Reviewby Theron Martin, Jun 7th 2012
Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works
For the past few hundred years the Grail Wars have periodically been fought by Magi to determine who would control the wish-granting Holy Grail. Seven Epic Spirits are called from across time and space to serve as Servants and chose the Master that they will fight for in this endeavor. Shiro Emiya unwittingly gets drawn into the affair when he witnesses the servants Archer and Lancer fighting each other and is mortally wounded by Lancer, who seeks to eliminate witnesses. He is saved by Rin Tosaka, a pretty and capable high school classmate who turns out to be both a Magus and the Master of Archer, but when Lancer later attacks him again to finish the job only one thing can protect him: his own Servant, the armor-clad young woman known as Saber, who manifests to defend him. Thus begins a frenzy of battles and shifting alliances between Masters and Servants as Shiro struggles to be heroic himself – an effort which seems to specifically irritate Archer, who, despite occasionally helping and/or defending Shiro, also works to crush Shiro's unrelenting devotion towards putting his life on the line to save others. In Archer's ultimate power, the Reality Marble he calls Unlimited Blade Works, Shiro may find important truths about both Archer and himself.
Haven't seen the Fate/stay night anime series or read its source visual novel? Not a major problem. The first couple of minutes of Unlimited Blade Works carefully explain the basic premise, providing even franchise novices with enough of the underlying structure to make sense of what transpires here. Newcomers will miss some of the details which get glossed over or outright skipped, such as which epic figures Assassin, Berserker, and Lancer represent (Rider is never clearly revealed in the TV series, either), why Shiro always seems to come back quickly from serious injuries, and what link these Grail Wars have to the disaster which happened ten years ago, but these omissions generally do not have a major impact on the story. While the movie is certainly intended for established franchise fans, and such individuals will get more out of it, it plays out well enough as a general fantasy action thriller.
At first this 105 minute movie seems like just a condensed retelling of the 2005-2006 TV series, as the first 25 minutes are mostly a heavily truncated version of the series' first eleven episodes. The first sign of a divergence comes during the early fight against Berserker, where Archer plays a much bigger role, but not until the 25 minute mark, where one of the Servants exits the picture under entirely different circumstances, does the movie make clear that its story will go in a distinctly different direction. (This is, in fact, an adaptation of the second of the three paths in the original visual novel, whereas the TV series was an adaptation of the first with some elements borrowed from the other two.) From that point on even those familiar with the series will have only a vague idea of what to expect, as events bear only occasional resemblances to their earlier versions. How each Servant exits the picture is radically altered, some characters die who did not in the series (and, likewise, some survive who did not in the series), some Servants change Masters, and Sakura disappears from the action entirely after the first few minutes. And, most importantly, the identity of Archer, which was never revealed in the TV series, is revealed here, and that has a major impact on how events transpire.
In fact, the focus of this story is much more on Shiro and Archer than on Shiro and Saber. Whereas the emphasis of the TV series was on the romantic relationship developing between Shiro and Saber and on the underlying theme of “oneself as an ideal,” the movie instead focuses on the struggle one undergoes to cope with the ideal image one has of oneself. This can be seen in the similarities and contrasts between Shiro and Archer. Whereas Shiro is still the fresh idealist who strives to be a champion of justice, Archer is someone who has been there, done that, and come off so very jaded by what he had to do to accomplish his goals that he feels a need to crush Shiro's ideals before they can consume him; those who are also watching Fate/Zero may find some interesting parallels between Archer's attitude and Kiritsugu Emiya's. Thus the movie ultimately becomes about finding a way to be heroic without eventually becoming cynical about it. The end of the movie may leave viewers wondering whether the message Shiro took from his encounters here will be enough to prevent him from ending up like Archer or whether he's just so blinded by his convictions that he fails to realize that he is already headed down that same path.
Beyond that, the TV series and movie have other distinct contrasts. While the series carried the scent of a harem series, nary a whiff of such construction pops up here; in fact, beyond faint suggestions that Rin may have a romantic interest in Shiro (which were more strongly present in the series), no romance figures into the equation here. Character development in general also suffers, but that is to be expected when reducing the total running time by 80%. The action scenes, contrarily, get a dramatic upgrade in the movie, and they were hardly tame in the series. Thanks in large part to the proportionately larger animation budget and upgrades in sound quality, many of the key action scenes are thrillingly intense affairs, especially the early one involving Shiro's group battling Berserker. The movie, as its name suggests, also much more prominently features arguably the coolest power seen in the TV series: Archer's Reality Marble, Unlimited Blade Works, which has a significant role in the plot this time rather than just being a one-off event. Unfortunately some of the series' biggest faults also remain, such as Shiro's resolute thick-headedness; the way Shiro so quickly recoups from his injuries not being explained here is an additional new flaw.
The original TV series looked pretty good but naturally gets an upgrade here, primarily in its animation and in the more rounded 3D feel it gives its characters. The slightly blocky computer-drawn style frequently seen in the character rendering in the series remains, however, and the animation still takes some common TV series animation shortcuts, such as not clearly showing the character that is talking in some scenes and showing a conversation only from a distance. While the animation looks smooth and sharp early on and in some later fight scenes (especially one where Rin goes head-to-head with Caster), it uses rapid actions to cover up for less smooth animation later on, resulting in a production which looks more like a high-end TV series than a high-end movie-caliber production. The level of graphic violence has been very distinctly upgraded, though, with a scene where one character's still-beating heart is literally torn out of his/her chest, and the aftermath of that on the character's body, being the highlight moment. Even with a near-total absence of prurient fan service this time around, the TV-14 rating is still well-justified and perhaps even on the light side. Rin is still every bit the hottie that she was in the TV series, though, Archer looks even more studly than before, and Saber is still every bit the knightly-looking woman. Shiro, unfortunately, is still every bit the nondescript redhead, but at least the settings get further upgraded detail and refinement – and the original was no slouch on that.
The bold, powerful sound effects and musical themes which back the key action sequences sound wondrously good in the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio tracks available on the Blu-Ray version of the release, giving the movie an overall high grade on music and sound. The Japanese dub retains its cast from the TV series and visual novels, resulting in a collection of solid and consistent but unexceptional performances. The English dub also holds over most of its original cast, thanks to Sentai Filmworks opting to use original dubbing studio Bang Zoom! Entertainment, with one significant exception: Kate Higgins, the original voice of Saber, is replaced by Michelle Ruff. This is a questionable casting choice, as Ms. Ruff has never been known for voicing fiery, fiercely proud characters, and she is further hamstrung by Saber having a substantially smaller proportion of the dialogue this time around. The result is a performance which isn't distractingly bad but does sap Saber of some of the spirit that she had in the English dub of the TV series. Otherwise the sub/dub comparison is pretty much the same as for the TV series: the dub is distinctly better when characters are chanting phrases that originally appeared in English and ranges between being slightly above and slightly below the rest of the time. The English script does not change anything more than necessary, either.
Sentai is releasing this title in separate DVD and Blu-Ray versions; only the latter was available for review, so a comparison between the two cannot be made. The picture quality looks a little softer than one might expect for 1080p-quality video based on HD masters, but that is likely more a result of choices made in the original animation than any effect of the transfer. While it looks sharp, especially in some uses of color, and is mostly free of unintentional visual flaws, there are sharper-looking anime out there on Blu-Ray. The sound, as noted earlier, is exceptional, with a particularly good surround sound mix, though it tends to get a little too disproportionately loud at times. Sentai has included no Extras beyond company trailers.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in Unlimited Blade Works is its plotting. Although it tells a complete story, it tends to abruptly jump forward between scenes rather than smoothly transitioning, giving the whole work the sense of having been trimmed down from a much longer effort – and yes, this continues even after the story diverges enough that it is no longer just recapping the TV series. Fleshing out character development and context also gets sacrificed along the way, resulting in a movie that is suitably thrilling and provides a definite end but still may leave viewers vaguely unsatisfied.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Spectacular action scenes, great sound, divergent plotting creates many fresh twists.
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