Reboot blues

A post wherein I discuss a kick-ass chick called Korra and provide a long overdue review of a movie adaptation of one of my beloved favorites that disappoints on so many levels.   Let us begin.

Ho. Lee. Shite.

Nickelodeon has finally released the first official picture of the long-awaited (for me, anyways) sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender.

I’m a fan of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series*, and I’ve been pretty much at a loss to find an American show worth watching after it went off the air.   Doctor Who is, of course, very very British, and Being Human, which I find relatively entertaining, is nevertheless just an Americanization of a still-running British television show of the same name.

*As an aside, what do you call such fans?   I’ve heard the term Avatard bandied about, but not only does this strike me as a bit derivative of another fan gag, it usually refers to the freakishly crazed fanbase of the James Cameron “Pocahontas in Space” movie.   Me, personally?   I like Airhead.

Well, I think the wait is over.   The continuation of the Avatar series is supposed to start this year.   It’s called The Legend of Korra, and here’s a shot of the titular new Avatar:

That she’s a waterbender is to be expected — it’s next in the Avatar cycle.   That she’s a she is, frankly, awesome, although again, I suppose, not entirely unexpected — both Kyoshi and Yang Chen, two of the four avatars that immediately preceded Aang,were female.   Apparently from the picture, she’s also a firebender (which, owing to the Avatar cycle again, means she’s also an earthbender), suggesting she’s a little further along in her Avatar training when we meet her than Aang was in his when we met him.

A little Googling, and it turns out that the sequel takes place seventy years after the defeat of Fire Lord Ozai and the end of the Great War.   Korra is the new Avatar from the Southern Water Tribe (I guess Katara wasn’t the only waterbender there after all), and the series picks up with her heading to Republic City — the new central metropolis in the postwar Avatar world — to learn airbending from Aang’s son (I guess Aang wasn’t the only airbender after all either).

The new conflict: Republic city, which is press releases describe as “a metropolis fueled by steampunk technology” and “a virtual melting pot where benders and non-benders from all nations live and thrive” is also ground zero for a violent anti-bending revolution that threatens to end the natural balance of the world.   It has also got the voice talents of Lance Hendrickson (of Aliens and Millennium fame) and JK Simmons (of Spider-Man and Law and Order fame), which is awesome; also David Faustino, aka Bud Bundy, which is slightly less so.   (And that this info was released by the Wall Street Journal?   Extraordinarily awesome.)

I would so love to be utterly excited about this show, but my unabashed adoration is tempered by three things.

First, when I showed the Ladybug the picture of Korra, the her first comment was “Hmm.   She looks so serious.”

Yes.   Yes, she does.

In fact, the plot itself sounds a little more grown-up and, well, darker than the original.   Then again, in hindsight, the first series centered around the sole survivor of a cultural genocide in the midst of a world torn apart by a hundred-year-long war of imperial conquest, so perhaps a single sentence of plot distillation isn’t much to go on.   Avatar was both fun and funny in addition to being consummately kick-ass.   I sure hope the sequel doesn’t veer too far from that formula.

Second, I’m a little tired of steampunk in general.   It’s never really been my favorite subgenre of science fiction,  examples such as Firefly (which I suppose is more FutureWestern than SteamPunk) or this “Steampunk Dalek” notwithstanding.

I’m not exactly sure where from I dislike of steampunk originates.   Possibly it has to do with my distaste for the Victorian era in general, which I think did more damage to the Western psyche that good.   Possibly it has to do with steampunk fans, who seem more interested in cosplay than content and might therefore be adequately described as sepia-toned Goths.

Or possibly is has to do with the fact that I cannot get the following image out of my head, and the nightmares it evokes have forever tarnished the otherwise gleaming brassy shine  steampunk might otherwise have maintained:

Aaaahhhh!   My eyes!!!! Ze Victorian era driving goggles do nothing!!!

Seriously, though…. Steampunk Palin?   I shit you not. Apparently it’s a real comic, set in some crazy near future in which some explosion has caused Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, and John McCain to become steam-powered cyborgs.   In the process, one of them gets renamed “Robama” and one of them gets a pair of hydraulic tits, but I’m not telling you who.

They then unite to save the world from “Big Oil and Nuke,” an evil corporate army who has set up ground forces along the U.S.-Russia Border and is poised to attack the States.     The 15 pages of story are then supplemented by 8 pages of Sarah Palin pin-ups.

Read that again.   (Especially the bit about ground forces on the border with Russia.   Then go get a globe, and use it to beat to death every person who had a hand in bringing this ungodly thing to light.)

Just about the only part of this comic that makes any sense is the notion of a steam-powered Palin, since that vacuous tit is already full of hot air.

But seriousness and steampunk aside, the third (and most pressing) reason I’m so worried about the new Avatar enterprise is deja vu: the last time I was similarly all a-flutter about bending was when the live action movie The Last Airbender was about to come out.   It looked… socool….   And then it sucked… so… bad…

I just don’t think I could take that kind of disappointment again.

I suppose it’s time for an overdue review: The Last Airbender, or as it should hopefully be renamed, The Last Movie M. Night Shamalamadingdog Ever Makes.   It came out in theaters right when we left the United States to get the Butterfly in China, and by the time I’d returned to the States, it had already been and gone.   The Ladybug and I, who had been so excited about seeing it while we were gone, were able to snag tickets for the very last showing of it in Rapid City.

And thus began the most disappointing, utterly underwhelming ninety minutes of movie… ever.

And it’s easy for me to pinpoint what bugged me most.

What bugged me most was not that it was a terrible movie, although let’s be honest: it was.   It should have been so awesome.   It has kung fu and epic battles, scenic vistas and superpowers, flying dragons and flying bisons… how could anyone screw it up?

Okay, okay, okay… I said essentially the same thing about Transformers, and then Michael Bay had to go and make Bumblebee a watersports fetishist, Mudflap and Skids gold-toothed illiterates, and gave Devastator giant testicles.   And, apparently, because these gags weren’t in bad enough taste, in the next Transformers movie, Michael Bay is including NASCAR racecars that transform into robots with mullets.

I swear to all you find holy, if Michael Bay decides to direct a movie version of Steampunk Palin, I’m fucking leaving the planet.

So let me rephrase: how could anyone who is not Michael Bay screw up an Avatar movie?

And yet that’s exactly what M. Night did.   Completely isolated from its epically awesome source material, as a stand alone bit of filmed fiction, The Last Airbender sucked flying bison balls.   I’m not going to go into details of its misery (or rather, the misery to which it subjects its viewers), be they its muddled plot or wooden actors or craptastic 3D.   It think it suffices only to note that it swept this year’s Razzies, winning (if that’s the right word) Worst Movie, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay, Worst Supporting Actor, and (in a completely new category introduced for 2011) Worst Eye-Gouging Mis-Use of 3D.   If that’s not enough, just consider the following “Review Revue:”

  • Roger Ebert: The Last Airbender is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented.
  • ReelViews:I can assure anyone concerned about racism (latent or otherwise) that this is a far less pressing issue than how a movie crafted with such obvious and far-reaching incompetence could be allowed to open with the label of a “major summer release.”
  • Salon: What we’ve got here is a completely acceptable rainy-Saturday time-waster for kids … pumped up to the level of unsustainable grandiosity thanks to Hollywood’s economy of stupefaction.
  • Onion AV Club: If any movie ever warranted a class-action lawsuit against the filmmakers, it’s The Last Airbender.
  • News of the World: Dung fu.

Yeah, it’s a crappy movie for anyone, but it’s an especially crappy movie for Airheads.   Therein lies my major gripe with the movie.

My gripe isn’t with the whole racism thing, although that did offend a lot of die-hard fans.   In the cartoon, the different nations were modeled after very specific human cultures: the volcanic imperial Fire Nation is modeled on volcanic imperial Japan; the massive Earth Kingdom with its walled city of Ba Sing Se is modeled on dynastic China (and its Great Wall and Forbidden City); the Water Tribes have their roots in Eskimo and Scandanavian traditions; and the Air Nomads are isomorphic to Tibetan Buddhists; and so each nation was imbued with well-defined (if borrowed) cultural traditions and spiritual legacies that gave the series its distinctive looks and surprising depth.   All these Far Eastern cultural references are largely purged from the movie, and the obvious racial backgrounds of the animated protagonists are, well, whitewashed away (including having the Avatar hail from, of all places, Texas).   I personally was willing to let this aspect slip, partly because the film version does have some internal consistency: the good guys are uniformly white and uninteresting and the bad guys are uniformly Indian and less uninteresting, if only slight more so.

My gripe isn’t with the whole compression thing either: it’s hard to compress an epic story arch into a single-sitting movie.   It’s a bit like the challenge Peter Jackson faced when trying to convert The Fellowship of the Ring from print to celluloid: what parts do you keep and what parts do you omit?   However, whereas   several pages of prose description can be naturally compressed into a few on-screen moments of scenic vistas and special effects — especially when you’ve got three hours to work with — it’s a lot harder to compress ten hours of onscreen storytelling into, well, 1.5 hours of onscreen storytelling without losing a lot in the translation.   All the essential acts, which naturally flow together when spaced out over the course of twenty half-hour installments, feel jumbled and chaotic when sliced and spliced into a single ninety-minute sitting, and many important characters got axed in the process, including King Bumi, The Kyoshi Warriors, Jet, and, most perplexing of all, Avatar Freaking Roku, although to be fair, the latter is replaced by a telepathic dragon.   (Seriously.)

One expected casualty of this grisly editing was humor.   The cartoon is wonderfully well written and funny as hell.   Although it tackles a pretty weighty subject (it opens with a mass genocide and world war; it closes with the onset of another genocide and a deep philosophic investigation on the morality of killing another human being), it nevertheless is fun and full of humorous banter and general silliness.   In contrast, the movie is resolutely grim.   The vibrant colors of the series are subdued and darkened for the film (and darkened even further with the lame 3D effects apparently thrown in as an after thought); the juvenile jests replaced by somber soliloquies; and Avatar Aang goes from being a carefree kid to an emo teen who overdosed on henna.

(An unexpected casualty of the editing was the spirit world, which in the series is a central aspect of the Avatar’s role but in the movie gets demoted to blueish smoke with a dragon in it.   Unfortunately, this directly effects the climax of Book One: in the series, Aang joins with the Spirit of the Ocean to unleash spiritual fury on the Fire Nation Navy in the form of a giant watery icthyopod to avenge the death of the Spirit of the Moon, who had inhabited the body of koi fish in the mortal world.   In the movie, a fish gets killed, and then Aang waterbends his impression of the last scene in   The Abyss: Director’s Cut.   Boo.)

My gripe isn’t even with the actual bending disciplines themselves, although we’re getting closer.   In the series, the bending forms are element-specific, with very distinctive movements corresponding to each element — smooth circular motions of airbending versus the strong kicks and stomps of earthbending and so on.   Moreover, each bending form is portrayed as dynamic actions that physically affect their specific element in real time.   That is, water itself moves and flows as the waterbender moves, usually mirroring the bender’s movements; or fire itself spontaneously erupts with each jab and thrust and kick of a firebender.   By contrast, in the movie a bender typically explodes into some sort of frantic sequence of tai chi moves, and only after this epileptic attack subsides does a rock or a water spout or a burst of nearby flame conveniently throw itself at someone else.   It’s almost as if bending is less in-tune with the laws of nature than cheat codes for unlocking them: just imagine Aang kicking and getting power-upped with a mini-tornado, and you have a pretty decent idea of how bending is portrayed in the movie.

(As an added bit of stupidity, why on earth did the movie think it was a good idea to require firebenders to find a pre-existing source of fire in order to bend?   In the series, even the firebending flunkies in the series can spurt flame… hell, one particular flashback shows that Zuko is a poor firebender precisely because he can’t quite control his premature ignitions, as it were.)

No, my main gripe — one that grated on me within the first few moments of narration and which never quite ceased throughout the course of its run time — was the movie’s persistent inability to get any of the characters’ names correct.   The protagonist of the series is called ANG, not ONG, and he’s called the A-VATAR, not the AHHH-VATAR.   His pal is SOCK-KUH, not SOH-KAH.   Their nemesis’ uncle is EYE-ROH, not EEE-ROH.   (For comparison for you nonAirheads, imagine the Lord of the Rings movies with FROD-DO and GAYN-DOLF and AY-RAY-GORN and you’ll get the basic idea.)   Granted, the titular airbender’s name is spelled AANG, and there might be some confusion on the pronunciation of it based on this fact alone, sort of like discussing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with a person who only know it from the novel but the not the radio show that preceded it and insists on saying Zaphod Beeblebrox’s name as ZAFF-OD instead of the ZAY-FOD.

Those guys drive me nuts, but I can forgive them given the vagaries of phonetics alone and the (pre-internet) difficulty in locating the audio source material.   In the case of The Last Airbender, however, I can’t forgive it, because the source material is the TV SHOW ITSELF and, believe it or not, the characters’ names are pronounced a very specific way, without variation or alteration, in each and every fucking one of the sixty-one episodes of the show.   Curse you, M. Night Shananananana!!

Curse you!

Just about the only good thing I can say about The Last Airbender movie is that Aang didn’t airbend a fart or something, which I suppose would have been the opening scene if Michael Bay had helmed the flick.

So, to summarize, I am cautiously hopeful The Legend of Korra will blow me away, but at this point I’d settle for it to just not suck.

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