Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Blowing in the Wind: The Last Airbender
It’s come to this. With The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan manufactures what is arguably the most shocking conclusion of any of his seven signature films simply by delivering approximately 10 minutes of truly worthwhile cinema. Alas, Shyamalan follows those 10 minutes with a clumsy sequel teaser that obliterates the emotional harmony of the preceding crescendo like a gong at the end of a harp recital, but no matter. After roughly 290 minutes of almost pure suckitude, over the course of Lady in the Water, The Happening and all but the very end of The Last Airbender, even M. Night mediocrity would be worth celebrating. Instead, for the first time in a long time, Shyamalan reaches deep and gives us something genuinely special, a scene that triggers childlike wonderment – even though the scene’s big CGI effect was foretold by the film’s trailers, even though the scene’s tension is interrupted by an unnecessary flashback that visualizes an episode that had already been described in satisfactory detail. Despite such imperfections, when the pint-sized titular character reaches into his soul to lift an ocean, in triumph over a personal trauma and in protection of a peaceful city, Shyamalan creates something that all six Harry Potter films have struggled to realize: a depiction of magic that is indeed magical.
Unfortunately, the effects of the spell are fleeting. Shyamalan can’t even make it to the closing credits without dashing the hopes of his most ardent fans (because, to be sure, it’s only his ardent fans who have any hope left) by shilling for a sequel that no sane person would ever want to see. What’s disheartening isn’t the nakedness of the product placement so much as the obviousness of Shyamalan’s obliviousness: he doesn’t realize that he hasn’t earned it – hasn’t earned our butts in the seats of his next film, hadn’t really earned our butts in the seats of this film and, if his recent pictures are evidence of where he’s going, hasn’t earned the right to put his own butt in the seat of a director’s chair anytime soon. Shyamalan’s latest three films have been supreme disasters, movies highlighted by erratic pacing, cringe-inducing performances, illogical and/or inscrutable plots and dialogue so atrocious that even George Lucas would be entitled to groan in its direction (at least once).
What the hell happened? Hollywood hype aside, how did this one-time wunderkind become such a washout? Shyamalan’s fall from grace is as mystifying as any of his best films. Go ahead, call The Sixth Sense a moderately pleasing but wildly overrated thriller with a gimmicky conclusion. Say that the only truly great film Shyamalan has made is Unbreakable, being sure to note that even then he felt compelled to match the recipe of his previous hit with a clunky closing twist. Shout from the rooftops that Signs feels mostly uninspired, too paint-by-number. Argue that The Village is hard to take seriously due to its glaring overacting, including Shyamalan’s most awkward ill-advised cameo (which is saying something), and an inelegant finale that contains some garish slow-motion and effects. I won’t begin argue. Just don’t tell me those films are lacking in moments, scenes that transcend Shyamalan’s tin ear for dialogue, scenes that unfold in richly imagined and fully realized worlds, scenes that, if nothing else, successfully achieve the mood that Shyamalan wished to create. Heck, even the otherwise atrocious Lady in the Water gets the mood right half the time, even though its characters speak in labored, too literate sentences that make it seem as if English is their third or fourth language. These last two films? Beyond that out-of-nowhere 10 minutes of magic, there’s nothing whatsoever in The Happening or Airbender with even a hint of Shyamalan’s previous grace. Watching these films, it’s not only impossible to imagine him returning to form, it’s also impossible to understand how he ever made it through one film, never mind the better part of four, so elegantly.
Before I go on, let me be clear: There is no joy in Mudville. I adore Unbreakable. I believe The Village is a profoundly misunderstood and thus vastly underrated work, one of the most moving love stories I’ve encountered on the big screen over the past decade. I take no pleasure, none, in pounding nails into Shyamalan’s coffin. I have seen each of his films and, partly out of endless hope and partly out of morbid curiosity, I’ll probably see his next one. Indefensible as it is to say so, I can’t imagine missing it. Then again, I also can’t imagine watching Lady in the Water, The Happening or Airbender ever again, which is a shame because I’d love to experience that 10-minute ocean-lifting sequence once more. The problem is that it takes almost 90 minutes to get there, and sitting through the three most recent Shyamalan films has frequently been as excruciatingly uncomfortable as watching a blind person trying to navigate through a cluttered, unfamiliar space. There’s almost nothing in these films to indicate that Shyamalan has a clue of where he’s been or where he’s going, and maybe that explains why, of all scenes, he nails the moment at the end of Airbender, right before that obligatory plug for the inevitable sequel. To watch the sequence in which the hero demonstrates the full extent of his powers is to think that moment was the light guiding Shyamalan’s way. Yet to reflect back on the majority of the film is to realize that Airbender’s dramatic conclusion succeeds in a vacuum. Shyamalan doesn’t build a solid foundation for his big finish, the way he does with the twist-ending of The Sixth Sense or with the heroic awakening of David Dunn in Unbreakable. Instead, Shyamalan merely brings us along for the ride. The preceding 90 minutes provide narrative transportation rather than an emotional evolution.
To provide a list of the film’s faults strikes me as cruel, and maybe that’s the most damning thing of all: At this point I feel sorry for Shyamalan. Like a boxer who hangs on too long, the damage to Shyamalan’s reputation is entirely self-inflicted. And yet, unlike with the over-the-hill boxer, it’s impossible to say why Shyamalan lost the ability to stun us with a knockout punch. Was Shyamalan’s greatest misfortune finding success by going out of the box to more or less discover Bryce Dallas Howard for The Village (which remains the actress’ best performance to date)? Did that triumph, coupled with his previous box-office accomplishments, convince him that his instincts are truly infallible? Because for three films in a row Shyamalan has followed his gut to fault. It’s impossible for me to understand how he could watch The Happening or Airbender in the editing room without realizing he'd created an inane mess, unless, somehow, Shyamalan sincerely believes he’s spinning gold.
If only we could blame it on apathy. Alas, one can’t read so much as a chapter of Michael Bamberger’s The Man Who Heard Voices without realizing that isn’t the problem. Shyamalan cares deeply. Maybe too deeply. And yet like Airbender’s tragically underdeveloped main character, Aang (Noah Ringer), who is alternately suggested to be the ultimate ass-kicker and a helpless pacifist, it’s as if Shyamalan is struggling to harness his emotional energy. Aang spends most of this cartoon-series-inspired film engaged in balletic “bending” routines, conjuring special powers to manipulate air or water. When he isn’t doing that, Aang has a habit of going through the motions, flailing his arms around to no constructive ends whatsoever. It’s this last exercise that, given Shyamalan’s recent struggles, seems all too fitting.
The previous film was viewed in 2-D.
Also see: Getting Bent After The Last Airbender