Filmgoers beware: ‘The Last Airbender’ is NOT like ‘The Last Emperor’


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I have a confession to make: I’ve always had a fondness for”The Last Emperor,” the sweeping movie about the life and times of the royal Pu Yi of China. Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece, the last foreign-language film to win best picture (and eight other Oscars),” is one I associate closely with my discovery of art-house cinema in the late 1980s.

So you can imagine my excitement at hearing that Hollywood had decided to reboot the franchise.


The story in this new movie, which Paramount had cagily renamed “The Last Airbender” (you don’t want to scare anyone off -- smart devils) seemed similar, only better. A young anointed one would face trials and tribulations while wars between civilizations swirled around him. A look at some of the studio marketing material, included above, confirmed that this was going to be a very comparable filmgoing experience to the one I had more than two decades ago. There would be a new “The Last Emperor”!

Anticipation filled my mind and excitement ran through my heart when I received an invitation to a “Last Airbender” screening this week. This movie was going to bring back all that was once good about moviegoing. Character nuance, striking cinematography, a parable of the modern world -- all would be present. I eagerly scooped up my 3-D glasses, certain that when I looked through them I would see a new world -- and, perhaps, a new soul.

At first things seemed to be going smoothly. I watched as Zuko the Fire Lord captured Aang the Airbender, which struck me as very similar to when the Red Army put China under Soviet rule and captured Pu Yi. I was equally enthralled thinking about how Pu Yi was installed as a puppet ruler of a Japanese state, and realized it was being perfectly re-created here when Fire Nation Commanders kill the Moon Gods and drain the life force out of the Waterbenders.
I also thought about the anarchy and cultural uncertainty Pu Yi faced in the early days of the Chinese Republic, and realized it was much like when the Waterbenders Katara and Sokka find themselves in a prison riot with the Earthbenders. This was a great remake!

The visuals were just as exciting. Many of the “Last Emperor” shots of the Forbidden City, shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, were expertly re-created on the sets in Reading, Penn., and remastered in a 3-D conversion laboratory.

But as the movie went on, it became clear that the people who made this movie weren’t very faithful to the original at all. There was almost nothing, for instance, about Pu Yi’s upbringing in the royal court of the Manchu Aisin-Gioro ruling family, or of his proletarian transformation during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

And where was Pu Yi when he realized he was complicit in atrocities against the Japanese? I’m all for artistic license, but did the people who made this film even read Long-hsuen Hsu’s “History of the Sino-Japanese War”?!

I decided to find out more about the people who made this movie. Who is this “M. Night Shyamalan,” I wondered? I went back and looked at what else he had directed and realized he had tried to remake Bertolucci before -- and failed. This “M. Night” had made “Lady in the Water,” about a troubled young woman who seeks solace and refuge with an older man. But as I started watching it I realized it wasn’t like “Last Tango in Paris” at all. “M. Night” had completely botched it.

I tried another one, taking a movie Bertolucci only wrote, thinking it might be easier for “M. Night” to remake that. I looked at an “M. Night” movie about a man who tries to protect innocents from an outside threat. But no matter how you design the marketing poster, Touchstone Pictures, you’re not going to convince me “Signs” is as good as “Once Upon a Time in the West.”
Sure, you can go see “The Last Airbender” this weekend. But don’t let the analogous plot points or the very similar marketing fool you. It is nothing like “The Last Emperor.”

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photos: “The Last Emperor” and “The Last Airbender.” Credits: Columbia Pictures and Paramount Pictures


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