There will be an official reaction on the site, describing the various issues of diversity and representation (and our discussions with Paramount representatives after), but I wanted to post something informal and quick while it's still fresh in my mind... as a fan.
So, as a fan: how does Airbender stack up? Forget the representation issues. Forget the diversity statistics. Forget the casting controversy.
When I saw the trailer, it was actually pretty thrilling. The special effects were amazing and the scale and landscape of the fantasy world were epic. The action sequences looked really dynamic and exciting.
So, the trailer looked great.
But how about the movie?
In short... I was really disappointed. And sadly, I think it's a result of the producer, writer, and director.
The 3D Conversion
Just to mention quickly: if you know anyone who insists on seeing the film, tell them not to waste their money on 3D. Someone posted an article a while back about how hard it would be to convert Airbender to 3D due to (1) the fact that it wasn't originally intended for 3D, (2) the subdued color palette of the movie, and (3) the short timeframe.
The 3D was AWFUL. There were several times during the movie when I peeked out from under the 3D glasses to see if there was any effect whatsoever. The "background" and "foreground" of the 3D were virtually indistinguishable.
In fact, the only sequence where the 3D actually popped was during the ending credits, where there were several examples of bending shown off. Makes me wonder if that was added to emphasize the 3D?
The point is... if I had walked into the theater for "3D," and gotten this kind of quality, I would have walked out and demanded my money back. If someone you know HAS to watch it, tell them to waste ninety minutes of their life in 2D and save the $7.
Length of the Film / Script
The most glaring issue: the film is too short. Ignoring the ending credits, the whole movie is less than 100 minutes long.
Why is this a problem? Because the movie ends up being carried by exposition.
Think of all these great moments from the original series:
- Aang flees from his home in the middle of a storm, goes crashing into the ocean, feels the life seep from his limbs... then bursts into the light of his spirit energy, creating a fantastic sphere of ice that traps him beneath the waves for a hundred years.
- The Fire Nation storms the Southern Water Tribe. Katara's mother is lost in the raid.
- Zuko as a young boy, struggling to prove himself to his father.
- Sokka and Yue spend time together, growing closer despite cultural and socioeconomic differences.
Remember all those scenes? The careful, measured character development?
Well, be prepared to hear all about it from talking heads as they discuss it on-screen for endless minutes.
And forget about these characters and sequences:
- Katara winning over the Northern Waterbending Master, earning the right to train along with the men in the tribe.
- Haru, a young Earthbending boy, uses his bending to protect an innocent. He's captured and sent to a metal coal processing plant, with other Earthbenders, where their powers are useless. Katara allows herself to be captured and shows the Earthbenders that they can fight - and arranges for a huge supply of coal for the prisoners to use and fight with.
- Any mention or instance of Avatar Roku.
- The Kyoshi Warriors.
- Jet, or any of his rebel compatriots.
- Omashu and King Bumi.
- Master Jeong Jeong, Aang's first Firebending teacher.
- Teo, his father the Mechanist, or any of the other occupants of the Northern Air Temple.
- The Yuu Yan archers and the demonstrations of their prowess and talent. The Blue Spirit is taken out by one scared Fire Nation soldier with a bow, who has to be pushed by Zhao to action.
- Any instance of Aang learning to bring people together or resolve differences, or to solve problems between the human and spirit world. His trips into the spirit world are all about learning how to use the Avatar state (or at least "let his emotions flow" to allow it to happen?).
- The joining of Aang and the Ocean Spirit Laa to destroy the invading Fire Nation navy. Instead, Aang enters the Avatar State... which never gets more impressive than is seen in the trailer (where his tattoos glow). He stands on the Water Tribe Wall, facing the ships, and performs a lot of martial arts forms. This causes a tidal wave of water to appear and frightens the navy into retreating.
I'm probably forgetting a lot of what was cut out, but that's what I remember being missing.
Instead of Roku, there's a "spirit animal" for Aang - a dragon. He provides lots and lots of exposition.
The entire subplot of Katara's grandmother and the Waterbending Master from the Northern tribe are completely cut out. The focus is on Aang, for the entire time. When Katara faces off against Zuko before the moon and ocean spirits, she loses after about thirty seconds of battle. She never gains the upper-hand as she did in the tv series.
Instead of convincing Haru to use his Earthbending and being taken to a metal internment camp, they run into nameless "Earthbending Boy" after he bends some pebbles at the Fire Nation soldiers. They're all brought to an internment village. There are dozens of Earthbenders being held prisoner by three or four Firebender guards (who have the one big "fire pot" source to bend from since they can't generate their own fire). Noah Ringer points out to the Earthbenders that there's earth all around them and they can use it to fight back. The trio fight the Firebenders when the Earthbenders decide to help and they defeat the handful of Firebenders.
Instead of Teo and his father, the Northern Air Temple is abandoned. There is one Earth Kingdom citizen who says he likes to walk there (how the heck does he get up there?). He lures Aang into a trap (how did he know Aang was coming?). There are no people in the temple, no talk of the cultural disarray that results, or that these people have the "spirit" of Airbenders, if not their abilities. There is no siege, no war balloon design, etc.
What's left? It feels like Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, and Dev Patel are hanging out in front of the camera, telling you about all the cool stuff they saw while watching the television series. Where Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings had ~3 hours for each film, Airbender only has about a hundred minutes... perhaps to appeal to the younger demographic? It doesn't feel like nearly enough and the film suffers, greatly, from overdoses of exposition.
The Action Sequences
M. Night's Sixth Sense showed that he had amazing talent as a suspense/thriller director.
Unfortunately... this does not translate into directing action. The action sequences are just... terrible. Even the scenes with the Chinese stuntdouble were awful (and it was obvious that it was a stuntdouble in those scenes because the face-replacement CG was really bad).
M. Night simply doesn't have the sense of an action director. The bending motions were painfully slow compared to the series and felt very independent of what the elements were doing.
Worse: the action sequences were boring. From the trailer, I kept expecting to have a few "ooh" moments when watching the film. There were definitely parts that felt "Zack Snyder"-ish: where the camera might pan around and then do a sudden "slow-motion" effect to emphasize something happening on-screen. But it never felt justified.
Slow-motion would kick on and your eyes would wander over the screen, looking for the amazing "Hell Yes!" action that the director wanted you to focus on. And you would look over the scene... and find nothing. Just a random mess.
M. Night is just not the director you want for martial arts / fantasy action. The action sequences felt very flat and uninspired. More like action from a SyFy original movie than a Hollywood blockbuster - and I'm afraid I might be doing a disservice to SyFy with that example.
The "sweet!" moments from the trailer were all there, but spliced into the context of the entire action sequences, did nothing to impress.
The one thing I thought would be really exciting was the action. Unfortunately, all the money in the world could not make up for bad direction. (For another example of this, see the second Star Wars trilogy.) It makes sense, since one of the main action choreographers has a lot of military background. Many of the battle scenes were pulled out, far from the action - more like how one might shoot a beachhead invasion, etc.
The Pacing and Editing
Scenes jumped around randomly and without context. In fact, they had to resort to voice-over monologues from Nicola Peltz to explain what happened between cuts. And every time there was a new location, they flashed it on the screen (such as "The Northern Air Temple"). This was 100% necessary because it was impossible to follow the characters' journey without the location titles or monologues.
Example: they arrived at the Northern Water Tribe, as explained by a little subtitle showing the location. There's a cut, then the characters talk about how crazy it is that they've already been there for weeks. Sokka and Yue are engaged in a heated romance. But we didn't see anything leading up to that. They just arrived, then a cut, and bam... here we are.
I feel like the film would be impossible to follow if you had not already been a fan of the series. Speaking as a fan of the series, it was still pretty difficult.
Another problem with pacing is that every single scene was trying to be dramatic, important, and life-changing. There are no ups and downs whatsoever. There are, I think, two jokes in the entire movie. The rest are these long, dramatic monologues that explain in excruciating detail how pivotal and emotional everything is.
It's 100% melodramatic all the way through.
Honestly? I have no idea how good the actors are. The script and dialogue were so terrible that I don't see how anyone could have salvaged it. I feel really bad for Noah Ringer, who may have been coached to be more "stoic" by M. Night.
The results were wooden and flat. It often felt like actors were just reading directly off the script page.
An example of a real line of dialogue:
Zhao (to Ozai): I've made progress in my research of the library, which almost no one believed existed.
See what's going on here is the compression of a shitload of "telling" exposition into a single line.
Sozin's Comet - and the arc of the entire "trilogy" (if that ever happens) are compressed into three lines of dialogue at the end, as Ozai explains the three-year plan of the Fire Nation. Ozai explains that Sozin's comet will arrive in three years and that they must prevent the Avatar from mastering Earth and Fire before the comet arrives. If they do this, then "all Firebenders will be able to generate fire from their own chi, as the highest-level firebenders are able. The Fire Nation will be able to end the war."
Sorry to write so much. Like I said, we'll have something official on the site regarding diversity, etc... but this was my take from watching the film as a fan. I can see why Mike and Bryan are upset about the film. The "racebending" is a whole other can of worms, but the integrity of the story and characters have been completely lost.
I walked out of there with a totally new attitude. I feel like thanking the producers for not putting any Asian American actors in this movie. I think it would have set us back five years in seeing Asian Americans' prominence in film improve... because everyone would have blamed the Asian leads for the quality of the movie.
Oh yeah. The fish-punching thing? Zhao pulls out a knife before stabbing the fish. I guess they must have added the knife after hearing how ridiculous focus groups thought the fish-punching was.