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WHY NOTHING HOLLYWOOD EVER DOES EXCITES US ANYMORE # 2 344: THE LAST AIRBENDER
 

 

Sci-fi fans can be an excitable and wondrously optimistic bunch, but their optimism is often unwarranted . . .

Whenever there is some rumor on the Internet about [insert much-beloved SF classic book title] or [insert title of hugely popular videogame] being made into movies they would literally pee their pants. In contrast we here at scifimoviepage.com would just sigh, roll our eyes and wish that Hollywood wouldn’t mess it up again this time.

Jaded? Maybe, but usually our hope is in vain. Science fiction fans argue that there are a lot of great genre material (books, movies, comics, etc.) out there just begging to be made into movies. They might have a point. However, the reality is that some of the more interesting and successful recent Hollywood science fiction and fantasy efforts were in fact based on original material and not on any existing TV show, bestseller, comic book or the like – namely Avatar, District 9 and Inception. (OK, perhaps Avatar with its simplistic blue aliens as good injuns fighting it out with bad cowboys plot doesn’t exactly count as 100% “original” material, but it was pretty successful . . .)

In fact the huge box office success of these three blockbusters should give Hollywood producers some pause the next time they rush out to remake some obscure TV series or base a movie franchise on a beloved toy line. They should also consider that some of the best science fiction movies were in fact based on original material and not any sci-fi book - Alien, Terminator and Back to the Future anyone?

The point is however that some material are just plain ill-suited for movie adaptations and should be preferably left alone. One recent example is the M. Night Shyamalan travesty known as The Last Airbender, the 2010 live action movie adaptation based on the kiddies animated show that ran on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008.

Ignoring the fact that Shyamalan’s career has been on a steadily downward curve since his huge 1999 box office hit Sixth Sense, it seems impossible to make a mess out of a full-length movie version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. (The Shyamalan movie dropped the "Avatar" bit from its title so as not to confuse audiences – as if there was any chance of that!)

After all, the original TV show was simply excellent. Borrowing its animation style from anime (the show is actually American) Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in a fantastical distant kingdom in which four tribes – each possessing supernatural control over the elements of fire, water, earth and air – battle it out for supremacy. Only one person – a holy man known as the Avatar who can control all four elements – can restore balance and peace to the world. The problem is that the Avatar is only still a small kid . . .

"We think that Hollywood should keep its stinking paws off the likes of Ender's Game and Foundation . . ."

The TV show boasted sparkling humor, well-rounded characters, an epic storyline and unexpected depth. M. Night Shyamalan claims that he decided to make a movie out of the series when he began watching it religiously along with his kids. It is easy to see why Shyamalan would want to make a movie out of Avatar: The Last Airbender. It is genuinely good and comes highly recommended. Unlike many of animated television efforts it is the sort of show that parents can easily watch along with their children.

Shyamalan however shouldn’t have bothered.

Some movies should never have been made in the first place and The Last Airbender is one of them. It is everything the TV show isn’t: characters are one-dimensional (calling them one-dimensional is actually an insult to one-dimensionality to be honest), the story uninvolving and dull. It is the sort of thing which you watch on DVD and wonder if there isn’t something else you can do while it is running: wash the dishes, flick through a magazine or clip your toenails perhaps. Shyamalan managed to strip the TV show of everything that made it special in the first place.

Even if you haven’t seen a single episode of the TV series, you’d still be unhappy with the end result; fans will have the unenviable task of convincing newbies that “the original show wasn’t that bad.” The Last Airbender has everything money can buy: passable special effects and some excellent set designs. What it however couldn’t buy was some decent actors (the acting is particularly horrid and the movie features one of the blandest baddies ever) and a good script.

The fault isn’t however entirely Shyamalan’s though. The Last Airbender is hopelessly overambitious, attempting to squeeze in all the major events from the 20 or so half hour-long episodes that make up the first season of the show into a 99 minute long feature film. It is a thankless task. In the end it is even less than a Reader’s Digest-like synopsis as it simply skips over entire episodes and rather focuses on events from a handful of episodes from the beginning and end of the season in question. Considering that there are still two more seasons in the show to be adapted it is no wonder that audiences felt cheated, pretty much like they do with any open-ended “ending” right from Empire Strikes Back to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I.

With the above in mind it is no wonder that Shyamalan managed to strip the story bare to the bones and chucked out niceties such as, er, interesting characters. The Last Airbender could have benefited greatly from a longer running time, but Paramount execs probably decided early on that children wouldn’t sit through anything longer than an hour and a half (it is clear they obviously haven’t seen any of the recent Harry Potter movies then).

How Shyamalan goes about condensing the material at hand is however such a colossal failure of storytelling that it is difficult to imagine that this is the same film-maker who once wowed audiences with Sixth Sense back then. Burdened with a tiresome voice-over the story progresses in awkward fits and starts, and never gets off the ground (ironic for a movie about a boy who can control the air to literally fly). The end result is episodic and fragmented.

Huge chunks of dialogue are simply lumps of clumsy exposition. “You probably already know what I’m about to tell you,” one can imagine one character telling another, “but the audience out there doesn’t know it yet so I’m telling you this again.” When it comes to screenwriting Shyamalan seems to have skipped the first lesson of essay writing that your teacher tried to teach you, namely show, don’t tell.

The end result is an amateurish mess. The movie has no flow or momentum. The fact remains however that condensing a whole season of TV shows into one movie was a folly to begin with, which brings us to our original point: we think that Hollywood should keep its stinking paws off the likes of Ender’s Game, Foundation and Y: The Last Man (the epic comic book series about a lone male survivor of an apocalypse which wiped out all of the planet’s men).

After all, we really loved those books and there is nothing we’d hate to do more than explaining that “yeah, but the book was pretty good . . .” to non-fans.


 



 

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