Say whatever else you want about last year’s Ghost in the Shell adaptation, which pissed off most fans by changing the ending and allegedly missing the point. At least it looked great, sporting the budget, design, and effects it deserved. The same can’t be said for director Fumihiko Sori’s live-action Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation, which manages to feel cheap in every imaginable way.
Fullmetal Alchemist follows the Elric brothers Al and Ed in a pseudo-European world where the science of “alchemy” is nearly indistinguishable from magic. As kids, the brothers became disfigured after an alchemical ritual gone wrong–Ed loses an arm and a leg, and Al his entire body, his soul coming to rest inside a hulking suit of armor. Years later, the boys have joined the army as official State Alchemists in the hopes their adventures will lead them to the Philosopher’s Stone, which Ed can theoretically use to reunite Al with his real body.
The movie’s issues start immediately, as it brushes over the Elrics’ origin story in a weird hurry to get it over with. The scene of the ritual gone wrong cuts off halfway through, followed by a jarring jump several years into the future. Audience members unfamiliar with the source material are likely to simply scratch their heads at the ensuing action scenes, in which a young man in an ill-fitting blonde wig chases down a magic priest with the help of an empty suit of armor. When the movie finally revisits that opening scene, it’s as a flashback Ed sees while dreaming. And to add to the confusion, it’s the adult version of the character–not the child–who loses his limbs and strikes a deal to get his brother’s soul back.
There are some things that simply seem less plausible in live action than in an animated format, and Fullmetal Alchemist seems eager to brush past as many of them as possible. The movie uses multiple early scene info dumps to lamely get its core rules across: Alchemy isn’t magic, despite looking like it, because of the “law of equivalent exchange,” which doesn’t seem to have an actual definition except in rare instances the plot requires it to. Someone early on marvels at Ed’s ability to do alchemy “without a transmutation circle,” but characters throughout the movie snap their fingers to summon fireballs and perform other unexplained feats.
Fullmetal Alchemist is infinitely more interested in parroting the sights and sounds of its source material than in exploring the anime’s ideas or adding anything original to the formula. Unfortunately, those sensory elements are poorly imitated as well. The movie’s ample CG effects, from alchemical spells like rippling cobblestones to a goopy army of groaning golems, look so bad you’ll actually marvel that this was made last year and not in the late ’90s. Al’s suit of armor is the one exception, as it looks like they mixed some practical effects with the CG there.
Fullmetal Alchemist overall suffers from unimaginative visual design, particularly in the characters’ outfits and many terrible wigs, neither of which ever seem to fit right. The “Homonculi” Lust, Envy, and Gluttony–three ghoulish baddies whose motivations or purposes the movie never bothers to explain–are especially corny, with cheap-looking outfits and terrible CG “powers.”
To top it off, what little alchemy the Elric brothers actually perform in the movie boils down almost entirely to laying their hands limply on the ground and summoning barriers from the pavement. These boys–especially Ed–are supposed to be inhumanly skilled alchemists, and yet they remain totally unimpressive for the entire film.
This is more than just cutting things out to fit dozens of hours of story into a two hour-plus movie; what they did cram in meanders between poorly set-up, rushed emotional pivots, like the infamous Nina twist, to scenes that simply feel boring or pointless. There’s one extended fight scene between the brothers themselves that manages to simultaneously make no sense, feel completely pointless, have no bearing on the story, and break the already vaguely defined rules of this world all in one.
Despite its high profile and fan hunger, Fullmetal Alchemist is everything wrong with live-action anime adaptations. It both adds nothing to the original and does a poor job imitating it. If you’ve never experienced FMA before, go watch the anime (preferably the Brotherhood series); if you’re already a fan, boot up Netflix and watch the Fullmetal Alchemist live action movie at your own risk.
|The Good||Column Head|
|Al’s suit of armor looks good in most scenes||The world’s rules are poorly explained|
|Bad CG throughout entire movie|
|Jams too much in while still feeling boring|
|Adds nothing to the original|
|Even the alchemy isn’t cool|