Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Space Battleship Yamato

NetFlix Not Available
IMDB 6.3/10
My Rating: 8/10

Earth has been attacked by the alien Gamilus race and bombarded with radiation bombs, rendering the surface of the planet uninhabitable.  The surviving humans are clustered in underground cities awaiting extinction when hope comes in the form of a message from another alien world, the planet Iscandar.  Iscandar sends advanced plans for building a warp-capable ship that humans can use to travel to obtain a radiation removal device, to restore life to the ruined earth while humanity still exists.  With no space fleet remaining, the engineers secretly build their starship beneath the rotting ruin of the WW2 battleship Yamato, which must be resurrected TO SAAAAVE THE HUMAN RAAAACE! 

OK, first things first - If you're going to say, "This is just like the new Star Trek" or, "They ripped off the look of the new BSG", you need to get out of here now before I start slapping you.  NO, SB Yamato does not rip off the look and style of new BSG... BSG took much of its tone, realism, theme, and style from this original anime, which ran some 30+ years earlier.  Pardon my hostility, but I've read so many comments on sites like io9, from snarky teens and 20-somethings convinced that nothing happened in this world before the last 5-10 years, that it's left me ready to throttle the next person who says, "This whole thing is a total ripoff of Battlestar Galactica."

For "Who done what first", let's make a list:

  • Yamato was the first SF series to depict space battles as WW2 dogfights, later copied in Star Wars.
  • Long before BSG, Yamato gave us a world where the battle against the aliens was already lost and humanity was reduced to a handful of desperate survivors looking for hope in unknown space while fighting off constant attacks by their relentless enemy.
  • Yamato was first with the low tech, military battleship interiors later used by shows like BSG.
  • Yamato gave us a gigantic, round, planet-destroying battle station controlled by an evil empire, years before Star Wars.
  • Yamato gave us a battered, used hulk of a spaceship star, before BSG.
  • Yamato gave us a ship that could fire a weapon so powerful it could wipe out asteroids, enemy fleets, and even moons, long before Crusade.
  • Yamato gave us a climactic dogfight that consisted of fighters having to exploit a secret weakness in the giant alien battlestation in order to deliver a killing blow to its internal workings, before Star Wars.
  • Yamato even gave us a "cute" (Arguable, that) robot sidekick shaped like a trashcan.
Well, I could go on, but I'll leave it at that.  Suffice to say, if the look or events in the new live-action Yamato film feel familiar, or look like something you've already seen in recent popular SF media, it isn't because Yamato is copying, it's because Yamato was late to the party in getting its story made into live action cinema due to decades of rights disputes.  But now it is back, riding on the current wave of "gritty" space SF that it fits into so well.

For the rest of this review, please understand that I am a huge fan of the original anime and my view of the Yamato live action movie is not so much through rose-tinted glasses as through glasses made out of the radiant smiles of Lynda Carter and Wilma Deering.  That said, I did have a number of problems with the film, mostly relating to the uncomfortable neccessity of squashing a 26 episode anime series story down to fit into one 2:15 movie.

The Kickoff!

The old girl has never looked better, for starters:

The studio did a stunning job of creating some excellent space FX on a mere 13 million dollar budget.  Think about that again - 13 million.  That's not enough to cover the typical Hollywood star's coke and hooker fees, yet Japan got a whole 2 hour and 15 minute movie out of it.  The story starts off with the battle against the invading aliens already lost - We see the earth fleet hopelessly outclassed and forced to withdraw, and the radiation bombing that reduces the planet to a barren wasteland.  It's a hard place to start a movie... Hell, it was an astonishing place to start a cartoon, back in 1977.

Let's rewind for a moment.  It's the late 70's, and your popcorn-addict writer was still living in the land of the Saturday morning cartoon gala.  The stuff that the US networks fed us was caca - Sure, there were some fun shows tucked in here and there, but for every 1st season Scooby Doo there were 10 shows like the Superfriends and Wonderbug.  US animation was crap and American kid's cartoons were dumbed down to the IQ level of a Tea Party Xtreme Wrestling expo.  Suddenly, into this maelstrom of mediocrity, my friends and I started noticing these funky Japanese cartoons - Or as my mother liked to call them, "The ones full of people with big eyes".  Starblazers didn't treat us like infants, oh no...  It grabbed us by the neck right off and showed us an earth that was dying of poison, with one year until the human race would be extinct, and all we had going for us was an ancient battleship and a crew willing to take an insane gamble against an invincible enemy - Fly across the galaxy further than any human has ever gone to get a radiation removal device from a mysterious alien woman, and get back before the last humans are dead.

OK, the ship was crazy... This was the big stumbling block for many, and at the same time it was symbolic of the sort of, "Holy crap, I've never seen anything like that before!" chutzpah that these new Japanese cartoons were introducing to us (Nobody called them anime, that didn't come till 15 years later).  A WW2 battleship flying around in space looked insane...  but awesome.  To this day I maintain that the Yamato is the best looking spaceship ever, far cooler than any version of the Enterprise or the Galactica.  And there was a reason for it, too - With no fleet and no space bases, the last ship had to be built in secret, in a way that the watching Gamilons would not suspect, so the entire thing was constructed under the rotting hulk of the original Battleship Yamato, now exposed by the dried-up ocean.  The launch of the Yamato remains one of the coolest scenes ever, and the new movie did it right (Skip to 1minute 40 if you're impatient):

It took 3 episodes of the anime to get to the launch.  Can you imagine?  Three episodes of build-up.  Modern kids can't sit still for fifteen minutes without squirming, if they don't have something being thrown in their faces constantly.  The ongoing plot and the gradual development of the characters was a wholly new thing to us, at a time when the Superfriends were lecturing the 34th set of stupid teens about the Darwinian hazards of choosing to play in the bear cave.  The full story ran a year and it had everything that American animation of the time did not have - Depth, pain, insight, character growth, and violence...  Holy shit, a lot of violence.  Superman was too noble to punch Lex Luthor for threatening a city, but the Yamato crew had no compunctions about blowing away an entire enemy fleet because they knew it was them or us.  But beyond that, it was the sneaky subplot that grabbed me as a growing boy - The ongoing schism between young hotshot hero Kodai/Wildstar and the father figure captain that he resents.  As much as anything, Yamato was the story about every young man learning to understand his father and what it takes to really become an adult.

So!  The original series was an epic, with each episode covering a different challenge for the Yamato crew as they traveled to Iscandar, fighting the Gamilons every step of the way.  The new movie does its best, but even at over two hours, it doesn't have a prayer of delivering the depth and gradual development of the original, and this brings me to its first problem, it's too fast.  The filmmakers wisely choose to jettison most of the original storylines in favor of telling four complete stories from the best individual episodes, and this is a plus and a minus - I'm happy with the four stories they picked and I'm glad that they took the time to tell each properly, but this meant leaving out a LOT of build-up and connecting tissue, and it makes the film strangely paced.  It's a bit rollercoasterey, with event-action-climax happening in repeating sequences throughout the runtime.  This stitched-together assembly makes for an unwieldy movie experience.

The casting and the look was spot-on:

Yuki/Nova is changed, however - Instead of the demure nurse and love interest of the series, we get a sullen Yuki who is a hotshot pilot, and this "Starbucking" of her character is probably the one element that really is ripped off from current SF fare.

It moves fast, and you have to jump on and try your best to hang on.  I will admit I followed far more of it on a second viewing, particularly the strategy of the final divebombing assault on the Gamilus cavern base.  It's weird to say, but in this the live action movie actually feels a bit *less* mature than the cartoon - Everything is rushed up and before you know it the Yamato is launching and then WHOAH, where did that Kodai & Yuki relationship come from?  And then, crap, Kodai in charge and suddenly we're at Iscandar and there's a climax happening.  In this, it totally lacks the feeling of an epic voyage from the original... There's no "Homer in Space" about it, it's a 2 hour SF action movie.  I suppose this is not a bad thing, as I doubt anyone today would be willing to sit through a 13 hour long Yamato movie.  Except me.  I can't help but wish they'd gone the LOTR route at least, and split the story into two or three different films.

My other complaint is the change in the Gamilons, from blue-skinned human types to generic modern CGI aliens.  I've read various message board posts from people saying that the blue-skins would have looked stupid, that that dreaded "today's audience" wouldn't have accepted them, etc.  However, with the switch to an inhuman aesthetic goes one of the best arcs of the series - The continual taunting and plotting and politics of Gamilus leader Dessler as he rode his Yamato obsession into apocalyptic madness that cost him everything.  Instead, we get waves of these Playstation-looking things:

Mostly what they do is show up the limits of the budget in some of the few scenes that are less than impressive.  They also remove the element of personal antipathy  It's no longer Dessler and the Yamato crew getting more and more pissed at each other, it's now just an endless wave of generic computer bugs.  I'd have loved to see this smug bastard on the big screen:

However, I can't dock them too hard for this because the presence of an active enemy character would have done even more extreme things to the pacing and length of the film.  Essentially, they do the best with what they have and make it work in two hours, trimming as needed, and in this case the blue-skinned Gamilons are our Tom Bombadil.

Also, I have to mention the one utterly glaringly god-awful decision of the movie - To employ a Steven Tyler faux Aerosmith song on the trailers and over the closing credits.  WHAT WERE THEY THINKING???

So with all this said, did I like it?  Hell yes!  I loved it.  My wife even loved it, and she never saw the original and had no connection to the anime, nor any nostalgia effect.  This should make the filmmakers happier than anything else, because they successfully pulled off the terrifying task of creating a story that would appease fans of the original AND be accessible and enjoyable to someone who had no clue what this flying space boat was all about.  It wasn't perfect, but it was a hell of a ride nonetheless, and I can give this one a definite thumbs up.  May the Yamato keep on rising from the dead for generations to come!

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