By both critical and commercial measures live-action anime adaptations boast a record of futility second perhaps only to videogame adaptations. Some essential aspect of the source material is irretrievably lost during the process of translating Japanese cartoon to Hollywood tentpole something that even the most bloated visual effects budget can’t conceal. Think Dragonball Evolution and Speed Racer.
And yet Hollywood keeps trying lured by tantalizing visions of cash-cow franchises fed by loyal built-in — and most importantly international — audiences. The latest casualty of this misguided ambition is The Last Airbender based on the hit Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. To be fair Avatar isn’t anime in the orthodox sense in that it was conceived and produced in the States but its style and soul are almost exclusively anime-inspired. As such its big-screen fate is similarly sealed.
Who could possibly break such a rueful trend? For some reason the minds at Paramount thought M. Night Shyamalan that notorious purveyor of ponderous and increasingly shlocky supernatural thrillers might succeed where so many other directors had failed. Even worse they saw fit to hire him to pen the screenplay as well ensuring that every vital aspect of the film would feel the crushing weight of his heavy hand. With such a hacky burden to bear it comes as no surprise that The Last Airbender never really takes flight.
The film's story is set in a world divided into four tribes each aligned to an element: Air Earth Water and Fire. Certain gifted tribe members known as a “benders ” can manipulate the properties of their assigned element to suit their ends. In order to do so they must first perform an elaborate and utterly ridiculous kung fu dance after which a torrent of fire water or whatever arises to obey their command.
For the better part of a century the oppressive and warlike Firebenders have besieged the other nations gradually thinning their respective ranks. The Air Nomads have faired the worst of the lot and are presumed to be extinct until Water peeps Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) discover a boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) trapped in a giant ball of ice. Not only is Unfrozen Kung Fu Warrior the last remaining Airbender (thus the title) he is also an Avatar the only being on the planet capable of wielding all four elements. And only he can bring an end to the Firebenders’ evil reign.
Blessed with an opportunity to reinvent himself in a new genre and with a new demographic Shyamalan can’t avoid falling back on old habits most notably his penchant for awkward and cumbersome dialogue. It’s difficult enough for adults to deliver his lines but it’s absolute hell for The Last Airbender’s youthful protagonists whose not yet fully-developed temporal lobes can’t hope to adequately process the inanities of Shyamalan-speak. One can almost see the smoke coming from little Noah’s ears as he labors to complete each portentous sentence. Poor kid. Where are the Child Labor people when you need them?
But bad dialogue is only one of a litany of problems that plagues The Last Airbender which suffers from mediocre CGI inexplicable casting decisions (caucasians actors none of whom are especially talented are tabbed for asian roles when sufficiently mediocre race-appropriate actors were surely available) and a plot comprehensible only to the most ardent fans of the Nickelodeon series. Much as Aang bends the air Shyamalan tries to bend the laws of quality cinema to his will but they refuse to yield to the force of his ego. I only wish the execs at Paramount had been as stalwart.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
In the late '50s a group of elementary students put futuristic drawings in a time capsule that is then buried on school grounds. One overly obsessed kid Lucinda goes her own way by writing hundreds of mysterious seemingly non-sensical numbers on her entry. Fifty years later it’s dug up and comes into the possession of Caleb the young son of John Koestler a recent widower and astro-physics professor who becomes obsessed with the papers Caleb has brought home from class. He soon discovers the random digits are actually not-so-thinly disguised dates (including 91101 of course) for “future” disasters and there are clearly three of those dates yet to come. Although nobody believes his ramblings about this code for impending doom a nearby plane crash proves he is on to something so ominous the fate of the world could be in jeopardy. With all hell about to break loose the prof takes matters into his own hands.
WHO’S IN IT?
Just a couple of years ago Nicolas Cage starred in Next as a magician who could see into the future and had to prevent a nuclear attack. Now he’s at it again as an MIT professor who also has clues to future catastrophes and also is out to prevent the inevitable. And of course in the National Treasure films he latched on to maps that had contained similarly dark deeply held secrets. Nic clearly likes “knowing” stuff before the rest of us and he’s quite believable even if some of the circumstances in his latest sci-fi adventure are really out there -- literally. Cage somehow makes you buy into this stuff which is key to the ultimate success of the flick. As the key kids Chandler Canterbury as Caleb and Lara Robinson as Lucinda (and later Abby Lucinda’s granddaughter) are properly eerie and haunted-looking. Rose Byrne is also along for the ride as Lucinda’s grown daughter who is able to provide goosebump-inducing information that the numbers alone can’t. There’s also some dead-on creepy emoting from D.G. Maloney as a quietly foreboding stranger who seems to be following Caleb.
Unlike some recent movies of this type with nothing on the agenda but pure mayhem “Knowing” delves into the bigger issues of why we are all here providing something other than just big explosions to talk about on the way home from the multiplex. Director Alex Proyas (I Robot Dark City The Crow) certainly knows how to pull off complex action set-pieces but he and his screenwriters also seem to be genuinely interested in exploring the meaning behind the madness.
Some of the more pedantic dialogue Cage is given can be groan-inducing but since he plays John as a total believer we can forgive it. Also the film falls victim to a final act that veers into typical disaster movie territory and isn’t as compelling as the first two thirds which try to keep the premise at least marginally credible. At two hours it probably could have been tightened anyway.
The rain-soaked plane crash sequence with its gritty hand-held photography is riveting to watch and one of the most frightening depictions of a jetliner disaster put on film yet.
GO OUT AND GET POPCORN WHEN ...
If you are really squeamish it might be worth "knowing" that you should take breaks in the big disaster sequences as the CGI effects can get pretty violent and graphic particularly for a PG-13 movie.