Saturday, August 9, 2014

Sci-Fried Theater: GATCHAMAN (2013)

As I mentioned before, back in the '70s there were a lot of Japanese "cartoons" hitting us shores as morning children's programming. It was a good time to be a kid in the states. None of this "My Little Pony" and "Gummy Bears" nonsense. Nope we had death-defying race car drivers, inter-galactic space wars and my favorite of the lot, a bunch of secret agents dressed like birds engaged in a battle with a secret organization of part-alien super villains... who also dress as birds. Yes, I'm talking about "Battle of the Planets" (1978).

Originally titled "Science Ninja Team Gatchaman" (1972), the series concerned a secret organization of scientists and superheroes (the "International Science Organization" or "ISO") who are battling the secret organization of villains known as the Galactor who are trying to rob the earth of its resources in order to take over the planet. The Gatchaman team of five heroes dressed in stylized costumes reminiscent of various birds and were trained by Dr. Nambu in a highly effective form of martial arts that allowed them to have super-fast reflexes and leaping ability. Also they had a secret island base, individual transformer vehicles and a ship called The God Phoenix.

In 1978, the infamous Sandy Frank licensed the show, heavily edited it, added new footage to bondo the holes, re-wrote the plots and dubbed it into English (with Casey Kasem providing the voice of the lead Ken, who was renamed Mark) as "Battle of the Planets". In his version, he added a new character, the robot 7-Zark-7, who could act as a narrator to link up the pieces of the plot. He also changed the names (the Galactor were now "Spectra") and had the dialogue re-written to soften some of the harder edges. No longer were there shower scenes with the female team member Jun (now named "Princess") or slightly disturbing scenes of humans who are captured and turned into walking timebombs, but that's ok, in 1978 we didn't know the difference, it was still a hell of a show. There have been additional animated series', an animated movie cobbled together from the series' and an DTV series (technically an OVA seris) in the '90s. Now after years of comic books, toys and ill-advised cosplay, not to mention with super heroes being white hot at the box office, isn't it time someone made a live action film out of the property? Hell yes! Will it be good? Oh jesus, need you ask?

Produced by genre-oriented Nikkatsu (probably best known for the JU-ON: THE GRUDGE movies) in association with Toho, GATCHAMAN (2013) envisions itself falling in with the Marvel Universe movies. Set in 2015, some black-suited aliens, called the Galactor, are invading Earth with an army of cyborgs armed with red force-shields that render human weapons useless. It took them 15 days to occupy half of the Earth, enslaving the humans that they don't kill outright. The only thing stopping them from total domination are some glowing stones of great power (see? I told you it was cheating off of Marvel's page). Only certain people, called "receptors", can use these stones however (STAR WARS EPISODE I?) and with great power comes... oh, you know. The users of these stones are the members of Gatchaman, the ISO super team for Tokyo. Yes, now every area of the globe has their own Gatchaman team. You ain't so special now, are you Ken?

A brief word of warning, because of the way the Japanese like to roll out their plots over the course of the movie, instead of the American way of simply handing the audience the entire plot in the beginning of the film, there will be spoilers ahead. No major ones, but plenty of minor ones.

The 28 glowing stones were found in an ancient ruin in Africa in the 1700s, but only now have they been analysed and put to use. Presumably for 300 years there wasn't a scientist on the planet who found them remotely interesting. The stones are inserted into a wrist watch that allows the Gatchaman team to fly around cities, or if they are so inclined, swing on a line of blue, glowy stuff. Apparently no one catches thieves just like flies, however. To complicate (and bastardize) the back-story even more, there is a lethal virus called "Virus X" that turns people into Glactors, this can happen to a Gatchaman, but only if their stones aren't glowing. Why? Hey, shut up and eat your popcorn! Nobody asks Michael Bay any of those questions.

Speaking of Michael Bay, the plot is rolled out when a giant mechanical wheel starts tearing through Tokyo carrying the Galactor cyborg troops on a raid to the ISO headquarters. Of course the Gatchaman team Ken (Tori Matsuzaka), Jun (Ayame Goriki), Ryu (Ryohei Suzuki) and Junpei (Tatsuomi Hamada) fly into action (literally) whuppin' ass on the cyborgs. Unfortunately it isn't all that easy as the Galactors have their own super villains with purple glowing stones! After a battle that tears up half the city, they realize that it is just the spear-tip of the main mission: Operation Last Suicide! Yes, I'm assuming there was a previous suicide, that must not have gone so well, which is pretty sad if your goal is to fail in battle.

Now the Gatchaman team must get together with a European Gatchaman Jo (Go Ayano), who is bitter and angry that his fiancee Naomi (Eriko Hatsune) took a purple laserblast in the back to protect Ken five years ago. Perfect guy for the job. Their first plan of action? Go to a masked fancy-dress party! Up until this point, the movie was a reasonably entertaining wanna-be Marvel flick with cool-looking costumed heroes and villains. It wouldn't change your religion, but at least it isn't a bunch of generic emotional conversations in empty rooms. Did I just say that? Oh hell, welcome to the rest of the movie!

After being patched up in their utterly barren white roomed hideout base on a remote island, the Gatchaman team engage in a lot of tedious "good-natured ribbing" that is supposed to substitute for character development by way of social interaction. Then it's off to the party. Their mission here is to extract a Galactor defector from this heavily secured black tie affair. I guess he couldn't just meet them in the parking lot. Tension is ramped up to the yawning point when Ken and Jun wait in line to get in while ace-computer hacker Junpei frantically tries to forge their credentials in the high-tech handscanner that identifies the guests. After meeting and extracting Ilia (Shido Nakamura), the team put him in a high-tech Hannibal Lecter cell where he taunts the team members and Dr. Kirkland (inventor of a new superweapon) into getting so upset he manages to escape. At least we didn't have a scene where, in the confines of his cell, he has a pity party and pulls out his false teeth and cheekbone. Nor does he have a train conveniently derail and fall on the hero, but I digress.

If you don't want to know the big spoiler that you will see coming a mile away, skip to the last paragraph.

As it turns out Ilia's play for political asylum is just a ruse to get into ISO and kidnap Dr. Kirkland and get him to use the superweapon on ISO, in other words the "Last Suicide". Hoo boy. You'd think there'd be some big action scenes as Ilia (who turns out to be the presumed dead Naomi in disguise) escapes with the doctor, but you'd be very, very wrong. Instead after everyone freaks out because of the emergency, they promptly settle into some heartfelt discussions of loyalty, honor and mission directives... all taking place in empty rooms. No, seriously, this is like the Philip Glass of production design. Even the inside of the God Phoenix (which in the film is for some reason in the prototype stage), is empty! Or rather lined with curved video panels showing the outside of the aircraft. Either way it seems like just a ploy to shave a few yen off the budget.

The ending, of course, involves a giant space station which the team must infiltrate. This sounds cool, except for the fact that instead of a high-tech center for super-villainy as seen in the series, it is a cramped series of earthen tunnels and gravity defying stone platforms. Naturally the platforms serve as a video-game-esque showdown area, which is so grossly uninteresting that it will make you question the importance of your place in the universe.

I know what you are thinking, you are thinking that I just have some sort of thing about movies with "relationships". You'd be right, but only when it is a paper-thin pretense at relationships. The kind of forgettable superficial drama that could be transposed to any film with no one being the wiser. If you are then going to surmise that maybe I just don't appreciate the cultural differences with the Japanese approach to pop-culture filmmaking, and you would be very wrong. I love the fact that they roll out their stories over the length of the film, but doing it with talking heads in empty rooms is just lazy filmmaking. Toei studios have made an incalculable number of genre films that have balanced character, story and great action. Watch KAMEN RIDER: THE NEXT (2007) to see how it's done right. Toho should be taking pointers, but instead they came up with some great looking villains and then gave them a few scant minutes of screen time and over an hour of entry-level character drama. For shame.

In 2004 the US company Imagi was working on an oft-delayed stereoscopic CG animated adaptation of the series. Imagi, the studio responsible for the well-received 2009 ASTRO BOY movie, suffered some major financial problems and even though they appeared to have lock in the film's release in 2011, the additional $30 million needed to complete production was never found and the project cancelled. The really bitter pill in all of this is the fact that the promotional material, including stills, concept art and a few trailers, looked un-fucking-believably good. I can't imagine how with evidence of such awesomeness, they couldn't get the last of the financing, but it is not only painful that this didn't happen, but this 2013 production just adds salt to the wound.

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