Monday, August 2, 2010

The Last Bare Ender

My son, who treats anything and everything longer than it is wide as a lightsaber, has been begging me to take him to the movie The Last Airbender, so today I finally relented. It didn't look too good from the previews (the title alone is preposterous enough), and the critics skewered it. So I was figuring on just grinning and bearing it, hoping it wasn't too painful.

Oddly enough, it wasn't painful at all. Yes, the acting was amateurish; yes, the plot was slow and incoherent in spots; yes, the concept as a whole is kinda dumb. (And the directing wasn't that smooth either; you had to love the decision at one point in the film to frame the back of the Fire King's head in immense close-up and crisp focus while the rest of the shot, approximately 85% of the screen, was a distant, smudgy blur.) But the special effects were arresting, the various kingdoms convincingly realized and differentiated, and some of the action sequences--including the climactic battle of fire versus water--quite impressive. For a summertime kiddie fantasy film, it did what it was supposed to do: kept the kids entertained and the adults at least mollified.

(My only real complaint was the phony scene in which the princess of the Water Kingdom, a peripheral character with whom we have no reason to identify, sacrifices herself to restore the moon spirit her people need to defeat the Fire Nation. It was mechanical, unconvincing, emotionally flat, and utterly pointless, the kind of paint-by-numbers tear-jerking that annoys far more than it affects.)

I did notice, however, that this film is yet another in the tradition of "humans against the gods" fantasy films I identified in earlier posts, following in the train of Clash of the Titans and The Lightning Thief. In the scene just before the princess's sacrifice, when the Fire Nation general kills the fish within which the moon spirit resides (don't ask), he snarls, "We are the gods now!" It came out of nowhere; there was no indication earlier that the Fire Nation was anything but imperialistic, certainly no mention that they imagined themselves superior to the gods. But there it was. I've generally maintained that the more illogical and pointless a device like this is, the more it tells us about widespread cultural convictions and anxieties; when a film with zero obvious investment in the issue jumps on the Gods R Us bandwagon, we can safely say it's entered the cultural bloodstream.

We'll have to wait for the sequel to see if this goes anywhere (yes, the film ends on a cliffhanger, with its titular character having mastered only two of the realm's four elemental powers and the King of the Fire Nation dispatching his evil daughter to finish the novice airbender off). But whatever the future holds for this particular series, I think it's evident that something elemental is indeed going on in such films--something environmental as well, I believe. Though fewer and fewer Americans accept the reality of climate change, though the federal government has done absolutely nothing to address that issue, though we continue to live and consume as if there's nothing to be worried about, I suspect that we are deeply worried, so worried that our fears are slipping out even--or especially--in the most innocuous, fantasized, and easily ignored cultural places.

I read a couple days ago that scientists are predicting the human race will go extinct within the next century due to overpopulation, pollution, and resource depletion. We are the gods now. And we're bending the elements past the breaking point.

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