For a couple of years, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan was on fire. 1999’s The Sixth Sense was a groundbreaking supernatural thriller/mystery that had the perfect combination of acting and writing to build chills while also giving subtle clues that had most of the audience figuratively slapping their heads and saying, “Oh! Of course!” when the big surprise was sprung. 2000’s Unbreakable was more movie greatness, combining some supernatural hints with a really well-done superhero story, with a bit of twist at the end. Perfect.
Shyamalan tried to do his magic yet again by taking his formula- take a genre, mix in some supernatural elements, show how a variety of seemingly unrelated factors are all VITALLY important in the 2002 alien flick Signs. Signs was a box office success, but it seemed like Shyamalan was trying too hard to continue his trademark clue and unveiling formula. I didn’t bother watching 2004’s horror The Village, but apparantly he tried the formula again. While still a success, The Village drew in less than half of Signs. America was getting tired of Shyamalan’s one-trick formula. Lady in the Water (2007) was a fairy tale. Didn’t see it. Neither did most of America, though it was a mild financial success.
2008’s The Happening was billed everywhere as Shyamalan’s first r-rated feature, and while it may have been that, I don’t know what else it was. Despite the talented starring team of Mark Walhberg and Zooey Deschanel, it barely made a profit. Perhaps because no-one knew what actually happened. Everyone I’ve talked too about the movie is only certain that lots of people died, and there were trees. And a breeze. And Zooey Deschanel has blue eyes.
Shyamlan is back with his live-action version of the popular Nickolodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender. And I want to beat the man about the head and shoulders. Airbender is a multi-part movie. While this makes sense, considering the length of the series (three seasons, one per “book”), it would have been nice to have known this going in. Nice job, jerk.
Whenever a cartoon is converted into a live-action movie, there will be changes. Inevitably, some things have to be condensed, and some changes have to be made. That’s life. Still, I don’t agree with many of the changes, related to things like ethnic extraction. Shyamalan has decided to make all the “fire nation” characters Indian, most likely so he could write himself into the story as the lead villain. (Since I foresee the death of his directing career, this may actually be the smartest thing he’s done in this movie.) Also, Shyamalan hasn’t done a very good job with the “bending” aspect. In Avatar, controlling elements is usually done with a series of martial-art-like movements. These are not always well done, and it’s especially notable with Nicola Peltz, the actress playing Katara. Peltz doesn’t have the “body sense” to realistically portray martial arts movement, unfortunately. This will probably be fairly obvious to even non-athletes and martial artists. Shyamalan has also erred with the directive movements used by Ang in his “avatar state”. The avatar state is a trance during which the avatar is at his most powerful. He doesn’t need to do any “martial dances” while in this condition to control any of the elements, and having them performed trivializes and subtracts from the story.
Shyamalan seems to have hijacked this popular series in an attempt to get his flagging writing and directing career back on track, and there are a lot of false notes. While Airbender as a cartoon is mostly happy and bright, Shyamalan’s movie is mostly shot as dark and gloomy, reminiscent of the movie version of Mortal Combat. Shyamalan has tinkered with the basic message of the movie to make it a referendum on the “spirit world”, instead of a more useful general message about peace, hope, and balance. And he has made Appa, the lovable sky bison, the least believable piece of CGI in the movie.
To: M. Night Shyamalan. From: the people of Earth. Dude, you had a decent run. Either give up, or let go of your damn formulaic approach.
A disappointing 2.5/5 stars.
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