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After Earth

Director M. Night Shyamalan has had a rough run. After knocking it out of the park with 1999’s “The Sixth Sense” and following that up with the critically well received “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” he fell off the wagon. His talents as a storyteller seemed to vanish and his scripts became more and more hackneyed with each successive film. He hasn’t directed a movie that one could reasonably argue as good in over a decade. Despite a rare marketing move that doesn’t highlight his involvement, “After Earth” is not his return to form. In fact, it may be his absolute worst, right down at the bottom of the barrel with 2010’s “The Last Airbender.” It’s a movie without ideas, adequate pacing, competent editing or a story worth caring about. Even with two charismatic leads, there is very little to like here.

Will Smith plays Cypher, a General on humankind’s new home planet, Nova Prime, which humanity was forced to flock to after they destroyed Earth’s atmosphere with carbon fuels. His son, Kitai, played by Jaden Smith, is lacking in discipline, so he decides to take him along on a routine trip through the cosmos. However, after taking severe damage in a scientifically inaccurate asteroid field, they’re forced to find the closest planet to crash land on, which just so happens to be Earth. The entire crew, aside from Cypher and Kitai, is killed in the crash and because Cypher’s legs are broken, it’s up to Kitai to save them. His mission is to travel to the tail of the ship, which broke apart upon atmospheric entry and now resides approximately 100 kilometers away, and locate the distress beacon.

Upon explaining Kitai’s mission, Cypher warns him, in what amounts to a screenwriter’s desperate attempt to raise the stakes of what is about to happen, all things on Earth since mankind’s evacuation have evolved to exterminate humans. Every living thing he’s going to encounter out there is going to try to kill him. That is except for spiders. And birds. And buffaloes. And hogs. And fish. Even the giant hawk that swoops down and grabs him seemingly only does so to protect him, going so far as to save his life later on. The only creature that poses any threat to him is, hilariously enough, a venomous leech, which latches onto his hand and nearly kills him before he’s able to stab the antidote into his heart. “After Earth” sets up rules and then refuses to play by them.

It’s almost as if Shyamalan didn’t think the viewers would realize this. In similar ways, the entire movie is essentially an insult to any moderately intelligent person sitting in the audience. For example, the entire planet (or at least the section of the planet they’re on) freezes over to uninhabitable temperatures at night, yet this doesn’t seem to affect the abundant and diverse wildlife. Additionally, it has only been 1,000 years since humans fled Earth. By evolutionary standards, that’s a drop in a giant bucket and certainly not enough time for the remaining wildlife to become what is depicted onscreen. In terms of logic, “After Earth” has next to none.

However, this isn’t its biggest flaw, nor is its meaningless narrative and thematically empty core, but rather a statement that being emotionless can be our greatest strength as human beings. Compare this to this summer’s “Star Trek Into Darkness” (or the entire “Star Trek” series as a whole), which stresses the importance and uniqueness of emotions to our species—besides, it’s what makes us who and what we are—and you have something so empty-headed it’s nearly unfathomable. This idea may be opposite of that blockbuster franchise, but it’s also counterintuitive to the very idea of existence and humanity. Somehow, “After Earth” even gets its ideas wrong.

Topping it off, much like any science fiction movie devoid of ideas, is an action packed finale involving a deadly alien, one that comes from a blind race of creatures who hunt their prey based on the pheromones we secrete when we are afraid (they “literally smell fear” as the narration puts it). What transpires is predictable and occurs as a result of some of the most obviously foreshadowed dialogue you’ll hear all year.

It’s time to call “The Sixth Sense” what it was: a fluke. It was a fantastic fluke, sure, but it was still a fluke. Since then, Shyamalan has done a nose dive into irrelevance and “After Earth” may be his worst yet. Its futuristic society is poorly conceived (they have no doors, sleep in hammocks and their spaceships look like they’re supported by bamboo poles), its CGI backgrounds are unconvincing and its editing fails to create the illusion of a consistent timeline; its copious amount of jump cuts, which will only be missed by those not paying attention, is distracting in a movie that needs as many victories as it can get. “After Earth,” to put it as bluntly as possible, is a disaster.

After Earth receives 0.5/5


The Last Airbender

There was a point in time when you mentioned the name M. Night Shyamalan and people would stand up and cheer. After writing and directing the terrific 1999 thriller The Sixth Sense and following it up with the solid Unbreakable, it seemed like the man could do no wrong. His guts to go where nobody else would and his intelligent twists promised great things to come. Unfortunately, he has been on a downward spiral ever since, attempting to recreate those successes and failing, sometimes catastrophically. Even after factoring in The Village, a travesty on any level, it seems like the once famed director has hit a new low with The Last Airbender, a movie that gets everything wrong.

The film is set in a fantasy world where certain people called “benders” can manipulate the four natural elements: fire, air, water and earth. Most live in tranquility, but one group from the fire nation wants to dominate them all. The only way to do this is to stop the last Airbender, a kid named Aang (Noah Ringer), who has been trapped in a block of ice for the last century. After being found by Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and Katara (Nicola Peltz), he sets off to save the other nations, but to stop the fire manipulators, led by the shamed Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) hoping to get his honor back, he must first master the other elements.

Changing its name from its source material for obvious reasons, the film adaptation of the hit animated television series Avatar: The Last Airbender is an embarrassing mess. It’s a movie that impresses in no area and, furthermore, sets itself up for a sequel, which, if there is indeed a higher presence watching down on us, will never come. To pinpoint exactly where The Last Airbender goes wrong would be like choosing the best spot to begin shoveling manure. Regardless of where you pick, you’re dealing with crap from start to finish.

This catastrophe's biggest problem is the writing. Shyamalan is one of the few, like Juno writer Diablo Cody, who struck gold in his first major cinematic endeavor only to fail to recapture that magic. The Sixth Sense had a great story that flowed well and ended with a shocker of a twist. Like a flailing fish on the ground searching around for water, The Last Airbender grasps for something to keep its story moving, but finds nothing within reach. The basic idea works—the characters go from Point A to Point B and fight the evil fire nation—but the excursions in between make for a jumbled experience. The characters jump from place to place, meet many different characters that have already escaped from my mind and Aang randomly enters a dreamlike state where he meets spirits that tell him what to do. This confusion is plainly evident from the fact that the dialogue consists of dumbed down exposition that explains what’s going on. The characters speak as if they themselves aren’t completely sure what they’re supposed to do next and are seeking explanation.

Because of this, I’m not really sure who to blame for the abysmal acting. Should I blame it on Shyamalan the writer for forcing his actors to say such dimwitted things? Should I blame Shyamalan the director for failing to properly manage them? It’s tough to say, but my guess is that this film’s awfulness was a collaborative effort. The young Noah Ringer, who plays the titular character, is one of the worst child actors I’ve seen in a long time. Not only can he not emote when necessary, he can’t even speak a line without it feeling like he was reading from a cue card.

Even Dev Patel, who was terrific in the 2008 Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, comes off as lazy. His botched make-up job, which is supposed to show how hardened he’s become from his past transgressions, only makes him look sleepy. With bags under his eyes and hair that sticks up more than Cameron Diaz’s in There’s Something About Mary, he looks like he crawled out of bed five minutes before arriving on set. His performance only solidifies that theory. He looked tired, ready to go home and get away from the inanity around him. I knew how he felt.

Suffice to say, the acting comes off as wooden. You could film a forest and you’d get the same effect. Even the action, the one thing in this movie that should be a genuine treat, is bland beyond belief. Sure, the actors are agile and the fights are well choreographed, but when you consider that the majority of the action utilizes element bending and consists of little more than special effects, you realize the lack of talent from everyone involved. There isn’t a single thing to recommend in The Last Airbender, an excruciating experience that is a contender for one of the worst of the year.

The Last Airbender receives 0.5/5