The Trashed Airbender

As a general rule of thumb, doing the mere opposite of whatever Political Correctors would have you do, is likely to bring you felicity and joy: and so it has for me this weekend.

For me this was no light decision. I was caught, writhing in uncertainty like a fish on a line, in a dilemma between the absurdly high price charged to see the film, my desire to live up the promise I had made my shrieking children we could go see it, and my fear that the film would be truly bad, as all the negative hype implied.

I went to go see THE LAST AIRBENDER.

LAST AIRBENDER is based on a Nickelodeon cartoon almost of the same name (AVATAR was pre-empted by another film). The setup is explained in the voiceover opening of every episode of the cartoon. The four nations of Earth, Water, Fire and Air once upon a time lived in balance. Each nation has martial art called ‘bending’ — psychokinetic control of its element. Only the Avatar controls all four elements. The Avatar vanished one hundred years ago. The balance was broken when the Fire Nation set out to conquer the other nations. They exterminated the Air Nomads and began systematically hunting down all other benders. Only the missing Avatar can stop the ambitions of the Fire Nation and restore world harmony.  But the current Avatar is a young Airbender—the last of his kind— named Aang, who is unready and untrained for the daunting task. Two members of the southern Water tribe, Sokka and his sister Kitara, discover the Avatar frozen in the ice, and they set out to help him, assisting on his journey to find the training and allies he needs; meanwhile an exiled Fire Nation prince named Zuko relentlessly hunts him.

The director who asked to do the live action film is M. Night Shyamalan, a director of considerable talent and prestige, and so hopes (including my own) that this film would do justice to the wonderful cartoon were running high.

Those hopes were cruelly dashed when the first reviews came out, the overwhelming majority overwhelmingly negative.  On the famous ‘Tomatometer’ at ROTTEN TOMATOES website, the film was scored at an 8%, the lowest score of any major film in recent memory.

Everyone, every review, scorned and dismissed this movie. Every critic panned it.

There were two categories of criticism: first were the sane critics, people whose judgment I trust, who said the acting the wooden, the blocking was bad, the film was murky, the plotline was confusing, the names were mispronounced, the humor was lacking, the cartoon was betrayed.

The second criticism came from barking moonbats, who yowled, howled and growled that the film in some obscure way offended the capricious and irresponsibly arbitrary gods of Political Correctness, those cruel gods never to be placated, for overstepping some boundary of their ever-changing and ever-more-silly rules of cultural Marxist theory.  Of course, this means about as much as being accused of being a witch by a professional witch-chaser of the 16th century—the film was racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, heterosexophoboracist, lookist, age-ist, snarfist, bigoted, biased, mean-spirited, part of an oppressive narrative, or contributing to global warming. Or something. No honest man cares what these sanctimonious yet frothing lunatics rolling in their own distempered vomit think, and even to repeat their accusations is both to give them credit beyond their merit, and to feel the slime of their spiritual grease on one’s soul.

But the first category of criticism is not to be scoffed away. Verily, I recall my disappointment with THE SHADOW starring Alec Baldwin, which, despite its nearly perfect art direction and period look, changed the central idea of the character from a spooky avenger of the night to a man tormented by self doubt. I recall with tears the live action version of THE FANTASTIC FOUR, which was so bad that by the time I was found a week later living in a dumpster, I was merely rocking myself back and forth in the corner, eyes glassy, mumbling ‘Victor von Doom is not a male fashion model’ over and over again, until electroshock therapy returned me to what passes for normal consciousness.  So, I know full well that Hollywood has no particular talent to portray beloved pulp and funnybook characters on the screen.

I am not a wealthy man, and so the prospect of taking my family out to a movie is a daunting one: the price tag was over $70 dollars for this weekend’s outing, and I have yet to recover from the shock.

This price was roughly twice what I was prepared to spend. My beautiful and talented wife looked at me woebegone, as stunned by the sticker shock as I was. Kindly friends who had joined us for the expedition offered to pass the hat, and take up a collection, to pay for part of the ticket price.

I was on the verge of walking away from the ticket booth and taking my children to go do something less expensive, such as burning banknotes or skipping rare gold doubloons in the river, and in the midst of wavering in uncertainty, one clear thought came to me.

The thought was: I have to defy them.

You know who ‘them’ are. The insects. The Correctors.

Still burning in my recent memory was the time the Correctors sneeringly accused an honest and hard working editor of being racist because he failed to provide a token black in the table of contents for an anthology of hard-SF sense-of-wonder space opera. I bought that book, even though I could not afford it, merely to defy them. It turned out to be a darn fine anthology.

I decided that no matter how bad this film was, no matter how far short this film fell on the grounds of the first category of criticism, the mere fact that the second category of criticism existed at all, meant that it was my duty as a gentleman to give M. Night Shyamalan my hard earned money. This, despite the fact that I knew full well that he was responsible for THE HAPPENING. Even though I knew that my contribution would mean nothing, the insects in their swarms were so vile, and so far beneath contempt, that they had to be opposed, utterly and completely, without compromise, in all things great and small.

So I gritting my teeth, went to the local clinic to contribute the blood donation necessary to raise the cash, and took my kids to the movie.

Not just one, but every single criticism I heard about this movie turned out to be not only false, but the exact opposite of true. For example, one critic told me that the martial arts fight scenes contained too little ‘bending’ — not enough special effects — and too much punching and kicking. I don’t know which version of the film this critic saw, but it was not the one I saw. There was flame and rock and ice flashing and flying in every battle, and I lost track of the number of times Aang spun villains away through the air with his whirlwindy tai kwan do.

Another critic said Aang did not look right. False. This was the real Aang. He was a perfect in the role, and he looked and spoke just like the real Aang (and by real, of course, I mean the cartoon version).

Another critic said the plot was cramped and too full; another said too long; another said too short; another said too much exposition;  and so on. I recall perhaps one voice over I thought was unnecessary, and aside from that the plot seemed (to me, at least) to be perfectly clear — of course, I am a fan of the cartoon, so I knew what the set up was, but as best I can tell, someone having never seen the cartoon should be able to follow the action.

They pronounced the names wrong, that is to say, not as spoken on the cartoon. (AH-ng rather than AI-ng or SO-ka rather than SAH-ka) I thought this would bug the heck out of me, but I did not notice it at all, I was too caught up in the drama, the action, the spectacle.

Other critics said the film did not cover the main points of the first season. Well, that is a judgment call. Basically the events of the first two episodes and the last two are covered, and you cannot expect much else out of a normal-length movie.

Other critics, many of them, said the acting was wooden and the kids could not act. If that is the case, I never noticed.

Was there any criticism that was true? Well, yes, unfortunately there was. The energy and humor present in the cartoon was absent from the film. There were maybe one or two jokes in the film where the cartoon is surfeited with witty banter, dialog, and snappy jokes. M. Night Shyamalan is no doubt known for his grim Hitchcockian thrillers for a reason: he is good at doing grim. A writer like Joss Whedon is known for his snappy banter, and Shyamalan is no Whedon. The character of Sokka, who is the comedy relief in the cartoon, was downgraded into merely a complainer; Uncle Iroh, who in the cartoon (voiced by the late, great Mako, who also did the voice of Aku in SAMURAI JACK) exudes abundant joviality as well as wisdom and compassion, here was merely a kindly but stern man, in no way projecting what the character in the cartoon put across. Uncle Iroh is one of the best beloved characters in the cartoon, and, to me, one of the best beloved characters of any tale or story in any medium, period, full stop.

Take a look, for example, at the characters in their two different incarnations. Notice what is missing?

The Unsmiling Airbender

None of the live action characters are smiling.

But the live action film was a different take on the story. The grimmer tone might appeal to some viewers, but I thought it suffered in comparison with the source material.

I would also warn anyone not to bother seeing it in 3-D. No real use is made of this, and the colors are murky  through the glasses.

However, the look of the film, the art direction and costuming and such, was perfect, simply perfect. The sight of the warships of the Fire Nation, their huge funnels roaring with flame and darkening the skies with smoke is one that will live in the imagination, once seen.

Need I say anything about the criticism of the Correctors? The cast of the movie had more races and ethnicities than the UN or the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.  I best I can understand, the criticism is that the various races did not fulfill the stereotyped roles that the Political Correctors have assigned to each race based on its skin color. In other words, the real racists were criticizing the non-racists for not being racist enough. There was not enough white-bashing in this children’s adventure story to please them.  But to speak more of these enemies of reason, life, and good taste is unnecessary and unpleasant.

The last two times I have decided to buy something I could not afford merely to show support for whatever underdog the mob of vermin was slandering, I was rewarded with something that more than repaid the cost. May it always be so.

Don’t believe the negative hype.

As I watched the well-done and visually stunning opening scene, and then the next well-done scene, and the next, I kept thinking that it was good so far. When was it going to get bad?

Well, it never did get bad.

I had discussed the dilemma of paying for so expensive a movie, as well as the film’s merits and demerits, with my children before and afterward. They agreed there should have been more humor, and my youngest son regretting that the film did not have the episode where the Avatar visits Omashu, to meet his hyper-octogenarian friend, the mad genius Boomie. My youngest was as surprised as was I that this film only got 8% on the tomatometer.

My youngest in a loud voice, speaking over the end credits so that the whole theater could hear,  reported his opinion. “That was a good movie! I’d give it a tomato!”