Tuesday, December 23, 2008

My take on the Latest News from the Avatar Movie

If you have been sleeping under a rock, you might have missed the fact that M. Night Shyamalan will be directing the live action movie adaptation of Nickelodeon's Avatar: the Last Air Bender. In the Omi household, we are avid watchers of the TV show. The final season really met our expectations. It was educational as well as action packed. Although the characters possessed European features, the characters were undoubtedly Asian and Inuit.

The blogosphere and on line forums lit up last week when news hit the scene that Shyamalan was going to get some white folks to play the main character. It would be too shameful to list the actors he suggested on using. Let's just say it seems as if Shyamalan is trying to cater to the Hannah Montana crowd (never would have thought that I would say Hannah Montana and sci fi in the same entry).

Of course, this bothers me completely. Folks will say, “there are bigger things to worry about like the economy.” I agree but this is ONE of the reasons why we are here. Let me 'splain something.

All sectors of this economy are doing bad. However, it didn't get bad overnight. Whether it was Wall Street, the American automotive industry, the real estate industry, or even Hollywood, a good part of the problem is the piss poor decisions and lack of vision on the part of the executives that run these sectors. Hollywood has done all kinds of things to sell tickets at the Box Office. One sure shot way of making big is to use the latest and most popular actors and actresses to be leads.

It is usually the only way that an unconventional script can be given the green light. When Ali was made, they used Will Smith who at the time was still working on his chops. The movie was wack on all counts, but it made the Box Office happy. Yet Hollywood has banked on some flops. Every now and then there is a fluke in the system and a movie like Fahrenheit 9/11 or Juno will come out and break all kinds of records. A franchise like the Batman Begins which has a cult following and then blossoms into a blockbuster like The Dark Knight comes through. So you have a quality film that sells a lot of tickets. Hollywood however cannot be counted on the next big thing or appreciate creativity. Movies like the ones mentioned above are a mathematical anomaly. Hollywood has always tried to do either of two things: spend huge loads of money to make money or try to make a hit by green lighting something new without really promoting it (gee, sounds like the American automotive industry and the record industry.. go figure!).

Many will say that when Hollywood attempts to deliver something new and creative to audiences, the people just don't come. In a way it makes sense. Most of us are short sighted. Most of us would rather see cars being blown up and all kinds of guns being used to blast people into oblivion than watch a movie that really questions the status quo (again, a few movies do stand out like “V for Vendetta” but again, that is a mathematical anomaly). Most of us won't pay a cent to see something of substance. It's kind of like the American auto industry. Sure we can place all the blame on the guys making the decisions but when someone called an SUV a gas guzzler or something that was bad for th environment, they were called unpatriotic. When one drove around, every other car was an SUV. Instead of purchasing a smaller, economical and more environment friendly car, people acted like sheep and tried to keep up with the Joneses knowing that it was not a sound decision.

Let's be real, something like the Avatar really can't sell to a huge audience. I enjoyed watching the TV show because of it's weaving of Eastern Philosophy to a modern day fairy tale. The characters were simple, everyday people who came across complex problems. My children got the entire thing and actually understood Aang's (the Avatar) dilemma. When faced with fighting the greatest enemy mankind ever encountered, Aang refused to go against his upbringing to take someone's life. Yet many felt that as the Avatar, he needed to be unselfish and commit murder.

In a sense, most teenagers have to make decisions like that. Of course, they may not be as dire as that faced by Aang but it sure did feel like that. Most people don't to watch a character with this kind of dilemma. They want the kung fu action and the special effects. That's a hard thing to convey in a two hour movie. I dig Shyamalan. I think he is ahead of his time. Sure he has made some bad career moves and I am sure he has found it difficult to make a movie as successful as his first one. I wouldn't call this decision a bad career move but a really dumb idea.

I would expect this from say, Steven Spielberg or any other white director or writer. I didn't expect to see that from Shyamalan. I have seen some argue that it is the message that matters not who is delivering the message. Yet as a watcher of the Avatar, I don't think you can convey that message that this series is trying to make by changing the face of the characters. The basic gist of the movie is that we are the sole controllers of our destiny. People and events may influence and challenge us but in the end, we choose our own destiny. We must embrace it or deny it. Many cultures tell this story in their own way. Yet the story of the Avatar, which is rooted in Buddhism and Inuit culture, can only be told by those people. Sure, a Brazilian cat directed it and an American wrote it but the choreography and the concept was based on Kung Fu, Buddhism, and Inuit culture and theology. They cannot be separated.

I understand that ultimately, the movie will be nothing like the cartoon series. How many movie adaptations follow the original formula? Many in Hollywood will say that using the actors slated to play the main characters will help make it a success and the message will get out there. That the only way something of quality such as the Avatar can only make it if it is packaged properly.

I have to ask, but packaged for whom? It's a message that is conveyed on THEIR terms. So are you saying that the Inuits or Buddhists have nothing to really say? That the message has to come from someone white? My children are not stupid. They know that the Avatar is a fairy tale but they know it is rooted in Asian and Inuit culture. They can tell by the characters and the settings. You can show them a photo of an Inuit hunter and quickly identify it. They can quickly point out if someone is practicing Wing Chun. They will undoubtedly notice something different in the way the movie is put on the silver screen.

What do you think?