There are two ways to learn. One, you can learn from experience, which takes time. Two, you can learn from other’s experience, which isn’t as direct, but far less painful. Whenever possible learn from the success and mistakes of others.
M. Night Shyamalan came out with a monster hit in “The Sixth Sense” and it’s been downhill ever since. Unfortunately, it appears that “The Sixth Sense” was just a fluke and all of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies since then have been poorly written, devoid of logic and character development, and lacking suspense of any sort.
His latest film, “The Last Airbender,” is a great film to study so you can learn what not to do. To start with, study the movie for scene construction.
A well-written scene consists of four parts. First, there’s an intriguing beginning that grabs our interest by showing us something unusual or showing people in action, but leaving the exact answer hidden to make us want to learn more.
After a scene grabs our attention, the second part of the scene explains the goal of the characters. Third, some problem gets in the way of the characters and threatens to derail their plans. Fourth, the scene ends by showing us whether the characters achieved their goal or not.
Here’s how “The Last Airbender” approaches scenes. First, a scene opens with two people talking. No mystery, no suspense, just two people talking and often saying something to provide information to the audience such as, “As you know, I am the prince of the Fire Nation…”
The stilted dialogue lacks any sort of interest to compel us to watch further. Second, the scenes don’t clearly define the character goals so we have no idea what anyone wants. Finally, each scene ends with no suspense on whether the characters will achieve their goal (because they never stated their goal in the first place), and then it’s on to the next truncated scene that also lacks interest, shows us two characters telling us information rather than showing us anything interesting.
Paste on a layer of special effects with 3-D wizardry and that’s “The Last Airbender” in a nutshell. No suspense, no goals, no conclusive action, but lots of characters standing around, telling us information that they already know. In other words, “The Last Airbender,” like most of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies since “The Sixth Sense” provide no surprise, no drama, and no interest beyond action scenes that lose our interest because we don’t know who wants what or what’s going on at any given time.
There are no setups that payoff later in the story so things just pop out of nowhere just for the convenience of moving the plot along. We never learn what’s the goal of the villains (the Fire Nation) until the end of the movie when they state that they will kill one of the gods embodied as a fish. Up until this point, we have no idea what the Fire Nation wants and why they keep terrorizing everyone around them.
The characters themselves have no goals and don’t change during the course of the story by learning anything new. They just follow the plot to show off more special effects so the movie can show a bunch of action scenes devoid of any reason for watching it.
I loved “The Sixth Sense” but every movie M. Night Shyamalan has made since then has been so poorly written that you have to wonder if the poor guy even remembers how to construct a story any more. Despite coming in number two on its opening weekend, “The Last Airbender” definitely won’t get much return business and won’t receive much positive word of mouth that can fuel a film’s run.
Rent any M. Night Shyamalan film (except for “The Sixth Sense”) and compare the scene structure to what Quentin Tarantino does in his films. The difference is as vast as night and day.