Film Review: The Last Airbender

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 21st September 2010.

The ever expanding array of 3D movies due for release in the near future indicates that this cinematic gimmick is here to stay. The fact that 3D cinema cannot be pirated and the potential for future profits from emerging home 3D blu-ray and TV technology means that the major Hollywood studios are insisting that almost all future tent pole releases be available in 3D.

What has become clear though, is that the presence of “3D” tacked on to the end of a movie’s title is in no way a symbol of quality. And there is no better example of this than last week’s release of “The Last Airbender”, quite possibly the worst film of the year so far.

Based on the successful animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” which ran originally from 2005 – 2008 on US children’s cable channel Nickelodeon, the film is a mishmash of Asian mythology, martial arts and elemental manipulation. In the hands of writer and director, M. Night Shyamalan, The Last Airbender is a humourless yawnfest featuring terrible dialogue, bland performances and horrible 3D rendering.

Showing major potential with his first two features, it now appears Mr Shyamalan fluked the modern masterpieces that were The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000). The shocking twist ending of the former with its famous catchphrase, “I see dead people” and the thrilling comic book plotline of the latter made M. Night a director and more importantly, a storyteller, to watch.

Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there as the director went back to the “final storyline twist” well a few too many times with Signs (2002 – I see aliens), The Village (2004 – it was all an experiment), Lady in the Water (2006 – water nymphs live in my pool filter) and The Happening (2008 – the wind did it). With his creative powers waning, The Last Airbender (Avatar has been removed from the title due to a similarly named, moderately successful film from last year) has no plot twist. Whilst the absence of a twist may well be a twist for M. Night, I would suggest that there is no plot twist because there is barely a plot.

Try bending your brain around this. There are four nations: the Fire Nation; the Water Tribes; the Air Nomads and the Earth Kingdoms. Each has members who can control or “bend” fire, water, air or earth. Only a long missing, reincarnated Dalai Lama-like being, The Avatar, can control all four elements and bring peace to the world. Sure.

To make matters worse, this storyline is leaden with clumsy dialogue clunkers such as, “Sokka, I want to believe in our beliefs just like the Firebenders believe in their beliefs.” Sorry, come again?

There has been much outrage online as nerds worldwide protest the lack of Asian actors at the forefront of this Asian mythology-based film. This wasn’t really an issue for me. Authenticity is hardly a problem when it comes to a movie featuring giant fluffy flying dogs and the yin yang spirits swimming around as large glowing koi carp.

On a positive note, the special effects of The Last Airbender are quite stunning with exciting flame and ice battles, and the casting of Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel a good choice.

Unfortunately, the 3D effects of the movie are simply terrible. Like Clash of the Titans, this film has been rendered into 3D post-production to cash in on the craze. With the exception of a few effective landscape scenes, the rest of the film looks remarkably 2D, with characters simply cut out and moved forward within the picture but remaining flat, much like a pop-up book.

 Unlike Clash of the Titans, which was a much better film in 2D, The Last Airbender is too flawed to improve once on DVD or 2D blu-ray. Its cliff hanger ending indicates that another 2 sequels are on their way, although this is dependent on the movie turning a profit on its US$280 million production and marketing budget.

As a member of The Golden Raspberry Foundation, I am pretty certain that The Last Airbender will get my vote for Worst Film of the Year. I’m sorry, but M. Night Shyamalamadingdong has struck out on this one. I see dumb cinema.

The great Avatar ripoff

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 23rd March 2010.

James Cameron’s Avatar, winner of 3 Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards and now the highest grossing feature of all time, will hit Australian retail shelves on 29th April. Unfortunately for consumers, the blu-ray and DVD editions will consist of the 2D version of the movie only with absolutely no extra features. This sort of release is known in the industry as a “vanilla” edition.

Vanilla editions are extremely common within the film industry, especially for budget releases and older features. A film distributor may not feel that they will sell enough copies to warrant the expense of sourcing or producing extra features. For films produced prior to the eighties and the invention of VHS, there may literally be no existing footage or promotional material surviving. Of course, this is not always the rule, as the recently released deluxe editions of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz include hours of commentaries, documentaries and featurettes.

In the case of Avatar, the initial release of the film as a vanilla edition is simply a cash grab by 20th Century Fox.  With the movie having only just departed cinemas and the Oscars buzz still around, why not sell as many vanilla editions as possible to an unsuspecting public who are desperate to see the film again?

In their defence, the film company will probably argue that the general public isn’t really interested in extra features and just want the movie. However, with its ground breaking motion capture technology and virtual camera system which may (or may not) change filmmaking forever, surely one of the most interesting aspects of Avatar as a motion picture must be its production.

What Fox may not want you to know is that a reissue of Avatar in 3D in cinemas is in the works for later this year. The reissue may include extra scenes not seen in the initial release. This will be followed by a Deluxe Collector’s Edition on DVD and blu-ray in November, which will be laden with extras.

So far, there has been no mention of a 3D DVD or blu-ray release. The technology is already available for this to occur. Coraline, My Bloody Valentine, The Final Destination and Journey to the Center of the Earth all have received home 3D DVD and blu-ray releases, albeit with anaglyph (red/blue lens) technology. This style of 3D is inferior to the polarized lens system found in cinemas but is the only viable and affordable home option until 3D television hits our shores over the next few years (and it will be very expensive initially).

To be fair, Avatar is a feast for the eyes and a milestone in modern filmmaking. It represented a huge financial risk for James Cameron and 20th Century Fox, and thanks to the huge box office receipts worldwide, will be extremely profitable for all involved. However, the fact that it was incredibly expensive to make does not justify the contempt that is being shown to movie fans with its money grabbing marketing plan.

It most likely doesn’t end with Avatar either. Cinema chains across the UK were recently in dispute with Disney over its plans to decrease the timeframe between Alice in Wonderland’s cinema and DVD release from 17 to 12 weeks. Expect Alice to be on your local retailer shelves by June, hopefully in a Super Mega 3D Limited Double Disc Collector’s Edition.

Published in: on March 23, 2010 at 11:09  Leave a Comment  
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3D Movies: The Future of Cinema or a Fad?

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 23rd June 2009.

James Cameron, director of Hollywood blockbusters such as The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss and Titanic believes that the future of cinema is 3D. His latest effort, Avatar, starring Australian actor Sam Worthington, is the first motion picture filmed in digital 3D. With other 3D movies on the horizon, including Toy Story 3, plus many recent mainstream releases with a 3D option, such as Monsters vs Aliens and Bolt, out there in multiplexes, wearing funny glasses in the cinema is certainly becoming more popular, but is it truly the future or just a fad? And is there a conspiracy behind its re-emergence (and no, it is not the Illuminati)?

 History suggests that 3D movies are a fad. The golden age of 3D films began with Bwana Devil in 1952 (highlight – spear thrust at the camera), followed quickly by House of Wax and It Came From Outer Space. 3D soon disappeared as quickly as it arrived, along with other cinematic novelties such as Sensurround and Smell-O-Vision. The third dimension returned briefly in the 80’s with such classics as Friday the 13th Part 3: 3D (highlight – spear thrust at the camera) and Jaws 3-D.

 In both cases, glasses with blue and red lenses were required to achieve the 3D effect. Unfortunately, these glasses also leached much of the colour from the screen so movies appeared drab and lifeless.

 3D films have reappeared again in the past few years with Imax features and mainstream Hollywood movies such as Beowulf (highlight – spear thrust at the camera) and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Technological advances in computer-generated imagery (CGI) and the development of digital filming and processing have now made 3D films relatively cost effective, at least in Hollywood terms. The traditional blue and red glasses have also now been replaced by polarized lenses. Steven Spielberg has even mooted a new plasma screen-based system that doesn’t require glasses.

 So is 3D cinema back for good? Will all movies soon feature a spear being thrust at the camera?

 Well my answer for the near future is probably not. The conversion from traditional reel-based projection systems to high-tech digital projectors at your local cinema is going to be extremely expensive. Only a few multi and megaplexes in Sydney have installed digital 3D cinemas. Rudely, some are charging their customers a “rental fee” for the 3D glasses to help off-set the cost of upgrading their technology. Recent rising attendances and box office takings would suggest that traditional 2D cinema still has a very long and healthy future ahead.

 With the cost of movie piracy to the US economy estimated to be US$61 billion annually,  there are also suggestions that the push for 3D cinema is specifically to protect copyright and claw back some of those huge losses. You see, 3D films can’t be pirated in the cinema, and ticket prices are usually higher for these movies.

 Ultimately, movie-going audiences will be drawn to good, well-told stories regardless of whether crazy glasses (or spears) are involved or not. If you’re a 3D fan, my advice would be to try out the ultimate in 3D entertainment…it’s called the theatre.

Published in: on December 9, 2009 at 11:30  Leave a Comment  
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