Space Battleship Yamato is one of the most challenging films I've seen; not because it's too profound or original--just the opposite. It's derivative sci-fi through and through, a two-plus-hours Japanese space soap that doubles as the world's quickest-to-the-floor "Spot the Cliché" drinking game. At least, that's how it may appear to people who, like me, got a taste of the movie's rich history only after having experienced it.
I've written recently about my belief that movies shouldn't come with an instruction manual. With the exception of sequels, a person should be able to get from Point A to Point B without requiring prior knowledge of a filmmaker's other works, their philosophical/political/religious beliefs, or their love for a densely crafted, decades-old pile of source material (i.e. comic books, novels, or, in this case Anime series). When the lights come up, I should have enough of a grasp of the characters, plot, and/or overall theme to be able to explain it to someone who hasn't seen it (or, in the case of Midnight in Paris, to emplore people to see it with the confidence that they'll get something out of it without my having given anything away).
A few critics argue that some movies don't need to have a point, that they can be whatever the audience wants them to be--"visual poem" is a popular phrase used to describe incoherent, often beautiful works. On some level, I understand this, but I don't accept it. Until we develop a supplementary ratings system, where "A" means "Accessible"; "P" means "Pretentious"; and "CHL-20" means "Twenty-something Coffee House Loafers Only", I think it's important to draw distinctions--vague as they may be (I'm not suggesting that all movies hold our hands--merely that the people behind them don't jack off all over us for three hours and call the outcome a film).
Which brings me, finally, to Space Battleship Yamato, a movie that, as I said earlier, is almost laughably full of clichés. My prior-knowledge stance compels me to ask why anyone would bother to make this movie, given that it is literally a self-serious homage to the last three decades of pop culture. In the distant future, mankind is driven underground by a mysterious alien horde who blasts Earth's atmosphere with radioactive meteor-missiles. In a last-ditch attempt to save our species, a single ship sets out for a distant galaxy to retrieve a device that will help restore the green planet. Their journey is fraught with interstellar dogfights, body-invading aliens, and crew turmoil.
Brash ex-pilot Kodai (Takuya Kimura) agrees to serve on the ship of his sworn enemy, Captain Okita (Tsutomu Yamazaki), who, years before, used Kodai's brother's ship as bait to avoid destruction at the hands of the evil Gamilas army. Not long into their journey, Okita takes ill and leaves command of his vessel to Kodai, who gradually rediscovers the greatness that lay dormant in his bitter, young heart. Kodai's second biggest battle is with the beautiful Yuki (Meisa Kuroki), a hot-shot pilot who wrestles with her hurt feelings over Kodai's leaving the military years before and the tractor-beams radiating from is steamy, bad-boy eyes.
There are few moments, ideas, or dots along the character arcs that haven't been well-tread in everything from Star Wars to The Hunt for Red October to the latest incarnation of Battlestar Galactica (particularly in Kozo Shibasaki's cinematography), and probably a dozen other cinema touchstones. By the time Kodai and his search party enter the catacombs of the Gamilas' base on the planet Iscandar--which looks almost exactly like the interior of the Independence Day mother ship, I'd all but given up on the story.
What's that noise disrupting the good guys' victorious, happy-ending musical suite? Why, yes, that is the last surviving Gamilas cruiser preparing to launch an extinction-level rocket towards planet Earth. I must admit, this caught me by surprise. I was thrilled to think that I might avoid writing the film off after all.
There's something familiar in Kodai's orders to evacuate the ship; something not too original in his decision to use the Yamato as a battering ram to take out the enemy's master vessel.
Ah, yep! That's it! Writer Shimako Sato and director Takashi Yamazaki conclude their film with the opening ten minutes of J.J. Abrams' 2009 Star Trek reboot. Their only discernable stamp is the ridiculous amount of time the few remaining characters on the bridge devote to goodbyes and solemn monologues after the aliens launch the man-ending missile (seriously, it's a good eight minutes of vamping).
So, what does all of this have to do with my opening argument against prior knowledge? Well, it turns out the joke is (sort of) on me. The Anime series Space Battleship Yamato debuted in 1974, three years before Star Wars and light years ahead of everything else I've just accused the live-action adaptation of ripping off. We're now faced with a chicken-and-the-egg dilemma. Having not seen the cartoon, I can't say for sure if the '74 show really spawned a lot of the conventions that have become commonplace today. but my dear friend, Bill, who turned me on to this movie, recalls that as being the case.
Which means I really have nothing to bitch about. Apparently, Yamato came first.
Films do not exist in a vacuum, especially not in the new century. There's no reason to believe that the creators of this 2010 feature were unaware of the impact that movies like Independence Day, Star Trek, and Star Wars had on the global popular culture. It's unreasonable to assume that. This begs the question: Why bother with a straight-up adaptation of a cartoon show that--though perhaps the progenitor of legions of sci-fi tropes--is also so awash in them that the movie nearly capsizes?
The performers are really compelling; the relaxed pace of the numerous dialogue scenes offers a fine counter-balance to the special-effects-heavy space- and land-battles (effects that range from Battlestar-passable to being beneath those found in a Shane Van Dyke movie). And some of the sci-fi elements are really cool--like the Yamato's warp process, which takes it through what looks like an underwater wormhole in outer space (likely a nod to the original World War II battleship). But all of this falls flat in the face of the tired story and narcoleptic story beats.
I guess if all you need is to see flesh-and-blood people wearing leather versions of cartoon outfits from your childhood, then this film is perfect. But for the uninitiated, a story that at least leans in the direction of uniqueness would be appreciated. I would even pay to see more adventures that take place in this universe, ones dreamt up by forward-looking storytellers. As it stands, I can only shake my head at a pretty-looking, wasted opportunity and imagine a world where the animated Space Battleship Yamato's didn't evolve into a listless Frankenstein monster.