Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
Attack on Titan: Part I
In a post-apocalyptic future where only a fraction of humanity has survived to live humbly amongst the rubble, Eren Jaeger dreams of more. His brainy friend Armin tells tall tales about deserts and oceans beyond the massive walls that guard their civilization, and his girlfriend Mikasa is equally entranced by the birds that soar over those untouchable barricades. Unfortunately, Eren's wish to see the walls opened to the outside world comes at a devastating cost. Enormous humanoid monsters called "Titans" come stampeding through the walls and immediately start eating every man, woman, and child they can find.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Eren joins the newly minted "Titan Survey Corps" alongside hundreds of other young adults. Some of these new soldiers are hungry for revenge, but most are just plain hungry due to the ensuing famine. While facing down his demons and fighting through past trauma, Eren will have to rediscover what "freedom" means to him in a new world ruled by fear.
There's a colossal problem in the way for any live-action version of a larger-than-life comic book. What works as a drawing doesn't always work in the flesh, and few premises make a better posterboy for this problem than Attack on Titan. How can a movie without a sky-high effects budget even approach the material? How do you make the lovable pseudo-zombies called Titans threatening enough to carry the adventure? How do you even make a dent in all the world-building and character development from the source narrative in just two feature films? Well, director Shinji Higuchi and his team came up with a terrific solution to this problem. With the blessing of Titan's original author to do whatever they wanted, Toho threw all expectations out the window and just made their own movie.
This is not the Attack on Titan you saw on the comic book page. This is not the Attack on Titan you saw animated on television. This movie is its own monster, and it's like nothing you've ever seen before. This is not a heroic fantasy with gore, grit, and gristle around the edges like the manga. This is not high-octane action peppered with shocking twists like the anime series. This movie's mission is to plunge you into a unique heightened reality filled with nauseating nightmares and disturbingly human cruelty. This version of Attack on Titan is pure horror movie, a one-of-a-kind experiment in atmospheric terror you may never forget.
Right from the start, the movie divorces itself from the source material's theme and tone as hard as it possibly can. It takes place in the future of our world, with remnants of warplanes and weaponry peppered across the countryside. Its great walls were built by human hands, and even though they live in repurposed ruins, the people seem very happy. (The manga most often refers to its world as a crowded cistern, but this movie contains the line: "Even paradise seems like a prison when you can see its walls.") Most importantly, our story's hero dreams of taking back the outside world in a completely different way. Instead of warning people against complacency and chomping at the bit to fight an enemy like in the comics, this Eren kicks at dead shells of old warheads while denying that Titans even exist, except as a fairytale made to keep people away from the world they deserve. The original version of Eren was brave and prescient, but immature in his ambitions. This movie's Eren is a starry-eyed fool dying to throw open the lid to Pandora's box. It's that subtle difference between the lead in a fantasy movie and the lead in a horror film. Of course, it's only once the Titans bust into town that the movie delivers on its genre shift with jaw-dropping results.
True to its roots, Toho has re-imagined Attack on Titan as a kaiju film, with actors in makeup portraying the Titans rather than full CG, but in the process, this movie has also expanded on what kaiju films can be. The aesthetic here is not Godzilla, but Silent Hill, as human actors are blended with a hybrid of makeup and CG to create perfect uncanny night terrors. Against all odds, this movie is even gorier than the original comics and it somehow forces you to take the Titans very seriously. Unlike the more PG-13 anime, it is in no way comical when the Titans' repulsive mouths consume screaming actors in excruciating closeup. Blood and viscera rain down on panicked crowds as they claw over each other in packed alleyways and crush each other up against barred doors. It's an extremely tangible R-rated experience where everything "feels real," even the conservative sets and slightly crude compositing. (The musical score does verge on cliché sometimes, but it's still not enough to tarnish the experience.) All the movie's so-called limitations manage to blossom into a cohesive nightmare world thanks to the expert technique and direction of Shinji Higuchi, who is not only a kaiju effects veteran, but also knows a thing or two about the psychology of fear as evidenced by his extensive work on Evangelion. Instead of being campy fun, it's tone-perfect terrifying.
As a horror movie, it's a one-of-a-kind experience, but as a horror movie, it must also dispense with a lot of elements that no longer fit into the story's new focus. For instance, horror movies are not known for their characterization, and even psychological horror movies like this one tend to be concerned with the mind of only one character. In this case, that's Eren Jaeger, so everyone around him has been altered to serve as an element inside his waking nightmare. Since the story has an archetypal cast to begin with, this mostly works out fine. Sasha is still Sasha, Jean is still Jean, and Hans (Hanji) remains the closest of all to her comic-book self. Armin is simplified to expositional best friend status, but isn't too much worse for wear. No, it's Mikasa who suffers a character assassination so unfortunate that it forms the weakest part of the movie and will probably disappoint her devotees. This Mikasa is absolutely nothing like her wise warrior origin. She's a horror-fueled symbol of a happy and pure girl who is broken, corrupted, and "taken" from Eren. Her actions create an effective turning point in his arc, but it's for deeply uncomfortable reasons steeped in psychosexual horror tradition, which makes her a tragic object for new viewers to shrug at and old fans to feel betrayed by.
Mikasa's devolution aside, Attack on Titan hasn't lost any intelligence in its translation to horror film. There are no jump scares or fakeouts here, and the movie never tries to hide its monsters from you, but invites you to face the shock and discomfort of its imagery instead. It's an impressive feat not often seen outside of legendary exceptions like Silent Hill 2 or End of Evangelion, neither of which are live-action. Without ever resorting to clunky dialogue or bogging down the action, Attack on Titan throws complex ideas and double-edged convictions into the script with class. Eren's dream of freedom sees a pitch-black reflection in one of the movie's original characters, and the film seems eager to test audience's expectations about what that word really means in its radically different take on this universe.
We won't know the full extent of the film's message until Part 2 is released in Japan later this year, but the fact that it has its own message at all is an exciting surprise. So if you're a prior fan of the manga or anime eager to see your favorite characters kicking butt in feature form, you may be better served by the animated compilation movies. Approach this film with an open mind, a clean slate, and a strong stomach, and you may find something completely new to love, with a much darker part of your heart.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Art : A
Music : B-
+ Outstanding and immersive aesthetic unlike any other horror movie, swiftly paced and gripping start to finish, sharp script with heavy thematic undertones, holds up completely as its own work of art divorced from the source material
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