Gatchaman (i.e., Battle of the Planets) was one of the most popular anime of the 1970s. Now, 40 years later, this franchise is getting a new anime and a live-action film—which debuted in Japan this past weekend. Sadly, this attempt to reinvent Gatchaman has created nothing but a painfully clichéd action movie.
I watched a few episodes of Battle of the Planets growing up; but beyond the general character design, I don't remember much about the Gatchaman series. However, the film’s opening does a great job laying out the setting: the bad guys, the Galactors, are nearly invincible because of shield technology and have conquered half of the Earth. Only the Gatchaman with their special suits are able to break through the shields and defeat them.
And as this is a world where Europe has been laid to waste, we see a very different Japan. Every scene of Tokyo looks drastically different from the real Tokyo—namely in the number of non-Japanese we can see. This serves to constantly, yet subtly, remind the viewer that Japan is on the frontline of the war and is filled with refugees. It is a great little touch that really brings the setting to life.
Of course, this doesn't make the occasional poorly translated English uttered by the Japanese cast sound any less silly.
Easily the most entertaining bit of the movie is its first fight. It is excellently choreographed and does a good job of showing how people with super speed and super strength would fight hand-to-hand. Also, the way they fly—which is half-flight, half-jumping off buildings to suddenly change direction—is a ton of fun to watch. It's unfortunate that only one battle—the first in the film—takes place in a wide open area.
That's not to say that the close-quarter fights that populate the rest of the movie are bad. There is one excellent two-on-one fight near the climax that takes place over a set of stone pillars set at various heights—allowing for some fun wire-work. However, this is a movie that begins with its most climactic fight and never surpasses it in the rest of its runtime.
Let's be frank, the original Gatchaman is not exactly the pinnacle of deep characterization. You have the leader, the muscle, the weapons expert, the techy, and the girl (the bomb expert). And that's really all you need to know to guess how they will act in any situation.
The cast of the live-action film does a great job of owning these roles—one glance is all you need to know who is who.
But the stand-out character is the villain, Berg Katse (Eriko Hatsune). She does a fantastic job of hamming it up with the super-villainy speeches when needed while still remaining genuinely threatening throughout. But it is when she is unmasked for the final few battles that she really starts to shine. She looks so utterly bored fighting first one, then two, of the heroes that you can't help but feel that she always has the upper hand.
When you know that they spent $40,000 per costume (for a total of $200,000), and then you see the film, you can't help but feel that maybe some of that money should have gone to the special effects instead. Every action scene of the movie is a mix of models, plastic sets, full CG, and CG characters pasted over videos of the real world—and you will have no problem telling which is which at any given time. Granted, the level of special effects is above your average Kamen Rider movie, but not by much.
When it comes down to it really, it seems that in an attempt to modernize Gatchaman for today's audience, all they really did is string together the most common action movie clichés for an hour-and-a-half.
There is the James Bond classic "infiltrate the party to meet the villain" scene. Then there's the villain being captured on purpose, the Mexican standoff, the brainwashed hero, and—my favorite—the marriage proposal followed by immediate death.
In addition to that, it's got all the melodrama common in Japanese movies these days with lots of screaming and tearful confessions. And what action movie would be complete without a "go on without me!" or two?
In the end, while far from unwatchable, Gatchaman is nothing more than your stereotypical superhero action film. There is nothing to set it apart from any number of other similar movies save for the Gatchaman name and characters. If you are an old school Gatchaman fan, you may enjoy seeing the characters in all their live-action splendor. But for anyone hoping for anything beyond a bit of nostalgia, you will be disappointed.
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