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Attack on Titan: Part 1
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by Jay Seaver

"Giant zombies - why are we just now getting to this?"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: At some point during the conception of "Attack on Titan" as a manga, I feel like creator Hajime Isayama must have been playing blockbuster bingo: It is, effectively, a young-adult adventure set in a dystopian future with steampunk technology where the heroes fight kaiju zombies. Massively popular in Japan and around the world, it's been given a multi-part live-action adaptation, and while fans of the source material may quibble about what's been changed or streamlined, they'll have to admit that it's a pretty amazing spectacle, and I wouldn't be surprised if this first film has new fans waiting impatiently for the conclusion.

As the film starts, it's been over a hundred years since the titans - naked, sexless humanoids with a craving for human flesh up to a hundred meters tall - appeared and attacked, causing the survivors to retreat to a city behind three massive, concentric walls. Young people like Eren (Haruma Miura) who are generations removed from seeing a titan - they may not exist! - crave to explore the outside world, though his friends Armin (Kanata Hongo) and Mikasa (Kiko Mizuhara) worry about him. That's before a titan larger than any recorded breaks a hole in the wall, and only a few residents of the outer farming district are able to retreat to the next ring. Two years later, the city is on the brink of starvation, and Eren and Armin are part of a unit on a dangerous mission - enter the overrun outer ring, capture the last known explosives and use them to seal the hole in the wall. Director-General Kubal (Jun Kunimura) is leading overseeing the mission himself, and legendary titan-killer Shikishima (Hiroki Hasegawa) will be joining up with them. But when do these missions ever go as planned?

For something based upon a large work and broken into multiple parts for theatrical release, this first episode is surprisingly short, a mere 90 minutes including credits and the preview for Attack on Titan: End of the World; if the second (due in Japan mid-September) winds up being a similar length, one would almost think that releasing it that was rather than as a single epic-length picture were an entirely commercial decision. Truth be told, this first part could use some extra length to let the audience get to know the other members of the Scout division and maybe explore the world they're in a little; there seems to be some Hunger Games-esque hierarchy between the various rings that the film doesn't have much chance to explore. There's admittedly not much room for that in the middle of an urgent extinction-level-threat situation, but the film does wind up feeling like it's rushing from one battle to the next rather than building up to them at times.

A shame, because it's got a very nice young cast. Hamura Miura is apparently playing a more vulnerable Eren than is seen in previous versions of the story, but he still makes the character bold and charismatic, while Kanata Hongo makes Armin a sidekick who works perfectly well outside Eren's shadow. In the latter half of the movie, they're often paired with Ayame Misaki as single-mother Hiana and Nanami Sakuraba as Sasha, a girl who basically sees the army as a way to get regular meals, and there's good chemistry in the pairings. A number of other characters in the squad seem to get short-changed compared to how important they're treated as being - Takahiro Miura's Jean is disdainful of Eren but isn't given much reason, and why do you even have Rina Takeda in the movie if she's given almost no chance to karate-kick some guys that need it? On the other side of things, Hiroki Hasegawa seems to have a great time making much-admired soldier Shikishima a complete jerk, and there had better be more for Satomi Ishihara to do as the unit's resident mad scientist, because she steals every scene she's in that isn't nailed down.

It's a slickly-produced movie from start to finish, though, with the crew creating a world that looks on the brink of being used up even though it can still find the resources to make shiny, though necessarily mechanical rather than electronic, things for the military. Director Shinji Higuchi and company do a fine job of making the city feel big enough to move around in but small enough to be a tight space, and the action scenes are handle the necessary three-dinemnsionality fairly well, even if the geometry of the swinging cables that get fighters to the vulnerable spot on titans' necks would probably fall apart badly if examined closely (see also Spider-Man).

The titans themselves are pretty fun monsters, human beings grown to massive size in utter defiance fo the square-cube law and all the scarier because their nudity and taste for regular-sized people makes them feel like both creatures and savages. There's something messed up about most of their faces beyond the mouth that can extend from ear to ear that messes with any potential feelings of empathy that might come from them being presented as fat, gaunt, or child-like, but also allows the viewer to feel like that's wrong because there's something human about them. They're brilliant in concept and executed extremely well - the effects may be mostly compositing, but it's done vey well.

Because they are such potentially formidable (and expensive) foes, the action scenes involving them must be limited to when they really count, and folks who buy tickets for them will likely not be disappointed. Higuchi stages the face-offs darn well, keeping a fine balance between adrenaline-pumping action and bloody horror, taking full advantage of the ruthlessness of Tomohiro Machiyama's & Yuusuke Watanabe's script to add an sense of despair to the last-stand atmosphere as the film goes on.

And then... I probably can't spoil the big final battle to most of the fans who serve as the target audience, but it's brilliant - this kind of turning point is usually indicated by heightened music or slow-motion or even characters flat-out saying it's important, but this one feels like a big deal as soon as it happens, and offers up something that feels like all the over-the-top violence of Japanese fringe cinema with a Hollywood special effects budget. It's crazy, exhilarating, bloody, and polished, an almost unheard-of combination.

That bit of action, more than anything, is why I kind of can't wait for the sequel. "Attack on Titan" may have its problems, but the biggest is basically that there's not enough of it. So bring on "The End of the World", and let it be as nuts as the first with a little more time to put the spotlight on a thinned-out cast.

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originally posted: 08/12/15 15:28:04
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/05/15 Alex S Ugh... I'd rather just watch the anime series instead. This movie lacks emotional impact. 3 stars
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  30-Sep-2015 (NR)


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