to create the impression that his surroundings have been keyed in, and he's actually in a studio somewhere. This is a huge, crucial factor in the way the movie makes fun of its own epic-ness. And I think everybody who has criticized Shyamalan for casting white actors as Asian characters in this film should admit they were wrong. Clearly, Shyamalan tried to cast Asians, but he just couldn't find any whose performances were lifeless enough.
I haven't even mentioned the dialog yet, which is where the real comic force of the movie comes in. Like when Aang and his friends are taken prisoner by the Fire Nation and locked up with a bunch of Earth-benders, in a big dirt enclosure. And Aang looks at the Earth-benders and shouts, "EARTH BENDERS! THERE IS DIRT UNDER YOUR FEET! THERE'S DIRT ALL AROUND YOU! WHY DON'T YOU FIGHT?" And everybody's like, "Whoa." They notice that there's a lot of dirt here, all right. How did they miss that? It's like they've got selective dirt-blindness.
Later in the film, Katara says my favorite line ever, "We need to show them that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in their beliefs." It's as if Shyamalan had a cue card that he was planning to turn into an actual bit of dialog, but he forgot. There's a lot of cue-card writing in this film, and it feels like Shyamalan is leaving things as sign-posty as possible, in order to make fun of the by-the-numbers storytelling in so many Hollywood epics. The master has come to school us all.
The third member of our main trio is Sokka, who's played by one of the vampires from Twilight. At one point, he falls in love with a silver-haired girl with insane costume jewelry, who looks like a refugee from the "wink of an eye" people, out of the original Star Trek. We know that he's got the hots for her, because Katara tells us in a quickie voice-over.
Oh yeah - that's another one of the ways in which this movie pokes fun at the very idea of epic fantasy: the endless confusing voice-over, in which tons of important story developments happen off-camera while we're looking at a picture of a tree or a CG mountain. Because why do we privilege the story of the hero's progress over the tree?, Shaymalan asks. Why does the original Star Wars insist on showing us Luke Skywalker training with a lightsaber, instead of telling us that Luke Skywalker trained with a lightsaber while showing us a tracking shot of some rocks? Why pretend that one thing is more important than the other thing? Why pretend that any of it has any meaning? As a wise man once wrote, "A menu is as good as a myth."
Also, if the original Star Wars had given us a tracking shot of rocks, with a voiceover explaining that Luke was learning to use a lightsaber someplace else, it would have freed up more screen time for Luke to stand around shouting, "JAWAS! THERE IS SAND UNDER YOUR FEET!"
Not to mention the many scenes in which characters rattle off exposition, and it feels as if somebody must have fed the scripts from the TV series into an office shredder, and then glued some of the word stripes together. You can just imagine Shyamalan stopping the actors and demanding a retake, over and over again, because the actors were still stringing the sentences together as if they had a logical sequence. It must have taken hours to get the right level of random, Ketamine-overdose level of dissociation into every scene where somebody explains about importance of the avatar and how you have to feel your feelings, in order to gerbil machete fish dumpling crank handle. At its most sublime and brain-sluicing, the expository scenes approach the level of the opening act of D-War. And that's high praise.
Recently, at an Asian fusion restaurant, I was offered a thing called an Asiadilla. This was a quesadilla with roast duck and hoisin sauce inside it. Just let that idea sink into your mind and permeate your tastebuds — in essence, it's Beijing Duck crossed with Tex-Mex. With extra cheese. Watching The Last Airbender is like being force-fed a hundred Asiadillas, washed down with a pitcher of overly sweet Saketinis. The Asian kitsch flies at you, from the yin-yang fish to the army of Samurai who are all South Asian. You want a cheesy foreign backdrop for your fantasy epic? M. Night Shyamalan will smother you in cheese! Because the setting, in this movie, is just another trickster making fun of your desire to believe in it. Airbender's Asia is a giant pantomime, and you are Puss in Boots.
Through all of this chaos, two actors wander like lost souls, and they're really the twin poles of this undertaking. On the one side, you have Aasif Mandvi, of The Daily Show fame, who plays Commander Zhao in exactly the same way he handles the most ridiculous crap he has to say to Jon Stewart. Every line he gets, he shouts and arches one eyebrow comically, in case you didn't already know this was a send-up. (Anyone who's watched Mandvi in the TV series Jericho knows he's capable of subtlety and real emotion, so the fact that every one of his lines of dialogue in this film feels like it should be prefaced with an arch, "That's right, Jon," feels totally deliberate.)
And then there's Shaun Toub, who stands out for the opposite reason: He's an honest-to-shit actual actor, and he looks as out of place as a zebra that's wandered into an alpaca farm. You can actually watch the realization dawn over Toub's face that nobody else is doing any acting in this film, but he soldiers on, dedicated to his craft in spite of everything. Toub, who's playing the uncle of Dev Patel's tormented Prince Zuko, is the real tragic hero of this movie, as you watch him struggle to cling to his dignity as everyone around him drowns in narrative sewage. (Patel is pretty good when he's acting opposite Toub.) It's a weird dichotomy in this film - the film's villains are the only Asian people in the movie, but they're also the only ones who have any personality whatsoever.
The Last Airbender, it must be said, features some incredibly great special effects (despite the aforementioned CG-overload at times) and the fight choreography is often really great. We occasionally glimpse Momo, the flying lemur-bat, and we get a couple nice moments with Appa, the six-legged sky bison, and the landscape of Greenland is used to nice effect in a few scenes. Every now and then, a cool idea or moment from the TV show breaks through the drone of engines grinding forward.
There are plenty of bad movies that know they're bad — but TLA is the first bad movie that knows that you are bad. You deserve your full share of the blame for this movie's existence. Airbender doesn't just poke fun at its entire genre, with its hyperactive mix of randomness and blandness - it actually MST3Ks its audience. Noah Ringer and that Civil War vampire from Twilight may seem at first to be sleepwalking through a rote adventure, but you realize at last that they're actually delivering a commentary track on your callowness as an audience. It's deadpan, but unmistakable nonetheless. Aang and Sokka become Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, staring out of the screen and bemusedly riffing on our feeble attempts to invest in this saga.
In the traditional hero's journey, the hero resists the call to adventure, before finally passing over the threshold into the dangerous but juicy fantasy world where he comes into his power. And this is what happens to you, the audience, as you watch The Last Airbender, only in reverse. You resist following this movie into the dark, scary place where heroes are pieces of furniture and heroism is a Monty Python routine performed by someone who's never seen the original episodes. But then it's too late - you've passed over the threshold, you are committed, you are on the journey and the story won't let you go. You have been drawn into a place where you will lose, not only your power as an audience member, but quite possibly your mental faculties altoghether. You are lost in the wilderness, and Shyamalan is your trickster guide on a journey into nothingness, from which only your soul-dead shadow will ever return. Too late, you understand: This is the last logic-bending movie you will ever be able to sit through.
In the middle of a summer of proctologically un-thought-out action movies, The Last Airbender breezes past self-parody into a full-on comedy assault that will have you hearing Shyamalan's mocking laughter in your sleep. It's an absurdist masterpiece, in which a million things happen but nothing takes place. (In completely flat 3-D.) This is the standard by which all future epics will be judged.