If you like manga and anime, you will… love this? One of the most important things to remember when discussing an adaptation of any media into another is that the final product should be judged on its own and not bogged down by details that made the original worth remaking.
However, this particular movie is so full of fan service and recycling that it is impossible to abstain from referring to the original manga and consequently anime that were so memorable.
Here’s a review of the live-action version of Netflix’s Fullmetal Alchemist.
The story worth telling again
The plot of the manga focuses on two brothers who once made a horrific mistake while exploring forbidden areas of alchemy and had to pay with their bodies or body parts to stay alive. The world of the manga is one based on the premise that technology advanced less due to quick and nearly unstoppable progress of alchemy which is a complicated pseudoscience with vague rules that those who are not into anime and manga can very well just call magic.
Users of this form of magic are called alchemist, and some of them are rogue researchers with crazy ideas while others work for the government. Alchemy is something so weird and all-powerful that the author had given up on trying to explain how it actually works and instead focused on delivering an intricate story and ensuring that the world felt rich and lived in.
Fans of the manga will unlikely be able to explain how things work yet they will talk about the politics of the universe, civil wars, horrifying experiments, philosophy of life, and many other exciting topics. They will effortlessly recall critical traits of each recurring character in the story. In regards to world building and plot, the manga is a work of art.
Anime further improved the original work by putting all key action moments in action. There were two versions of the anime (Fullmetal Alchemist 2003 and Fullmetal Alchemist: The Brotherhood 2009). The Brotherhood closely adapted the source material and made it slightly more palatable for those who do not like comics. The anime propelled the brand to new heights making it much more popular in both hemispheres of the planet.
It is unclear whether the decision to create a live-action adaptation of this immensely popular story was a good idea…
What’s good: a lot of recognizable moments and surprisingly good special effects
The year 2017. The world cannot shut up about Netflix and chilling. Binge watching is a preferred way of consuming TV products. Netflix features a little live action film from Japan. This film is Fullmetal Alchemist. Dedicated fans of the original story had been aware of this film when it landed on Netflix’s servers. However, many westerners saw the film for the first time and were not impressed.
The fans were divided into two armies, each with its vision of the film and its cultural impact. While one half of the fandom was disappointed due to poor CGI and cardboard acting, the other half was happy that some of the iconic scenes from the anime were faithfully recreated on screen. The latter half also argued that the story was told well and you could simply read the manga.
Usually, critics stay away from such wars and try to vivisect the movie for its merits regardless of the background that could affect the interpretation of the film. Any standalone feature film should be able to stand on its own without relying on previous installments or even prequels. Take a look at the recent success of John Wick. When the sequel hit the theaters, you did not need to know what happened previously. A short recap was more than enough to kick start the action. It was a good follow-up film that was a great thing on its own even if you didn’t see the first part.
When judged as an isolated work of art, Fullmetal Alchemist is just sad. It does not have a distinct voice. The plot is uninspired, to say the least, while terrible acting does not make things look better. The production design is serviceable yet looks cheap. Nonetheless, there is a saving grace: special effects. While CGI will never compare to something that you see in IMAX, all CG characters look convincing, and special effects make action sequences memorable.
Some of the most iconic moments from the anime and key fight scenes are done well and look surprisingly good when performed by actors. You can feel that creators wanted to make something recognizable. Fans will feel the goosebumps when Edward slams his hand against the floor while the alchemy circle around him starts blazing with fires. Fans will love moments when Alphonse appears from nowhere hitting his enemies with his living armor.
The amount of fan service here is through the roof. It is also the reason why some fans love it, and some hate it. As MovieBob cleverly noticed, the show feels like an excellent cosplay show that was ruined by a movie. The film appeals to those who love the story and will be happy with everything that has the name of the brand on it. These fans are like a small group of Star Wars fans. They often judge the content of the media with bias just because they love the franchise so much. To some degree, it is endearing and wonderful.
Unfortunately, being faithful to the original and putting a lot of effort into making CGI look expensive are only two good things about the film if you look at it objectively.
What’s bad: everything else
It is not rare to see mediocre and bad movies on Netflix. Because even bad films can be at least serviceable and made by competent people, there will always be the audience that loves them. There is nothing wrong with that. We all have different tastes. Many critics were not happy with “Bright” and slammed it with negativity.
Nonetheless, millions of people watched it and were quite satisfied with the product. Critics are slamming Fullmetal Alchemist, yet there is definitely an audience that loves the film.
At Rotten Tomatoes, the film has only 36% from critics yet 76% from viewers. People like it. Why critics seem to be so harsh towards this movie?
- The acting is not good. It is passable and does not actively ruin the experience yet it never makes you care for any characters. Again, fans know everything about these characters and can adjust the way the experience the action. Objectively, the acting in the film sucks.
- The plot is boring. There are many exciting action set pieces with impressive CGI yet they are connected poorly, and the plot makes sense only to those who know the larger story and some significant world-building bits that are absent in this film.
- The cinematography is lacking. For some reason, all feature films that come from Japan look the same way. It is somewhere halfway between what American sitcoms look and something that you would expect to see on a big cinema screen. If artists who made the anime were not inventive, this film would look very dull. Memorable shots are all pulled from the anime.
- The production design looks cheap. The whole endeavor does look like a big cosplay event. Modern cosplay is something to awe at. People make amazing costumes and props. You often see those costumes and think: “wow, it would look great in a movie”! However, such costumes never work in a movie…
- The sound and music are meh. Sound design here is not really the forte of the film, and music choices often leave you confused. It is not a big issue, and it does not make the movie worse yet it does affect the immersion.
Honestly, this movie is not good if you look at it objectively. It is a messy pile of CGI shots barely tied together by clunky dialogue delivered with no passion. On the other hand, its dedication to being as compelling and engaging for a fan of the Fullmetal Alchemist brand deserves praise.
The Verdict: stay away from it…
Only if you are not a fan of the anime. If you liked the manga and you watched the anime when you were younger, the nostalgia will overwhelm you the moment you see the two iconic characters on screen. Edward and Al looked great. Actors recreate memorable action bits from the original well enough to remind you how good the anime was.
If you never read the original comic or watched at least the first iteration of the anime, you will leave wondering how this film received any praise from the audience. It is a bland mixture of CGI, bad acting, terrible writing, and uninspired cinematography.
What you must remember when approaching this film is that it was made primarily for diehard fans who remember cool dialogue lines from the anime and wanted to see those characters in live action. For a fan film, Fullmetal Alchemist (2017) looks quite good.
This review reflects the opinion of the freelance writer.