Monday, May 21, 2007


The verdict: Stylish honest-to-goodness unapologetic comic book science fiction. And it's pretty damn good to boot.

Craziness: Not much, really. Bullet-time effects?

The rating: 6/10

Is it nerdy to like science fiction? I would say… not always. You see, in any area of life where nerds are involved, there is a certain hierarchy in place, and in reality, there are often very explicit rules to guide you as to when activities are nerdy or not. Once this is established, you can then use any number of benchmarks to find out who is nerdier than you. For example, to like the first Matrix movie is fine, but to like the second movie almost definitely makes you a nerd. And as for the third one, well if you like that, you actually enter into geek territory, which even nerds sneer at. (A geek is worse than a nerd? – Ed)

But then there are science fiction movies that transcend the Nerd Circles, such as Richard Linklater’s recent 'A Scanner Darkly', the universally lauded 'Donnie Darko', and even more recent movies such as Stephen Soderbergh’s 'Solaris' and Danny Boyle’s 'Sunshine'. These movies should be good enough to move out of the student science fiction club and into the mainstream. Also, some of the Hollywood event movies in recent years (Terminator 2, Independence Day, Transformers this year) have been science fiction at it’s overblown best and worst.

So why the stigma? Well, first off, it’s kind of a lads’ genre. Girls just tend not to go for science fiction, especially if it’s called sci-fi. Donnie Darko somehow manages to be an exception, possibly because that Zoolander guy is in it (Jake Gyllenhall?! – Ed). Also, science fiction is not quite like any other genre, in that the merest flaw will make the whole enterprise seem ridiculous. A defining characteristic of a nerds is to take glee in the smallest plot points of science fiction movies, so in this genre, credibility is only established by scoring 100%. 2001 achieved it, but Kubrick was an insatiable, obsessive perfectionist. Tarkovsky’s Solyaris also managed it, but these guys are the best of the best... Lastly the main problem faced by sci-fi relates to suspension of disbelief. The writers are telling us that this android has travelled back in time to save the world from self-aware Commodore 64s and we’re prepared to accept that, but if the guy’s motorbike manages to jump the exploding truck, we’re all 'awww, come on!'. There’s a difficult balancing act here, and in general, it has to be said, science fiction rarely gets it all right.

So where does Returner fit into the genre? Well, first off it’s a Japanese science-fiction movie, so I’m already a nerd for telling you about it. (Ha ha! – Ed). Returner is definitely more comic-book sci-fi than science-fiction, so the girls might not go for it. The plot – girl sent back in time to save planet from alien invasion – suspension of disbelief, and there are some rather large holes in the plot, but it does have a great deal of stylish action scenes, right from the kick-off, so these are somewhat forgiven.

The opening scene sees Milly arrive in 2002 just as Alfa-Romeo-driving, spaghetti-eating Europhile Miyamoto has finally cornered his nemesis Mizoguchi, a Japanese member of a Triad, and a harvester of homeless children's organs (guess he might be the bad guy so? – Ed). Miyamoto is pretty much kicking some serious Triad, and is about to finally do away with his nemesis when Milly drops into the scene, startling him into accidentally shooting her, and letting the bad guy get away.

So the scene is set for a kind of sci-fi by the numbers. Milly’s mission is to prevent the war, and she enlists Miyamoto’s reluctant help, because his ass-kicking looks pretty useful. The idea is to find a crashed alien spaceship and kill the instigator of the human-alien war – a certain alien named Daggra – before the war properly kicks off, and the human race gets wiped out.

Along the way, there are some great special effects, with a nice variation on the bullet-time effects of the Matrix that works very well. There is a also fair dose of kick-ass chop-sockery, but thankfully not an overdose of wire-work, just the occasional super-slo-mo shot of some large group of goons all getting it in the neck from a single mid-air sortie of Miyamoto. There are no super-powers, no messianic delusions, it’s just a people-trying-to-save-the-world type of deal.

The script is decent enough, and moves along at a trundling pace. It’s uncomplicated, and just about keeps you interested in the outcome. It’s well acted by the three main leads, and the bad guy in particular is a properly nasty piece of work.

There’s nothing massively profound on offer from Returner, but the 90 minutes or so in its company should keep you entertained, with only a few cringe-worthy moments to speak of. Of those are a number of scenes in English, or should that be Engrish, where even the apparently American actors are speaking in the forced, alien tones of Bill Murray’s Santori whiskey adverts from 'Lost in Translation' (Roger Moore!? - Ed)

That said, Returner is unpretentious and unashamedly entertaining. It’s stylish, well-constructed with a good solid beginning, middle and end, and likeable lead characters. Unlike recent Hollywood sci-fi movies, this one has a very good idea of it’s own scale, never attempting to be too expansive. The set-pieces are quick, deadly and action-packed, with a good balance between crazy special effects and genuine action.

Without a doubt, the nerds will love this one, but I seriously doubt it will transcend those circles without the inevitable Hollywood remake. I'm actually surprised that hasn't already happened. My suggested Hollywood cast: Matt Damon as Miyamoto, Gary Oldman as Mizoguchi and Jessica Alba as Milly. Now that would be a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. Right, I’m off to ring Harvey Weinstein...

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