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Posted at 1:30 PM ET, 07/ 4/2010

If 'Airbender' is the year's worst film, why are fans turning out? [UPDATED]

By Michael Cavna

UPDATE: Despite its critical drubbing and "C+" CinemaScore, "The Last Airbender" grossed $40.6-million over the three-day weekend and $57-million Thursday through Sunday, according to early studio estimates -- too soon to determine whether a sequel will follow. "Airbender" trailed only box-office champ "Twilight Saga: Eclipse" ($161-million, Wednesday opening through Sunday).


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Are moviegoers turning out for "The Last Airbender" because it's not bad -- or out of morbid curiosity because it's so very, very bad?

Despite an onslaught of scathing reviews, casting backlash and negative publicity, M. Night Shyamalan's "Airbender" grossed a respectable $16.4-million Thursday (including $3-million from midnight showings) at the domestic box office -- the fifth-biggest Thursday opening ever -- and an additional $16.6-million Friday, based on early studio estimates.

Such turnout could signal a weekend well north of a solid $50-million -- none too shabby for the early leader for unofficial Worst Reviewed Film of the Year, which reportedly cost $150-million to make. "Airbender" currently scores an "8 percent" on RottenTomatoes.com -- bottomfeeding even beneath "Grown-Ups" (10 percent) and earlier 2010 releases "Sex and the City 2" (16 percent) and "Jonah Hex" (13 percent). The Rotten Tomatoes consensus: "Despite flashy special effects, 'The Last Airbender' squanders the potential of its popular source material on an incomprehensible plot, laughable dialogue, and a joyless sense of detachment."

(Joyless sense of detachment? Hmm. In terms of creativity, do we see dead people?)

"The Last Airbender" also scores a woeful "4.7" score on imdb.com. By point of comparison, the popular Nickelodeon cartoon series from which it springs gets a sterling score of "9.2."

The film's opening day drew loyal throngs who embrace the popular TV series (of which I am one -- would love to see it as an animated feature film), as well as Shyamalan's die-hard fans. But some moviegoers flocking to "Airbender" might be drawn in, ironically, because of the ongoing heated controversy over almost all the Asian characters being portrayed by actors not of Asian descent -- attention that keeps "Airbender" in the news. The so-called "colorblind" casting on Thursday sparked protests in Los Angeles and Seattle.

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Racebending.com is among the sites that have urged action to protest the "whitewash" casting, asking readers to write film critics to spread the word. Roger Ebert, for one, wrote in his review of the film:

"If I'd been making 'The Last Airbender,' I would probably have decided the story was so well- known to my core audience that it would be a distraction to cast those roles with white actors. I'm guessing, but I suspect the American group most under-represented in modern Hollywood is young Asian-American males."

Post film critic Michael O'Sullivan wrote in his review that protesters "should be upset with the casting, but not for the reason they think." O'Sullivan continues:

Newcomer Noah Ringer, who plays the title role of Aang, a messianic child with the power to manipulate the elements, is woefully miscast. Not because he's white, but because the kid can't act . Embarrassingly amateurish, he gives new meaning to the term lightweight, and it has nothing to do with his character's ability to float on air.

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In an interview with The Post's Celebritology blog, M. Night Shyamalan told our Jen Chaney in defense of his casting: "The word 'Avatar' is a Sanskrit word. So it's all cultures that are put together. There's no correct background here. They should ask: why does Noah Ringer look like a duplicate - a duplicate - of the cartoon guy? Why? He's a dupe." He continues: "Anime is based on ambiguous facial features. It's meant to be interpretive. It's meant to be inclusive of all races, and you can see yourself in all these characters."

And in perhaps his most telling quote, the director offers: "I take it very seriously that they [his films] make a profit, that every movie that the studio does makes a profit. The thing that's protected me creatively is that the movies have made profits."

If current box-office trending continues, M. Night Shyamalan -- criticized for being so wrong in matters of casting and story and dialogue -- will be so right about the profits. And in Hollywood, if you can bend the bottom line, then so much else falls on deaf ears.


THE RELATED READ

M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: In Va., Casting About for Mongolian Actors

By Michael Cavna  | July 4, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  The Holly Word  | Tags:  Avatar: The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan, The Last Airbender  
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Comments

I still plan to see this film even if it is as bad as everyone says. I love the tv series. I'll post my thoughts after I see this with my two boys.

Posted by: FugCheese | July 3, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

"Anime is based on ambiguous facial features. It's meant to be interpretive. It's meant to be inclusive of all races, and you can see yourself in all these characters."

Not really. If your Anime character is black, you can't cats him/her as white. Black's can't play white. look at all the controversy of Donald Glover for Spider-man. Not because he was black, but because he wasn't white. He even says his daughter (who's not white) looks much like Katara. So, in the movie of his life, a white girl can play his daughter? What about Chinese? Maybe she would speak with an Australian accent. Can't object to that.

"And in perhaps his most telling quote, the director offers: "I take it very seriously that they [his films] make a profit, that every movie that the studio does makes a profit. The thing that's protected me creatively is that the movies have made profits."

And there it is. White people will come out more for a movie featuring white people than Asians. And Shyammy will do whatever it takes to get the most people to see his movies. Accuracy be damned. If talking CGI Jaguars get people to come, the whole cast would have been talking CGI Jaguars. And he'd still defend that choice.

NOw, to back of of Shyammy, isn;t it possible the film is good,a nd the critics miss something? My paper gave Mortal Kombat 0Stars. yet the capsule review mentioned it's popularness (and awfulness.) Logic dictates the movie reviewer was wrong. It clearly wasn't bad because people kept seeing it. Don't forget, movie critics do not get the final word, and are not 100% right no matter what.

Posted by: atherworld | July 3, 2010 9:53 PM | Report abuse

Someone needs to muzzle the critics. Before the film opened, it was already panned, leading to a critical pile-up of over-the-top scathing reviews. I saw the film today with my six year old, and you know what? We both loved it. Just loved it. Indeed, we've already decided we'll be seeing it again very soon. For my son, it was just a delight, beginning to end. For me, it was a very comparable experience to the first Harry Potter movie: the real thrill of the film was just seeing these fantastic places and 'magical' special effects brought to life in brilliant detail. And like the first HPotter movie, the movie as a story, though good enough [and in many ways better than we had any right to expect], was somewhat flat, because plot- and exposition-heavy, without enough time to really develop the characters and their relations to each other because it had to run from one plot point to the next [still leaving out so very much of the tv show's first season, by necessity]. But it was breathtaking to watch, beginning to end --and the acting was better than any of the critics have allowed, though Katara and Sokka don't get much time to do or say much of anything. Finally, like the HPotter movies, I imagine the characters will develop as the trilogy continues -- if it's allowed to continue, that is -- if all these dumb critics haven't squashed the whole thing flat before it even opened. Really, it's visually stunning [I didn't see it in 3D by choice -- maybe that helped?], and a good bit better than most kid films I've seen over the last few years. These critics have really lost it. It's by no means The Worst Film of the Year. But I guess "Not Quite as Good as We Were Hoping, Though Still a Real Treat, and a Must-See for Any Real Avatar Fan" doesn't make for such an exciting headline [or fun-filled, hilariously knee slapping review]. Poor M. Night. Granted, The Happening was BAD. But he doesn't deserve this thrashing he's getting; he's done a really fine job with this one. My son says he can't wait for the sequel.

Posted by: jdext | July 3, 2010 11:15 PM | Report abuse

Maybe the reason it's --

-- Wait a minute. There are die-hard Shyamalan fans? And that many of them? Suddenly I feel like I need a shower.

Anyway, maybe the reason is the same that Transformers 2 made a pile of money: action, special effects and an audience already committed to the franchise.

Posted by: PeterDM | July 4, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

I'm a fan of the Avatar series and I was a bit concerned about all the bad press the movie was getting before it came out. But then I remembered all the bad press that Transformers got and decided to ignore it.

So when my wife and I took our kids to see it, we went with the expectation that "Hollywood critics are generally stupid and out of touch and this move is going to be fun."

We were right, the movie was excellent. We look forward to the planned sequels with great anticipation.

Excellent job, Mr. Syamalan. The movie was great.

Posted by: ZZim | July 5, 2010 9:00 PM | Report abuse

My family and I are big fans of the series, so we couldn't miss the movie. I wish we had. What a steaming pile of fecal matter that thing was! Bad acting, bad writing, bad casting (and I'm not talking about the race issue), just... bad.

Posted by: drewdane | July 6, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

I meant to add, the high point of the movie for me was when I fell asleep about 45 minutes in. How can a movie with so much action be so friggin' dull? Leave it to M. Knight!

Posted by: drewdane | July 6, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

I really enjoyed the movie as well and don't really understand all the Shyamalan hate. Will probably see Airbender again and looking forward to the sequels.

Posted by: amblin | July 7, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

The excellent, Peabody Award-winning Nickelodeon cartoon has a huge, all-ages fanbase that came out en masse to see a movie based on a show they loved. That had nothing to do with Shyamalan. None of those fans will see it again, or recommend it to friends, or buy the DVD. That's Shyamalan's contribution to the property.

There is no justice in this world -- or a shred of business sense at Paramount -- if Airbender 2 goes ahead with Shyamalan involved. The man took what was poised to be a billion-dollar franchise and made something that may break even after foreign DVD sales. He took Harry Potter and turned it into Battlefield Earth.


- mattmchugh

Posted by: mattmchugh_dot_com | July 10, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

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