Recently, I finally took the plunge of subjecting myself to M. Night Shyamalan’s movie The Last Airbender. You may vaguely remember it as the one I warned you damn kids about. I knew even back when it released it was going to suck, and all testimonials backed up that it sucked… but for a devotee of the Yakmala! ethos, it is not enough to know that a movie sucks, one must experience it first-hand and carefully consider why.
Let’s not get crazy though. I waited until it was available on Netflix Instant so that there was no specific money given towards the production. Also I had beer, and a wife to share the pain. But Jesus M.N.S. Christ, when I wrote my 2010 article the movie had an 8% on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s now down to 6%. Time and posterity have not been any kinder to this film since its release. 6% is a terrible score for a movie to end up with. Just to toss this out there, Glitter has a 7% rating. Was this a good idea? Was I going to claw my eyes out, despite any buffer of alcohol?
The Yakmala! concept can be a difficult one to define, even for those who have been at the heart of it for years. There’s so much mediocrity out there in movieland that, ironically, we get picky about what makes the cut, and even argue back and forth sometimes on whether a film deserves to be part of the pantheon, much less inducted to “Best Of” status. I think we’re always looking for that perfect storm of clueless earnestness, bad concepts and misfired execution, and on top of that we ideally want to laugh at the movie’s expense. We still want to be entertained… not in the manner the filmmaker intended but because the intentions went so wildly awry.
There are some clear winners here. Manos. The Room. Ninja Thunderbolt. Gymkata (naturally). Stacked up against such glorious trainwrecks, I can watch a movie like Green Lantern and find it merely messy, and ultimately not that interesting even to make fun of. By the time the end credits of Last Airbender rolled, I just was not left with the white-hot rage many critics and fans expressed on its release.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s an awful movie. Shyamalan had the unenviable task of distilling 20 half-hour episodes of a beloved cartoon into 103 minutes of film, but to say he does not use that time wisely is understatement. Some very important moments are rushed past, glossed over, or even narrated to us in voice-overs as captivatingly delivered as those of Harrison Ford in the theatrical release of Blade Runner (“and then we saved a whole bunch of villages and stuff” is not far off from the actual script, and it’s delivered without a trace of irony). The time saved there is often spent watching people you don’t care about walking around palace corridors and talking, or lingering on boring kids doing boring katas (and not necessarily even decent ones).
It absolutely baffles me that when the whole racebending controversy was raging, Shyamalan’s defense was that he hired the best and most appropriate actors for their parts, regardless of the color of their skin. Leaving aside that this somehow translated into a speaking cast that’s 99% white or Asian Indian, everyone, adults and children, are so stiff and stilted that even the people who’d never seen the cartoon should be left wondering if their casting call competition was the staff of the local grocery store. Or a bunch of chairs. It may not be quite as much of a disconnect to have that guy from the Daily Show playing the power-hungry Admiral Zhao if you don’t know Admiral Zhao, but it’s still that guy from the Daily Show, and menacing he is not.
It’s not really his fault though, he’s stuck with this script and this direction. I’m not even sure Darth Vader could be menacing under these circumstances. Come to think, the whole mess does have a strong Phantom Menace vibe, right down to being a massive disappointment compared to the material it’s drawing from.
But Yakmala!-worthy? This is the question. There is no doubt that Shyamalan is as earnest (and arrogant) as he is clueless, and that his intent to bring his daughter’s favorite cartoon, which he also claimed to be a fan of, to the big screen went horribly awry. But my fury was dull at best, possibly because I did not pay a ticket price. I feel no driving need to campaign for this the way I pushed Ninja Thunderbolt on everyone, but I would like some second opinions, both from those who’ve seen the cartoon and those who haven’t. It’s a wretched film. Now there’s just the matter of deciding if it’s wretched in the right ways.