I just realized that I never even bothered to review “The Happening.”
Wow. I’m not sure what surprises me more… the fact that I just plain skipped discussing an M. Night Shyamalan film, or the fact that I didn’t even remember if I’d written about it or not. I’ve been writing about Shyamalan’s work since 1998 at least, when I covered “Wide Awake.” I was already a fan at that time thanks to the scripts he’d written for “Labor Of Love,” “Stuart Little,” and “The Sixth Sense,” and I spent a lot of time talking him up, calling him one of the best writers in the business.
What a difference 12 years makes, because with “The Last Airbender,” the ride is finally over.
Over the last few films he made, I’ve been saying that Shyamalan’s priorities as a filmmaker had shifted, and he had become a much better director than writer. Now, based on the evidence of this film, based on the acclaimed Nickelodeon TV series, I’d say he’s not particularly good at either of those skill sets anymore. “The Last Airbender” is a total stiff, and a disappointment for fans of the show as well as a confusing mess for anyone who’s never seen an episode.
I was late to the party with the TV show. I don’t spend a lot of time watching Nickelodeon, oddly, but after hearing enough talk about it to make me curious, Paramount sent me one of the five-episode DVD collections they put out, and I checked it out. Even picking up mid-series and just watching a few episodes, I was immediately taken with the show’s energy and style and approach to character. It’s sort of like watching a slightly sillier Miyazaki film each week, full of the same genuine spirituality as Miyazaki’s best work, but unafraid of broad and goofy humor at times. The action on the show is inventive and unique, and the way the series builds from year to year is focused and controlled and eventually pays off in an experience that pays off in ways that few “kid-oriented” shows ever even attempt, much less accomplish.
One of the things that impressed me most as I watched the series was the way it incorporated notions from various faiths from around the world without disrespecting any of them. It’s one of those rare accomplishments to write something that is undeniably a corporate product aimed at young people that somehow ends up being this lovely, heartfelt, spiritual riff on the basic monomyth that drives about 2/3 of all pop culture blockbusters these days. Considering the importance that Shyamalan has always placed on the spiritual in his work, he seemed like an unlikely but oddly appropriate choice to bring the series to life on the bigscreen. For the last few films, I’ve been strongly advocating for him to work for somebody instead of creating another original, to work with material that is not his. I think it’s a good challenge for him as a storyteller, and since “The Last Airbender” isn’t built around a twist or a narrative trick so it’s outside his comfort zone.
Unfortunately, it’s waaaaaay too far outside his comfort zone. As a director, he is swallowed alive by the technical demands of the movie, and as a result, the entire film has this stiff, phony quality. I’ve seen this happen on occasion to other filmmakers who jump into these giant franchise movies without any real FX background, like when Chris Weitz made “The Golden Compass.” It’s not that they do anything wrong, per se, but it feels like they’ve walked out of a CGI classroom onto a set, and there’s nothing about the technical side of this film that feels passionate or inspired or loose, and for FX to really work, they cannot be the stop-the-show focus of a scene. They are simply a tool, meant to help tell a story, and in “The Last Airbender,” they frequently take center-stage.
Little wonder, though, and I want to be diplomatic in how I say this, because I always feel bad picking on child actors. The sad truth is that Noah Ringer simply doesn’t work. He seems like a sweet kid, and that sweetness is appropriate for the character, and he looks like he’s had some martial arts schooling, so his moves aren’t bad. But there’s zero emotional depth to the performance, and although he is a child on the outside, Aang is a reincarnated soul and this particular incarnation is over 100 years old. There are levels to the character that the show tapped beautifully at times, and in a film that tries to jam a full year’s worth of story into a two hour film, there is little room for nuance.
Then again, I might be totally wrong about his performance, and I’d never know it because of how the film’s been edited. It feels like a film that was just randomly chopped up after it was delivered to the studio, and there’s this bizarre rushed quality to the storytelling, lurching from story point to story point without ever leaving any room for any signs of life. When you’re dealing with a word that is fantastic, and you’re lading the exposition on as heavily as this film does, you need to offer up some recognizable humanity at the heart of the film to hold onto. If you can’t create a dynamic relationship between Aang (Ringer) and his two young friends Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), then nothing else matters. I’d say Peltz is probably the person that comes closest to nailing their role down, and she works so hard to convince that there’s a connection between Katara and Aang that I wanted to believe it. I think it’s safe to say that I have had more than enough Jackson Rathbone this week between this and “Eclipse.” More than anything, I feel bad for the guy because he’s in two giant movies with the two worst onscreen haircuts of the year. It’s like someone is actively trying to make him look like a jackass.
Dev Patel, though, is bad enough in this film to distract my attention from pretty much every other performance. If “Slumdog Millionaire” was his breakthrough, then this is his breakdown. He is truly awful here, and his earnestness as he has to spit out ridiculous dialogue that basically just hammers one point over and over is pretty much laughable. Whatever Patel is, he’s not threatening or menacing or particularly charismatic. His personality was perfectly suited for his role in “Slumdog,” but he’s as miscast as poor Ringer, the two of them offering no polar charges at all, a problem when they are ostensibly your bad guy and good guy for the film. Cliff Curtis, who I normally like, is weirdly bad as Fire Lord Ozai, gnawing scenery every single time he shows up. And then there’s Aasif Mandvi, a regular correspondent on “The Daily Show,” and although he’s got a long career as an actor under his belt, that “Daily Show” gig has absolutely destroyed my ability to take him seriously. It’s like if Rob Corddry showed up as the villain in the new “Die Hard” film and played it totally straight. He might be able to pull it off, but there’s no way I’d be able to take it seriously.
I have a sneaking suspicion this is going to be the only film in this particular live-action franchise. If they do move forward, there is little or no chance they will be doing so with Shyamalan attached. And the idea that he’s not even competent enough to pull off a live-action version of an action cartoon pretty much puts the last stake in the heart of the notion of him as “the new Spielberg.” After I saw “Lady In The Water,” I called a friend of mine and compared the film to that footage from the ’60s of the monk lighting himself on fire in public as a form of protest. I’d forgotten about that call until my buddy reminded me the other day, but I think that sums up that film and “The Happening” both… cries for help that were public and ugly and left little behind aside from ash and horrifying images. This time out, I think the cries for help are over. This is more like you’re at a party and a dude walks up to you and starts telling you a story, but he’s so drunk that he gets most of the details wrong and he gets things out of order and he skips important information and, most importantly, he’s totally unaware that he’s pissed his pants and his dick is showing. It’s embarrassing, and you hardly know where to look.
For fans of the show, I can sum up how big a misfire this is very simply. They got Appa wrong. As you can see in the photo, he looks right, but he’s just used as a transition from one scene to the next without any discernible personality. I repeat… they got Appa wrong.
There are moments that hint at the film this could have been, and there’s one beat towards the end of the film, when Aang finally steps up to push the Fire Nation back, that suggests how the spiritual and the visceral could have been combined into something special and unique. Instead, “The Last Airbender” just lays there, stillborn, potential squandered. And not just the film’s potential, either. This is a sad indicator of just how completely Shyamalan has thrown away his own gifts, the last stop on what has been a very disappointing career arc. Honestly, I don’t see how he redeems himself after this. I do understand why he worked to set up his next film before anyone had seen this one, though, because after today, even his staunchest defenders are going to have to admit that he has lost whatever connection he once had to the audience.
Oh… and the 3D conversion? Stop it. Ugly. Pointless. Unconvincing. Please knock it off.
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