Thursday, February 22, 2018


(Japan - 2017; US release 2018)

Directed by Fumihiko Sori. Written by Hiromu Arakawa. Cast: Ryosuke Yamada, Tsubasa Honda, Dean Fujioka, Atom Miziushi, Misako Renbutso, Kanata Hongo, Shinji Uchiyama, Jun Kunimura, Yo Oizumi, Ryuta Sato, Fumiyo Kohinata, Yasuko Matsuyuki, Natsuki Harada. (Unrated, 134 mins)

Based on Hiromu Arawaka's extremely popular, long-running manga that's already been adapted into two Japanese anime TV series and two anime films, FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST is the first live action version, which was released by Warner Bros. to mixed reviews and decent but below-expectation box office in Japan last December before landing in the US this week as a Netflix Original. Thanks to THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX, the term "Netflix Original" is quickly growing synonymous with "major studio dumpjob," and FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST does little to dispel that perception. Having creator Arakawa onboard to write the screenplay seems like a good idea in theory, but the end result is a jumbled mess that tries to accomplish more than a 2 1⁄4 hour movie can cover. If you aren't already up to speed with the characters, their relationship to one another, their motivations, or what alchemists, homonculi, chimeras, and "The Gate of Truth" are in Arakawa's extensive world building, then good luck making heads or tails of much of FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST.

Two child alchemists, siblings Edward and Alphonse Elric, watch their mother die suddenly and try to resurrect her using the alchemy powers taught to them by their absent father. The attempt fails spectacularly, resulting in Ed losing a leg and Al's soul being removed from his body, prompting Ed to sacrifice an arm to transmute his younger brother's soul into a tall suit of medieval armor. Years later, adult Ed (Ryosuke Yamada) is a "fullmetal alchemist" traveling with armor-suited Al (voiced and motion-captured by Atom Miziushi) to obtain the ultimate knowledge from "The Gate of Truth," and find the fabled "Philosopher's Stone" that will grant Ed the transmuting powers to put Al back in his original body (the much-discussed stone resembles a raspberry Tide Pod). Along the way, they're aided by Col. Mustang (Dean Fujioka), the ill-fated Col. Hughes (Ryuta Sato), and their childhood friend Winry (a scene-stealing Tsubasa Honda), who helps maintain Ed's prosthetic arm and leg and keeps Al in fighting condition. There's also an ethically bankrupt alchemist named Shou Tucker (Yo Oizumi), who's not above using his loved ones for chimera (a fusion of two distinct lifeforms) experimentation, the devious Hakuro (Fumiyo Kohinata), who's set up as the main villain until he abruptly exits to give way to three shape-shifting artificial humans--Homonculi--who exist on the fringes of the story until the third act: Lust (Yasuko Matsuyuki), Envy (Kanata Hongo), and Gluttony (Shinji Uchiyama), and it's all wrapped up in a labyrinthine political and military conspiracy. Along the way, the brothers will clash and bond, with Ed tortured by guilt over his inability to provide his brother with his human form.

Director Fumihiko Sori has an extensive background in visual effects and CGI (he worked on James Cameron's TITANIC, referenced here in an winking joke where Hakuro declares himself "King of the World") and for a film with a budget of $8 million US, FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST looks a lot more expensive than it is. Sori stages a few impressive action sequences but the biggest problems are its inconsistent tone (at times it plays like a kids movie and at times it's a maudlin male weepie with its brother issues, but then there's Gluttony chowing down on a dead guy's remains) and an overcrowded ensemble that seems to have arrived by clown car. Sometimes, you barely have a chance to figure out who someone is before they're either killed off or they vanish. Some of this is due to Arakawa's screenplay cramming in extensive exposition from early issues of the manga, plus the plot of the offshoot TV anime FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST: BROTHERHOOD, plus some new stuff written for the movie. The end result is not unlike the cluttered, chaotic feel of the disastrous THE DARK TOWER, a film that tried to pack nearly 5000 pages of text into a 90-minute movie and ended up looking like Stephen King fan fiction. I was only vaguely familiar with the plot line of the manga going into this, so admittedly, I'm not the target audience. But there's so much stuffed into this--and it still manages to be dull--that it's almost completely inaccessible to neophytes and it's possible even the most devoted fans who know the material inside and out might be left a little confused by it all.

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