An Alaskan journalist's perspective on local and national issues

Posts tagged ‘M. Night Shyamalan’

Avatar: The Last Airbender vs. The Last Airbender

This is very old news to most, but since this blog hasn’t been running for a while, and one should try and do many things, it was decided that this would be a Versus post.

First, a little backstory on two subjects.  The first that will be covered is M. Night Shyamalan and his film career.  He came into notoriety with The Sixth Sense.  This was an intense and profoundly disturbing experience.  Every actor and actress was amazing.  The story was complex and deep.  The melancholy effect helped tell the story.  It was, all in all, a very good  film.  After that, there came Unbreakable.  This was another good film.  It gave a very realistic idea of what a man with super-powers would be like.  It humanized a concept that was treated more like mythology than something realistic, and it was a good idea.  Granted, if they had done what a typical superhero movie does and have a hardcore action sequence at the end, that might have been better, but it was a very good movie.

Then there came Signs.  And it all went dowhill from there.  My theory is that there are two M. Night Shyamalan’s.  There is the one who made the first two movies, and then the other killed him and took over.  Signs was a boring.  Lady in the Water, boring.  The Happening, stupid and boring.  The came the film, The Last Airbender.

The series it was based off of, Avatar: The Last Airbender was a lot like Batman: The Animated Series.  It was made for a young audience, but the themes were very mature, the conflicts were very engaging.  This was a show that the young and the old could both enjoy.  The animation was incredible.  The characters were rich.  It was a remarkable concept.

I’m not going to get into the story all that much, because most everybody knows.  If you don’t, take a look here.  But it was a very well-crafted kid’s show, and I still enjoy it to this day.

The film, on the other hand, was another example of the mello-dramatic schlock that has become the norm for M. Night.  Now, this post will get a little nit-picky at times, but honestly, what they changed so radically from the series detracted from this piece of film, not added.  Normally, when an adaptation is done well, There are pieces missing, but they still capture the essence of what they were trying to make.  Here, it is not done well.  As an article in put it

It is not done skillfully in The Last Airbender. It’s done more like premature ejaculation sex, where one party (movie-goers) is left confused and ashamed, while the other party (fans of the show) are left enraged and disappointed.

So, what are the problems?  Well, let’s get started.

The claim of making it more “authentic”

Shyamalan claimed that he was trying to make various elements more authentic to the Asian inspiration many elements of the show had.  He did things like change the pronunciation of almost all the names, like Aang, which is pronounced like the end of boomerang, is said in the film like hung without the h.  Iroh (pronounced in the series eye-roh) is pronounced ee-roh in the film.  Sokka (which is pronounced just like it looks in the series) is pronounced soak-a.  These claims he said were to make it more authentically Asian.

Problem – this was NEVER an Asian show.  Granted, a lot of elements from ancient Asian cultures were used (and used well) in the series, but it was still an English-speaking show made for English-speaking audiences.  But probably the biggest reason that one can know that it isn’t meant to be looked at to literally reflect Asian culture is by examining one character – Azula.

She is the child of Fire Lord Ozai.  She is the oldest of his children.  In the series, the father likes her more because she is more talented, and more impressive than her brother.  In an actual ancient Asian culture, the father would NEVER look on his daughter with more favor than his son.  That never happened.  No matter how imcompetant the son was, the father would look on him with more favor than a daughter.

The Bending doesn’t flow.  At all!

Whatever you think about this show, you can’t deny they thought out their magical aspects completely.  In the series, there are many Earth Benders (those who can manipulate rock and dirt) who are interned out on an oil rig, where they cannot use their natural element.  In the film, they are in a camp on dry ground.  No metal covering, no nothing.  Just rock all around them.  Metric tons of weapons all over the place, and they don’t just beat their captors quickly to death.

That brings us to another section of this – the bending doesn’t flow.  In the series, bending is done with simple motions.  There are water, fire, air, and earth benders.  Water benders are fluid.  They move quickly, often using their opponents moves against them.  The air benders are also very fluid, able to quickly move air at an opponent.  Fire benders can conjure up flames and attack.  Earth benders have a different way.  In one motion, they move a rock into a position where it can be struck again to attack.  Usually there are only two motions.  In the film, all the bending took forever.  Many times, the enemy would be standing there, waiting to be attacked, not seeming to realize that their enemy could be killed at any time while they are moving around all over the place.

It takes away from the majesty of the creation because the bending of the series is modeled off of various forms of martial arts.  Water bending is based off of T’ai chi ch’uan.  Earth bending is based off of Hung ga kung fu, mostly.  Fire bending is based off of Shaolin kung fu.  And air bending is modeled off of Baguazhang.  This really added to the series because of how all the movements flowed and worked.  In the film, it was awkward, took forever, and the results were not especially appealing.

Slight racism

In the series, the main characters are dark-skinned natives, and the villain is a white guy.  In the film, the heroes are all white people, and the villain is a dark-skinned guy.  Because as we know, all good people are white people.

The human element

This is where it gets a little nit-picky, but honestly, this need to be mentioned.  In the series, Katara and Sokka find Aang trapped in an iceberg.  When he emerges, he makes friends with them.  It’s simple, nice and believable.  It is a lot like normal kids act.  In the film, Katara and Sokka find Aang trapped in the ice, and Sokka proceeds to repeatedly smack Aang with his boomerang.  It is weird and annoying.

Not to mention that in the series, Sokka was always the annoying comic relief.  He was the guy you wanted not to like.  He was meant to be annoying, but he always managed to find a way to be useful at the damndest of times.  But that was too much character for even Shyamalan.  So in the film, he was a piece of wood.  Very fun (NOT!).

At the Northern Water tribe is where the biggest human failings come to light.  In the series, the water bending master, Pakku, doesn’t initially want to teach Katara.  He’s kind of a sexist.  It takes Katara’s persistence and even a fight between the two for him to realize that girls have a lot of potential, and for him to train her.  It was a way to humanize a character meant to look wise.  It was a nice addition to the series.  In the film, he just teaches her how to water-bend.  I guess wise people just do stuff.  Boring.

Also while they are there in the series, Sokka starts up a love triangle with the princess of the Northern Water tribe, Yue.  While she is already engaged, he keeps pursuing her.  It’s a selfish act, which really adds a lot of depth to a character who is actually pretty shallow up to that point.  In the film, she is all his and there are no problems.

The final confrontation

For the fans of the show, the battle at the Northern Water tribe was one of the high points of the series.  It all culminates in the first big demonstration of the “Avatar State.”  This is when Aang channels the power of the previous Avatars’ and can become incredibly powerful.  Add to that that he was able to channel the power of a Moon Spirit, and he becomes like a giant water monster.  He destroys the Fire Nation soldiers and the Water tribesmen and women all bow in respect.  It was a powerful scene.  He then uses his power to decimate their fleet and make sure they don’t come back.

The show, on the other hand, does another really long bunch of movements that just make a tidal wave that destroys the fleet.  It’s boring, not like water bending at all, and kind of anti-climactic.  It’s a small detail, but worth pointing out.

Now that we have pointed out this film’s failings, it is worth mentioning that the guy who played Aang was actually a very good actor.  He made the character more serious, which I had always wanted him to be.  But that was a small blessing on top of an incredibly flashy and boring film.

This was another in the long series of 3D movies that is all effect and no substance.  It’s becoming such an annoying effect to have to watch.  It used to be a cheap gimmick.  Now, it’s an expensive gimmick.

See the show, don’t see the movie.  If you did see the movie, my condolences.

Peace out,



The Failing of Modern Cinema

There is a pattern that is emerging in film these days.  It is a rather tragic pattern, and doesn’t give enough respect for the people who have come before.  It is a pattern that honestly gets on one’s nerves, if they share the same views.  It seems to happen with a lot of great filmmakers these days, and it should be discussed more, because honestly, like every other element of culture, what one sees when they look back on cinema is important.  However, since this is all subjective, many may not agree, but the fact is that this does need to be discussed.  The great failing of modern cinema is that it doesn’t seem to take its audience very seriously.

Take a look at a lot of the movies that really bring in big bucks these days.  Anything by Michael Bay will do.  He is one of the great masters of believing that the cinema audience is nothing but a bunch of slack-jawed idiots who don’t care what is in a film, or what they are looking at.  But then you get the people like James Cameron, who has a really bad habit of making some very good films, like Terminator or Aliens, and then turning around and making over-the-top crap like Avatar.  There are films who tend to just believe that their audience is completely blind to everything but gorgeous effects.

To Bay and Cameron’s credit, both have created films that are visually gorgeous.  As much as I hated Transformers, and all the subsequent sequels, I will give that these films looked great.  The robots looked cool, and the battle scenes, if they could actually hold the camera steady for a second and not give the audience whiplash, were pretty awesome.  But, both Transformers and Avatar suffered from the same thing – not taking their audience seriously.

If the success of filmmakers like Chris Nolan and Pixar animation studios has shown us anything, it is that people can actually handle very complex characters and interesting plots along with visual stimulation.  Nolan remade a comic book character from the ruins that Joel Schumacher left it in after Tim Burton was ejected (for no good reason).  He made it into something almost exclusively for adults.  The Dark Knight was a film that only adults could truly enjoy.  Children would probably be terrified by the psychoticness of the Joker, and the violence was a little much for kids at a lot of points.

And a lot of people have made the arguments that, with kid’s movies, that they are for kids, so they shouldn’t be so serious.  This argument is a complete falsehood.  Pixar has been able to create intellectually engaging films for both kids and adults.  WALL-E had some great themes attached to it, like our over-indulgent culture, our dependence on machines, and our lack of accountability and our desire to take the easy way out instead of making the hard decisions.  And a lot of kid’s movies have done the same.

The Secret of NIMH was one of the most visually beautiful films that was ever made.  Everything Don Bluth did before 1990 was amazing.  After that, well, nobody knows what happened.  It also had an incredible storyline that is regarded by many fans of animated films to be one of the best.  This is another problem that a lot of great filmmakers have.  They start out wanting to take risks, to do their own thing, and after they start to make a lot of money, they become part of a culture of slackers who take the easy way out.  Don Bluth is the perfect example.  It was like he realized he had a lot of money, so he didn’t care what he created anymore.

Now, while Pixar was mentioned, it should be said that Disney has a back and forth problem of creating really arresting films, like one of the most perfect forms of visual poetry ever made, Fantasia, to their straight-to-video or dvd films, which won’t be mentioned here.

And the same thing happens with filmmakers for the older audiences as well.  Take a look at M. Night.  There are two M. Night Shyamalan’s.  There is the first who made The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (probably one of the most underrated films ever made), and then there is the one who made Signs, and every other film that followed.  Here is a guy who seems to have just forgotten what people want to see.  One could argue that Steven Spielberg had the same thing happen to him.  After Jurassic Park, very little of what he did has consistently been good, although there are still some unsung heroes of his, like AI, which one could argue is one of the most thematically brilliant films that has been made in a long time.

The fact is that film creators have an obligation to the audiences to actually take what they do seriously.  Great film is becoming a harder and harder thing to come by.  The market is swamped with bad films now that straight-to-dvd films are becoming a huge market, although there is the occasional diamond in the rough in that market as well.  And it has been proven that audiences like to be emotionally engaged.  They like to be shown that we have enough respect to believe that they want to see a good movie.

The audience isn’t as stupid as Michael Bay believes them to be.  At least, let’s hope they’re not.

Peace out,


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