REVIEW: Netflix’s live-action Fullmetal Alchemist

Fullmetal Alchemist fans everywhere were divided into two groups when news of a live-action FMA film would be released in 2017. The first group, myself included, thought “hell yeah, this is going to be awesome”. The second group thought “no anime film has ever gone well – this one will tank, too”.

In a way . . . those in group two were totally and utterly correct. And I hate to admit that fact.

I came into Fullmetal Alchemist with high expectations when it was released on Netflix, and while some of those expectations where met, others didn’t even making the drawing board.

Overview

The film Fullmetal Alchemist is about two brothers, Edward and Al Elric, who lose their bodies after trying to bring back their deceased mother through what is called ‘human transmutation’. To restore themselves, they seek the Philosophers stone – an alchemic tool that all but ignores the law of equivalent exchange.

Those familiar to the franchise will recognize most if not all of the main characters, and places such as Reole (or “Liore” for English viewers) and Laboratory 5. However, there are significant changes of which were likely due to the restriction of a significantly shorter runtime compared to 50 episodes of both anime series that stick out like a sore thumb. Some of them are admittedly not great, and contribute to a pacing issue throughout the film.

It is evident that the filmmakers take direct cues from the anime, to the point where fight scenes or character attitudes feel out of place for what is occasionally perceived as a more serious film, and it’s identity is lost in the middle of the plot as it tries to convince audiences it knows what its doing. Messy and uncoordinated, audiences will be left unsatisfied at the confusing plot twists and under-developed characters, as it takes the film an hour and a half to convey any information of importance, some of which is unfortunately lost in the staggered pacing.

It is, however, a fun ride, featuring spectacular special effects and fulfilling many a fan’s dream of seeing certain characters in a live-action outing.

Specifics

Camera work: 3/5

Camera work is solid, but feels amateurish in certain points of the film. At worst, some parts feel as though they belong made by fan filmmakers just by the awkward angles provided.

Sound: 4/5

As a native English speaker unable to understand Japanese, I find myself unable to judge much of the sound design revolving around the actors. However, environmental, prop and effects design is top notch.

Prop design: 2/5

Lust’s killer fingers are perhaps the best prop/special effect of the entire film. Guns and hand weapons are of a solid design, familiar to all audiences, and Maes Hughes’ throwing knife is of his typical fashion, though they differ slightly from the anime as one would expect. I’d hardly consider Alphonse a prop, but in his stationary form, it’s hard not to compliment. Transmutation circles are also taken straight from the anime – there may be slight differences, but I failed to note any obvious changes.

Mustang’s injury also looks . . . mildly convincing, at best. Unfortunately, it’s Gluttony that drags down this score – in the second scene upon meeting our homunculi, one of Gluttony’s trade-mark circles has slid off his skin mid-shot and hangs half-haphazardly as if no one noticed the day of the take. Perhaps the worst offender of the prop design is displayed by the 1 hour 30 minutes mark, where what is meant to be a worrying scene becomes hysterical when what looked like an amazing special effect was replaced with the ridiculous bones/teeth prop worn by Gluttony as he bumbles after some soon-to-be-eaten soldiers. It’s hard to bring a character such as this to live-action film.

Costume design: 4/5

All costumes are surprisingly true to their source material, right down to the specifics on military uniforms. Even Ed’s black jacket is mistakable for his anime clothing. Notable costume designs include Lust’s dress, which is not just a simple black thing she threw on one afternoon – it has some incredible textile design that translates well to film, and there’s a certain elegance to it that makes it incredibly special. Ed’s red jacket, while a departure from the simple red cloth from the anime, feels well thought out and practical for his daily use, made up of multiple materials and complementing the rest of his outfit quite nicely.

Special effects: 3/5

I was simply amazed by the effects the film started off with. Transmutations look absolutely amazing. Mustang’s flame alchemy works well when it’s utilized. Al is perhaps the greatest use of CGI, appearing very real, and all combat maneuvers with him are incredible – the kind of quality I’d expect from an Iron Man film. I was surprised to see Truth even get a look-in in this film – though we never get to see the terrifying smile, his form is nevertheless worrisome, and looks great. When Ed’s automail was visible, it looked real and functional.

In the first half of the film, the use of greenscreen is incredibly obvious for one scene. This is the only time in the first hour where it is easily noticed. “Mother” was appropriately freaky, but ultimately suffers from the same CGI problems as the mannequin soldiers. It gets progressively worse with the big action finale. The mannequin soldiers, of which many will recognize easily from FMA:B, are taken directly from the anime . . . and the effect does not translate well. It is these scenes that make Fullmetal Alchemist feel like a $5 film you pick up from the supermarket.

Music: 2.5/5

Appropriate, but forgettable. The film’s theme song had me instead singing “On A Night Like This” by Kylie Minogue – of which it shares a chord progression and beat. The music does not make the film in this case.

Story: 1/5

This film suffers from a stuttered pace. The plot is primarily about Ed and Al getting their bodies back, but the film places so much emphasis on this that it loses touch with its other characters, spending a lot of time explaining who the boys are and their struggle with their loses to the point where it becomes a huge fault. The opportunity to introduce characters such as Mustang and Hawkeye much earlier into the film, providing a greater sense of connection between the heroic four, was entirely missed in favour for twenty minutes worth of the brothers fighting each other. Scenes could have been shortened or removed entirely, and nothing would have changed, which is incredibly disappointing.

There are characters that are hinted at, but are never shown onscreen. Importance of certain items/props were acknowledged through focused camera work, but only long-time fans of both anime series would pick them up (such as emphasis on Ed’s pocket watch or Mustang’s gloves, but they were ultimately left unexplained). There are plotlines referred to but never expanded upon, such as Mustang’s climb to become Fuhrer – in fact, there was an interesting exchange between Hughes and Mustang where they question if they can truly trust each other, which may have given the film its own feet to stand upon, but aside from hinting at Hughes’ demise, nothing actually comes of it as it was forgotten by the hour mark. The film appears to take elements from the first half of Brotherhood, but then tries to use set pieces from the Brotherhood conclusion, which would have worked if it didn’t try to shoe-horn in Shou Tucker, whom you could easily mistake as being the film’s primary antagonist – I say that because the film doesn’t make it’s primary antagonist clear.

Tucker’s purpose becomes confusing during the film’s final act – his reasons for being in the last 40 minutes provide nothing more than a backdoor into Laboratory 5. Ed quite literally stumbles upon his pivotal moments as an antagonist, his motives behind his actions left unclear and muddled as his character took elements from other antagonists of the series – he even downright admits that he doesn’t actually care about any of the finale pieces. The same could be said for General Hakuro, an otherwise a minor character in the series, takes on the role of the general whom awoke the mannequin soldiers. Looking back on it now after four viewings of the film, it appears as if someone watched the first ten episodes of both anime series, plucked a few key characters out, threw in some key moments they read about on the FMA wikia, and hoped for the best.

The homunculi lack any suitable development for villains of their stature. The film relies heavily on viewers having already seen the Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood series – otherwise, their entire plan during this film is left unexplained. They may as well have not been involved at all, simply there to provide an overarching sense of drama or fear, with no other purpose but to be the danger.

Quite frankly, this story feels incomplete. There is no satisfying resolution.

If you choose to wait for the credits to end, long-time fans will come across a rather familiar face that implies a sequel, but given how they’ve used many major plot arcs in this film, a sequel will prove interesting to watch unfold, assuming they go ahead with one.

Conclusion

It might be a bit dodgy, but this film walks away from my review with a score of 54% – meaning it’s “okay” in my book. But you’d be better off just re-watching Brotherhood.

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