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


Richard Bellamy said...

Was the magic as long as 10 minutes? I remember feeling, finally, a surge of engagement in the film when Aang starts raising that wave, but everything leading up to that moment is so disjointed and poorly paced that I was numb - too numb to feel anything more than a glimmer of a thrill. I'm with you here, though, wondering what's happened to M. Night.

Jason Bellamy said...

Good question. I figured that the ocean-lifting, plus the flashback, plus the moment just after that when Aang accepts his role as the Avatar was at the very least six minutes, and so I decided to give Shyamalan the courtesy of rounding up.

I understand why you were numb. I recall feeling that way at the end of Lady in the Water -- although in that case the big finish was made awkward by being somewhat silly, too. Anyway, in this case I really did feel the magic, more bliss than I've found at a Shyamalan film in too long now, even if it was relatively minor and fleeting.

Craig said...

"Blowin' in the Wind" was my heading for The Happening, but it works for this one too.

Shyamalan's true calling is selling snake-oil on one of those morning cable infomercials. Here's hoping he embraces his destiny.

Unknown said...

This will be the first Shyamalan film I'm skipping altogether, even on DVD. One reason is that I think he's become a lost cause with his last 4 movies being bad in ways that are almost shocking. Also, reading any plot description of "Airbender" makes my eyes glaze over due to the fantasy film gobbledygook. Couldn't they come up with a better term than "airbender" to describe manipulating air?

I am leaning towards the notion that he thinks everything he makes is gold. I imagine him doing one take and saying, "That was perfect!" much like Johnny Depp in "Ed Wood". That's the only reason I can explain how those precise and masterful long takes in "Unbreakable", as well as his direction of some of the best performances by Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson turned into the indifferent direction of "The Happening" with Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel coming across as mentally disabled. His movies now feel like they come from first draft screenplays that are not even tested with a table read.

I will say that I actually find "The Happening" rewatchable because I think it's hilarious. "Why are you eyein' my lemon drink?" or that one character defending the honor of hot dogs or Mark Wahlberg telling everyone to shut up so he can think followed by a close-up shot of Wahlberg putting on his thinking face. Laugh riot.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: Funny. When I wrote that headline, I thought: "Every reviewer must have used this." It never hit me that it also worked for The Happening, even a little better.

Steven: After watching Airbender and marveling about it for a good 20 minutes, Hokahey and I got into the inevitable debate about, "Which would you rather watch again, The Happening or Last Airbender?" My first reaction, and I meant it, was, "Whichever one is shorter." Thinking about it more, I decided I'd rather see Airbender, if only for that one scene, whereas nothing about The Happening makes me want to go back. Hokahey took your angle: He thought that the dialogue was the kind of ridiculous that made it funny, and so he'd be more apt to watch that, to laugh, for example, at the moment in which the characters go into what they think is a fully functioning home and Zooey says something like, "There must be a bathroom in here." (Uh, yeah, you'd think so.) Or the moments when Wahlberg urges people to "stay ahead of the wind," which sounds like some sort of Zen exercise. The "thinking face," too, is indeed a "laugh riot."

Tony Dayoub said...

This is a wonderful piece with which I almost completely agree. I'm with you on THE SIXTH SENSE. And UNBREAKABLE is a career peak for Shyamalan. The twist ending doesn't even bother me too much except that it's loaded with so much portent it overshadows the earlier, more important scene of Willis' awakening which you mention. How was I to know he was establishing a pattern with the stupid twist ending? HELLO NIGHT, it's not a twist if the audience starts expecting it every time!

SIGNS is an inferior variation on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD's locked-in-a-house-with-the-monsters-just-outside riff. But again I agree that THE VILLAGE is underrated. Howard is a cut above an otherwise fantastic cast. The twist is telegraphed in the film's opening credits, however; its only major failing.

The less said about LADY IN THE WATER, the better. On THE HAPPENING, I am far more forgiving. I liked the premise of some mysterious wind causing mayhem. The mistake is not only the explanation itself, but in explaining it at all. I was hoping this would be some creepy mystery a la Hitch's THE BIRDS, where you never know why the seagulls acted up in this one town. Betty Buckley's scene in particular, I felt was gripping. But Marky Mark talking to the plants? And then the ultimate explanation for this occurence (which I won't reveal to anyone who wants to experience the fastest deflation of a film from somewhat intriguing to epitome of suckitude)?

I had largely been looking forward to seeing THE LAST AIRBENDER because knowing what I do from watching the wonderful cartoon with my son, I was excited that Shyamalan would be denied a twist ending. This would allow him to break out of that box he placed himself in, I thought. Little did I know...

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the detailed thoughts, Tony! A few replies ...

* The twist of Unbreakable didn't bother me because I didn't think it was the emotional high point, nor did I think it was meant to be. (Now I'm sure I'm right about the first part, but probably not the latter.) The high point is Dunn's self-awakening, which comes with that long sequence of going to the train station, entering the home, taking on the anonymous bad guy and then admitting his identity to his son.

* Likewise, I felt that The Village wasn't really about fooling us. I thought the surprise was intentionally telegraphed, a bit similar to the hardly veiled surprise of Shutter Island. There are legitimate things to dislike about that film (the entire finale, minus the very last scene, is clunky), but I thought audience went into that one looking for the twist that Shyamalan had conditioned us to expect. In part, that's Shyamalan's fault. Then again, that's not the way to go into a film, no more than it's proper to go to a magic performance and ask to walk around the stage during the act to look for the smoke and mirrors. People treated The Village like it was just a puzzle, and then ridiculed it for being easy to solve. Meantime, they ignored a genuinely moving love story.

* Agreed on Lady in the Water, which is brutal in ways I had forgotten until I re-read my own review. In that case, I feel like Shyamalan had a defendable mindset -- trying to create a bedtime story as it might be imagined by a child -- he just screwed up the execution.

* Great thoughts on The Happening. What puzzles me most about that film, compared to Lady and Airbender is that, more or less, it's the kind of mystery/suspense movie he'd made before with Sense, Signs and The Village, and yet to watch The Happening is to think he doesn't understand the genre at all. It's like an NBA player who suddenly has lost the ability to dribble. Odd.

* I should clarify in respect to Airbender: There's no surprise twist. There's just the surprise of some good filmmaking from Shyamalan, which is followed by an insert that plugs the sequel (which at this point they should NOT allow Shyamalan to direct under any circumstances). The insert is ill-advised. The film seems to finish on a high note and then ... just when you think the credits are coming ... not so fast! It did surprise people -- folks gathering their bags and standing up, had to sit back down for a moment -- but it wasn't a Shyamalan twist, as he's employed before.

* Amazingly, I still have more Shyamalan thoughts percolating. I might need to do another post.

Tony Dayoub said...

The twist of Unbreakable didn't bother me because I didn't think it was the emotional high point, nor did I think it was meant to be.

Agreed. I was equating it to what you say about AIRBENDER. It bothers me this "nifty" twist ending was attached after the story of David Dunn comes to a resolution. I think its "cool factor" robs the earlier "awakening" scene of a bit of its power.

I should clarify in respect to Airbender: There's no surprise twist.

I got that. I should have clarified by finishing my original thought: I had largely been looking forward to seeing THE LAST AIRBENDER because knowing what I do from watching the wonderful cartoon with my son, I was excited that Shyamalan would be denied a twist ending. This would allow him to break out of that box he placed himself in, I thought. Little did I know... that the rest of the movie would suck!

PS: I'm not so sure Shyamalan meant for THE VILLAGE's twist to be telegraphed. I think he was simply laying clues out in the open so he wouldn't be accused of such an abrupt twist later on. But I agree it's a moving love story, and for a while, a chilling film.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ah, I'm with you now!

Last part first: The more movies Shaymalan makes, the harder it is for me to believe in The Village. The love story is powerful. I haven't backed up on that. But now that mannered dialogue that I thought was intentional -- it sounds fake because, well, it is -- might just be the way Shyamalan writes dialogue. Same goes for the dialogue in Unbreakable, which seems justifiable because of its comic book super-hero allusions, but maybe that was just a lucky coincidence.

On Airbender ...

I thought this had the potential to get M. Night out of the hole. With the cartoon series to follow, he could get out of his own head a bit and rely on his basic filmmaking skills, which I assumed were there. I mean, how else to explain the train or weight-lifting scenes from Unbreakable, just to pick two? I thought the only risk might be that the studio would pressure him to create lots of big-CGI scenes, which hasn't really been his thing. But CGI blandness isn't the problem with Airbender. It repeatedly botches even the simplest of scenes. It's baffling. Truly baffling.

Craig said...

Steven's comparison to Ed Wood is apt because Night doesn't seem to know he's being funny. That's what makes his movies classically bad. (And I've always thought The Sixth Sense and Signs suck too. Unbreakable?....Sucks less.) I'll wait for Last Airbender on DVD. Now I actually want to see The Happening again. "The guy defending the honor of hot dogs" -- I've got tears from laughing just thinking about it.

Richard Bellamy said...

I guess I'm in the minority here when I say that I love Signs. I love the music (from its first chilling notes as the credits open), the building tension, the way everything falls into place at the end - and one of the most chilling scenes ever filmed - when the Mexican newscast shows a video of the alien crossing the frame.

Richard Bellamy said...

As a matter of fact I love The Village too - and I rate them thusly -

1. Unbreakable
2. The Village
3. Signs
4. The Sixth Sense

Forget the rest...

Jake said...

I'm on Hokahey's side. It flirted with being good but everything that came before was so terrible and the completely asinine flashback in the middle of it was just...Christ, this is my new Transformers 2, my new go-to reason to hate Hollywood and to not feel bad that the American empire is crumbling. We deserve it.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, I won't be seeing this one, as I've fully given up on Shyamalan at this point. Great piece, though. It's really sad how fully he seems to have lost his way; I think he's bought his own hype, which is years old by now, and convinced himself that he's a genius on the level of Hitchcock. I want to like his films: if you describe The Happening or Lady in the Water they can sound like brilliant conceptual exercises, except that actually watching them is excrutiating. I've seen people defend them and come away thinking that yeah, this was what Shyamalan was after, but he just can't pull it off.

I think it's clear that Unbreakable will always be his one great film, the one film he's made that I can fully get behind. But his other earlier films all do have those moments you talk about. The Sixth Sense is interesting, at least the first time around, but I'd say it's the kind of film that's so fully built around its twist that it becomes irrelevant the second time. Signs has a REALLY awkward and silly ending and some other goofy stuff along the way, but what it gets right, it gets REALLY right, like the atmosphere and the tension, the sense of fearful waiting. I remember one shot of the family gathered around the table with a radio of some kind in the foreground, making noise, and it's so suspenseful and chilling - it's been many years since I've seen this film and I still remember shots like that. It was maybe the beginning of Shyamalan's decline but it still got enough right that he seemed to have the makings of a really great suspense/thriller director.

The Village was more of the same: stiff, awkward, silly, uneven, with one of the most unbelievably lame endings ever, but damn did it get the chills and the scares right, the shivery terror of just barely glimpsing those creatures that go bump in the night. After that, though, he'd just keep getting less and less right, until The Happening is basically only watchable for me, as for Hokahey, as a big joke. I've caught parts of it on TV from time to time and it's a trainwreck I can't look away from, particularly if it happens to be around the scene where everybody runs away from the wind, which never fails to induce hysterics.

Sad that a once-promising director is now a punchline, but there you go. When I think of him now I mostly think of South Park's simple but devastating parody of his storytelling skills: "It's a tweest!"

Unknown said...

I also want to add that 'Signs' does get a bad rap. As Ed says, there are some great moments and shots in that movie which show Shyamalan knows how to create a mood and genuine suspense, mostly through silence. Then again, there was at least a suggestion of genuine menace in that film, as opposed to Shyamalan building an entire movie around people trying to outrun wind.

Richard Bellamy said...

"Signs has a REALLY awkward and silly ending and some other goofy stuff along the way, but what it gets right, it gets REALLY right, like the atmosphere and the tension, the sense of fearful waiting. I remember one shot of the family gathered around the table with a radio of some kind in the foreground, making noise, and it's so suspenseful and chilling - it's been many years since I've seen this film and I still remember shots like that."

Glad to see some support of Signs here, Ed. Objectively I can agree that some of the elements of the ending are silly, but I'm always so caught up in how the pieces fall together dramatically that the end always works for me.

As for the parts that "it gets REALLY right," I think a lot of that has to do with masterful editing and cinematography. To put my viewing where my mouth is, I re-watched the movie the night I made my previous comment above, and I was struck at how the film is nicely paced, and it has some great shots and cuts that are well worth rewinding to run through again and again.

Jason Bellamy said...

Good comments, all. And way to go back to Signs, Hokahey!

Yeah, I wasn't fond of the ending, and just in general I thought it was missing a little something ... But I can still remember the tension of the scene when Mel Gibson investigates the house of the doctor (that's the situation, right?) and slides the knife under the door to try to see a reflection. Hokahey is right, too, about the initial reveal of the alien (though that scene might have been more powerful if the aliens weren't so goofy looking). I think its the film's rough final act that detract from its overall impact. At this point, if Shyamalan ever made another film of Signs I'd call it a comeback.

Online HD said...

I had largely been looking forward to seeing THE LAST AIRBENDER because knowing what I do from watching the wonderful cartoon with my son, I was excited that Shyamalan would be denied a twist ending. This would allow him to break out of that box he placed himself in, I thought. Little did I know...
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