Reviewby Zac Bertschy,
Space Battleship Yamato
In the distant future, the nearly-defeated forces of humanity lose a major battle to evil alien invaders the Gamilas, retreating back to a radiation-soaked, nigh-uninhabitable Earth, where they hatch one last-ditch scheme to save the population with a toxin-killing device supposedly sent from a benevolent species, located on the distant planet Iscandar. Earth's last hope is the giant star-cruising battleship Yamato; armed with a wave motion cannon capable of destroying massive Gamilas ships, the Yamato is launched with a ragtag crew including angsty hotshot Susumu Kodai, stoic bearded captain Okita, and spunky fighter pilot Yuki. The Yamato must race against time and across treacherous space to find this mysterious device and defeat the insidious Gamilas.
It's no big secret that when it comes to live-action adaptations of anime, the results are at best of dubious quality – regardless of where the film was produced. While people bag ad nauseam on Hollywood's various ill-fated stabs at turning anime into big-screen magic, the truth is the Japanese themselves aren't much better at it. So it's kind of a small miracle that Space Battleship Yamato – the long-awaited, highly ambitious live-action adaptation of the beloved classic TV series – wound up as a quite solid and entertaining (if flawed) sci-fi action movie, rather than the large-scale disaster it could've easily become.
From the outset, the film has a daunting task – figure out a way to cram the epic story of the Yamato, now practically a cultural institution in Japan (and for a legion of American fans nourished in youth by its English-language version, Star Blazers) – into an accessible, palatable 2+ hour movie version. This is no simple task - in the series, the story is told through a number of serial story arcs, with climaxes punctuating each major stretch of the Yamato's desperate journey through space to find Iscandar and save humanity. The film version condenses all of this into just over 2.5 hours and manages to retain most of the vital plot beats from the series, although after a while it feels like the film hits a speed bump every 25 minutes or so as it comes to the end of what was obviously a major story arc on the show, and everything stops so someone (usually Susumu) can deliver yet another “Alright everyone, this is humanity's last chance – if this doesn't work, we're all doomed!” speech to the crew. The audience, of course, knows full well whatever it is they're going to do will work because otherwise the movie would end. It's an interesting way to try and force the Yamato narrative into movie form, and while it's a little clunky, it works.
The pacing is key here. While the inherent problem with the whole "let's make a movie with 4 climaxes"; thing rears its ugly head every time we stop for one of these speeches, they've crammed so much story and so much action into the film's runtime that you hardly notice. One of the best things about this version of Yamato is that it isn't boring – almost by definition, cramming that much story and drama into one film requires that the narrative is never allowed to slow down, and the script is competent enough to massage all these moving parts into a streamlined version of the Yamato tale that would likely keep a modern American audience entertained for at least 80 percent of the film's runtime without insulting the memories of diehard franchise fans.
Right off the bat, it's clear the filmmakers wanted this version of Space Battleship Yamato to be writ large and told with the familiar visual language of American sci-fi blockbusters; we open right in the middle of a massive-scale space battle, with dogfighting spaceships zooming around the flaming carcasses of huge interstellar warships, lens flares and fancy explosions aplenty. Many visual elements appear to have been lifted from a number of modern American sci-fi actioners, but the most obvious “inspiration” for the film's look – in a strange mobius strip of sci-fi franchises ripping eachother off throughout history – is the 2005 Battlestar Galactica, which this version of Yamato has lifted aesthetic concepts from wholesale. The dogfights in space are shot in the exact same “shaky-handheld-camera-in-space” fashion, with the cockpit and pilot flightsuit designs being remarkably similar. Even the ship interiors are reminiscent of Galactica, which could be seen as poetic given all the various plot points the original Battlestar Galactica TV show lifted from the 70's Yamato series. In fact, the similarities are so strong – both visually and in the film's basic story – between this live-action Yamato and the recent Galactica reboot that sci-fi fans unfamiliar with the Yamato franchise might just think they stole the entire concept from BSG.
While doubtlessly big-budget (especially for a Japanese film, when compared to what would've been spent on a project like this in America), Yamato's visual effects eventually do fall short, particularly in a third-act encounter on Iscandar with a horde of Gamilas shock troopers that looks like it could've come from any given cheapo straight-to-video Starship Troopers sequel (and was clearly inspired by the massive ground battles in those films). In addition, although the film is largely well-shot, there are a number of problematic choices made by the director, who – especially during any scene on the Yamato's bridge – doesn't seem to have basic camera placement or blocking worked out, so we wind up with the camera sitting dead center and slowly panning between actors reciting their lines, while supporting cast members awkwardly shuffle in from the wings, try to find their marks and then scramble around behind the foreground action, almost like a poorly-directed stage play. It's not clear if the director simply didn't have room to move the camera properly (or, for heaven's sake, get a second camera in for more coverage), but these amateurish choices are remarkably distracting; It's as if moments from a set dress rehearsal were dropped into an otherwise polished movie with no regard to how the shot composition in these awkward scenes would look in the context of the finished film.
The film's cast manages to pour a thick layer of cheese over the proceedings as well – in typical Japanese soap opera style, they lay the emotion on as thick as can be and are borderline hilarious in some moments clearly meant to be dead serious. There is no subtle emotion – there's a lot of chest-rending, arm-grabbing, impassioned pleas, mugging for the camera and wild takes. For the most part, the over-the-topness of it all it feels totally appropriate for the material – this is, after all, a big epic space adventure where humanity itself is desperate for survival!, a story that is no stranger to BURNING PASSION – and thankfully it stops just short of being so goofy and overdone that it becomes impossible to find yourself emotionally invested in the story. By the end of the film the lead (Takuya Kimura, noted SMAP member) seems to be running out of steam; he seems almost exhausted by the sheer amount of teary-eyed strength he has to dump into the overwrought final scenes, but both he and his co-star Meisa Kuroki (as Yuki, his Starbuck-esque tough-girl love interest) generally do a pretty decent job with their roles. If you can forgive how cartoonish the emotional tone of the film is, the only person who turns in a legitimately cringeworthy performance is Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, who delivers his lines as the leader of the Yamato's space commandos with all the conviction and skill of an overacting 5th grader.
Overall : B
Story : B
Music : B
+ Great fun, decent effects work, well-paced, action-packed
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