Recently, I was singing the praise (more or less) for the surprisingly good Parasyte, Part 1, noting that it was one of the best live-action adaptations of a Manga/Anime in some time, after we had been treated to questionable outputs like the shoddy Space Battleship Yamato (2010) and the inappropriately dour Lupin III (2014). And then an over-hyped stinker like Attack on Titan comes along and sets everything back that was achieved with the aforementioned movie.
Delusions of grandeur?
We find ourselves in a post-apocalyptic world. Humanity lives in constant fear of the “titans”, grotesque looking humanoid giants that come in different sizes, from high as houses to skyscraper dimensions. The last remains of the human population spend their lives retreated in cities that are surrounded with three concentric walls which are so high that they become insurmountable for the titans.
The creatures are surrounded in mystery. Nobody knows where they come from, what drives them and why they solely diet on humans, nor is it explainable how they can recreate without any visible reproductive organs. Destroying them is almost impossible, as they possess spooky powers that let their bodies regenerate in a matter of minutes after they are wounded. Only if a small spot in their necks can be hit, they instantly die and dissolve into smoke. As no high-end weaponry is available anymore at this point, only members of a tough as nails special squad called the “Survey Corps” can take up the fight, using a battle gear suit equipped with a mechanism of cable reels and grappling hooks that would make Batman jealous to soar through the air and with some luck, hit the titans with swords at said vulnerable point. Needless to say, their life expectancy is not very high.
When one day a titan of hitherto unseen size is able to break down the outer wall of a city, the young, slightly impulsive lad Eren Jaeger (Haruma Miura)- yeah the names ain’t subtle- has to witness how helpless people are eaten and smashed before his very eyes and decides to join the force.
Too big to not fail?
Where to start? So many bad choices. Transferring a story from one medium to another inevitably comes with a lot of changes, but they should still make sense at least.
One of the first things that stick out is the change of setting. The original was set in a vaguely “Steam-punky” alt-history (?) world, partly reminiscent of the romanticized depiction of 18th century Germany of the illustrations that adorn many of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales books. A testament to that are the (sometimes pseudo-) German names of the protagonists. In the live-action adaptation on the other hand, any ambiguities about the setting and time are erased and we are confronted with a generic post-apocalyptic surrounding that could also serve as backdrop for an instalment of the Terminator– franchise. Wrecks of worn-out machinery are scattered over the place and the squad has now two trucks to move around. I guess everything has to be spelled out and devoid of mystery in movies nowadays.
With this change, we are not only denied a depiction of a world that lies beyond the usual SciFi- and Fantasy- movie cliches we are oversaturated with, but also a good chunk of the source material’s appeal gets annihilated. Omitting the quasi- alt-historical designs leads to a loss of the powerful fairy tale- or fable-like symbolism and the borderline surreal, almost Terry Gilliam-esque atmosphere the Anime exuded in its best moments. Just more of the well-known post-apocalyptic vistas in washed out colours, yawn.
The constellation of the characters and their relations to each other have been altered immensely, but I won’t go into depth here, not only to avoid spoilers but also because it’s almost not worth the effort. Just let me say that Eren’s traumatic back story is now a different one which completely changes his character arc and only serves to justify a silly subplot.
None of the characters is well realized and they are less layered than their two-dimensional counterparts, which should tell you something. I don’t blame the cast for the bad acting, because it is usually the fault of the material and the director when the thespian efforts on display are that uniformly bland without exception. The goofy overacting is very much in line with the jarring shift of tone into the realms of “traditional” comic-book movie- silliness though. Director Shinji Higachi has been an accomplished FX-expert for many years before he started directing, which ominously parallels the career of the US-director Mark A.Z. Dippé and while Attack on Titan is not quite a Spawn (1997) concerning infantilized adaptations of marvellous source material, it comes pretty close. Speaking of FX, they are, like in Parasyte, of course not on the same level as those of $200 Mio. Hollywood-productions, but they are solid for what budget the FX-masters presumably had to work with. The last third of Attack… is a little more entertaining than the preceding hour, sadly only because of an action overkill and moments of unintentional hilarity and not due to gripping human drama or directorial ingenuity. And of course it ends on a cliffhanger, with a sequel coming soon.
The Big come down
Attack on Titan barely works as a film on its own and is simply a travesty as an adaptation, watering down and infantilizing the original story. It’s just another proof that you can edit a great trailer out of anything. Watch only if you are very, very curious.
Rewatch the animated series again instead or consider a trip to Japan to visit the Attack on Titan theme park.