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Review: Fullmetal Alchemist

Watched Fullmetal Alchemist on Netflix. Despite numerous warning signs (chiefly the fact that it skipped American theaters entirely, including my usual niche venues), I actually had high hopes for this one—and not just because I’m fond of the 2003 anime series. No, what really caught my eye was the director, Fumihiko Sori, who also helmed 2008’s Ichi—a film that transcends its “gender-flipped Zatoichi” premise to become a surprisingly poignant tribute to the legacy of actor Shintaro Katsu. I firmly believed that if anybody possessed the vision necessary to distill everything that made Hiromu Arakawa’s beloved manga so special into a two-hour running time, it would be Sori.

While I still think that this is probably the best possible live action adaptation of the sprawling source material, it is, to put it charitably, a decidedly mixed bag. All of the fandom’s favorite traumatizing moments are faithfully recreated… but often at the expense of narrative momentum, which consequently diminishes their emotional impact (the revelation of Ninalexander is particularly egregious, landing with a thud in the middle of the movie when it would be better served as a climax). A sturdier plot might have compensated for the rather lackluster visual effects, but condensing so many chapters-worth of story down to feature length leaves several vital elements—from Alphonse Elric’s angst over the true nature of his incorporeal existence to the motivations behind Colonel Mustang’s ambition—woefully underdeveloped. Even the actors can’t quite salvage the picture, delivering stilted, cartoonish performances that are at odds with the otherwise serious tone; only Ryuta Sato (pitch perfect as Maes Hughes) and Shinji Uchiyama (exuding an air of subtle menace as the homunculus Gluttony) escape relatively unscathed.

Fullmetal Alchemist isn’t all bad: the production design, inspired by turn-of-the-century Europe (much like the original), is exquisite, and it’s easy to get swept up in the explosive conclusion. At the end of the day, however, the finished product resembles the fruits of the protagonists’ ill-fated attempt at Human Transmutation: a mangled, writhing mass of barely-recognizable ingredients that shows a few fleeting signs of life… before expiring in a heap of gore and viscera.

[Originally written February 22, 2018.]

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