It’s 2199, and Earth is under attack from an alien race called the Gamilas. The assault has left the planet’s surface uninhabitable, and while the survivors huddle underground the radiation above will lead to mankind’s extinction in a year’s time. A message arrives from the previously unknown planet of Iskandar with an offer of help and designs for a special engine to travel there, pick up the device for Earth’s ailment, and return back before the year is up and humanity is doomed. The battleship Yamato, sunk during World War II, is resurrected and retrofitted into a space ship capable of making the journey across light years. A crew is assembled, and the ship sets off on a mission that will determine the fate of mankind.
If the plot of Space Battleship Yamato sounds familiar but the name doesn’t it’s probably because you know it only by its American title. Star Blazers was an animated television show that aired in the U.S. in the late ’70s and was a re-edited and dubbed version of the original Japanese series. We got three seasons of it here before it passed into relative obscurity, but it’s stayed a fairly active franchise in its home country culminating in this big budget feature from 2010.
Those unfamiliar or unmoved by the show will find this live-action feature to be a laughable sci-fi adventure of the highest order, but for the rest of us, especially those of us who recognize the value of the original series’ unabashed sincerity and simplicity, those of us who absolutely and unreservedly loved the show as kids, well, the news isn’t great.
Nostalgia is a funny thing. It clouds your judgement as surely as alcohol can, but while it comes without the threat of hangover there’s the same very real chance of embarrassment the next day. Some things just don’t hold up to adult eyes and minds the way they did when you were younger, and while that doesn’t mean they’re bad necessarily it may mean your words of praise require an asterisk at the end.
Star Blazers is my own example of memory elevating an older piece of entertainment to Olympus-like heights only to have a revisit bring the whole thing plummeting back down to reality. I recall loving it and being so engaged in the season-long story arcs that I would draw epic space battles of my own and plaster them on my wall. Beyond the sheer entertainment of big action and goofy humor though the series taught me lessons on the value of friendship, valor, and loss. Characters I came to know and love across several episodes faced real danger and occasionally died. This was new to me, and it was awesome.
Space Battleship Yamato tries to pack of that into 130 minutes, and it does so without altering a single element outside of the medium. It could be argued that the faithfulness to the original is admirable, and for some viewers it may be enough to justify its existence, but what worked in cartoon form for children doesn’t always translate well to live action for adults. That’s not to say it’s fun-free though as some of the action sequences find thrills and excitement that the original’s hand-drawn animation could never have matched.
Characters here are broadly drawn cardboard placeholders that may as well carry stock descriptors like “rule-breaking hero,” “hard-assed leader,” or “nameless red shirt.” In space, no one can define nuance or character depth. Emotions of all kinds are worn boldly on their sleeves, from sadness to rage to happiness, there’s no debate over what each and every character is feeling at any moment thanks acting choices aimed at the cheap seats. The script is equally to blame though with its boldly declarative exclamations, broad humor, and premature attempts at drama.
That said, at least two members of the cast manage to stand apart from the rest. Takuya Kimura instills the lead rebel with fire, and Meisa Kuroki matches it beat for beat as his ass-kicking love interest. These aren’t necessarily award-worthy performances, but they bring an energy that goes above and beyond the surface-level emotion seen elsewhere.
The special effects, basically the main draw outside of nostalgia, are a mixed bag of good and what amounts to a higher-res Last Starfighter. The space-set action especially pales in a year that’s seen Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, but come on people, this was made three years ago! The CGI is passable, and while at no point does the action aim for believable it entertains the eyes as well as any video game cinematic.
Space Battleship Yamato could work as a kids movie if it were a bit shorter, but as it stands the film will have limited appeal for American audiences. The target demographic of course is those of us who grew up on the original cartoon, but that childhood love may not be enough. Still, fans of the show will find some familiar friends and plot turns all dressed up in spectacle-level CGI. We good have gotten much worse. (Probably.)
The Upside: Repeatedly triggers memories of Star Blazers; some fun and exciting sequences; sincere
The Downside: Repeatedly triggers memories of Star Blazers; drama is rushed and unearned; story didn’t mature alongside the animation style; action beats lack intensity
On the Side: Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher, The Way of the Gun) has just been announced as writer/director of a big, Hollywood remake.