Space Battleship Yamato Review
Based on a hugely popular anime series from the 1970s, the live action feature Space Battleship Yamato was inevitably going to have to bear the weight of high expectations that it could never possibly meet. Even if you are not familiar with the original anime (known as Star Blazers in the US, though I'm not sure it was ever shown or distributed in the UK), you might recognise that the name Yamato itself is a reference to a famous Japanese battleship that carries certain historical and cultural resonances. These are acknowledged in the film, but likewise it is never something that the feature film is likely ever to be able to live up to. That's only to be expected, but even allowing for that and simply accepting the film on its own terms as a science-fiction actioner, Space Battleship Yamato unfortunately still falls well short of the mark.
The plot, while it now sounds very familiar, does at least hold close to the original series. Set in 2199, Earth is under threat from an unknown alien enemy who have been called the Gamilas. Bombarded by meteorites for 5 years, Earth is on the verge of total destruction, the surface made uninhabitable through high levels of radiation. What remains of humanity now lives underground with little hope and no means of defense from the onslaught. Driven to the surface, Kodai Sumusu however comes into a contact with a device that not only seems to shield him from the deadly radiation on the surface, but it contains a message with the coordinates of a distant planet called Iscandar where a similar device could be obtained that could protect the Earth from further radiation attacks.
There's only one ship with the capability to defend itself from the superior Gamilas forces and with the warp drive technology to make it to Iscandar and that's the resurrected Yamato piloted by Captain Okita. Kodai, it transpires, is an experienced fighter pilot who is invited to join the crew, even though he holds a grudge against the Captain, who he believes allowed his brother to die unnecessarily in the war against the Gamilas in space around Mars. On board Kodai is reunited with many old friends and former crew members, reforming Team Kodai. Their trust in Kodai is unconditional, but not everyone on board the Yamato feels the same way about his skills and methods.
Even though the original series was undoubtedly highly influential on many recent US space science-fiction series, it has to be said that the plot for the Space Battleship Yamato live-action feature now feels deeply unoriginal and unsophisticated in comparison to similar treatments in the likes of Babylon 5, Space: Above and Beyond or Battlestar Galactica. As a single two-hour movie moreover, Space Battleship Yamato could never match the development and characterisation of those series, and it shows. The concept might have worked better as a series (an anime series for example? Oh right, that's already been done!), but as a live-action feature film, it feels misconceived and has to pack too much into a relatively short running time.
On the other hand, the cheapness of the sets and the effects, the slapdash approach taken to even making basic science even slightly credible, and the stringing together of standard characters and set-piece action sequences ripped off from other films suggests that the creators have nothing new to add and little concern about technical details. To give just a couple of examples, Kodai is the typical loner, the wild-card who does it his own way even if it means breaking orders, yet somewhat implausibly and conveniently this newest and unproven member of the crew is soon released from the brig to become acting Captain. The attack on the Gamilas central base meanwhile, where Kodai "glides in" so that his engines won't be detected, is standard procedure that riffs Star Wars but, less kindly, feels more like a similar implausible operation in Independence Day.
You could let the odd inconsistency or scientific implausibility pass by and maybe put the occasional reference down to coincidence, but there are too many of them done merely for convenience, to add excitement or just because it's standard procedure. Consequently the film's idea of excitement is to repeatedly play out variations of the same kind of routine that goes along the lines of - "We've destroyed the mothership! Hurrah! Oh, hold on... what's that on the radar? Oh no, there are hundreds more heading our way!" And how do you usually get out of that kind of situation? That's right - "How long until the damaged/depleted/recently used warp drive is ready again?"
Such technology would have come in handy during the War in the Pacific, which in a way, is the ultimate wish-fulfilment idea behind Space Battleship Yamato. The name Yamato holds enormous significance for the Japanese as the battleship that headed-out to certain death near the end of the war at Okinawa in April 1945. Those resonances (most apparent in the design of the spaceship) are also in the original anime and are likewise openly referenced in one rousing speech here by Kodai. Those sentiments may be elevated to a more universal 'fighting for Earth' purpose, but they remain the same worryingly antiquated nationalistic sentiments of self-sacrifice for an ideal and for the loved-ones back home, inflated here to a level that this improbable space adventure can't possibly hope to sustain.
Space Battleship Yamato is released on DVD by Manga Entertainment. The DVD is dual-layer, PAL and encoded for Region 2. A Blu-ray/DVD combo release is also available, but the Blu-ray disc wasn't seen for review.
The transfer for the film is widescreen enhanced, showing the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Overall the image is fine, the transfer stable, colour and contrast levels bright and punchy with no marks or compression issues. On DVD, it's as good as you would expect from a Standard Definition transfer, but I would expect the Blu-ray looks rather better.
Not being an anime there are no dubs offered, just the original Japanese soundtrack with optional subtitles. The audio mixes are Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, both of which present the soundtrack, the explosions and all the effects with the requisite force. The optional English subtitles are in a white font.
Extra features would all appear to be presentations of the technical effects - Visual Effects Before and After, Pre-visualisation, VFX Scale Footage, 360˚ Gallery - as well as including the Theatrical Trailers. Having watched the film and not been terribly impressed by its special effects, I didn't feel the slightest urge to look at these. The rating for extra features is therefore an estimate only.
As a science-fiction feature, Space Battleship Yamato delivers a well-paced space action adventure, but it's also one that now feels well-worn and lacking in any real distinction or character. It dutifully delivers on all the standard personalities and action sequences, but it lacks the sophistication and the full-length series budget that might allow it to develop some originality and credibility of its own. Weighed down and dated somewhat by the militaristic and nationalistic sentiments that lie behind the origins of the Yamato name, the live-action feature also fails to bring anything beyond what was achieved by the original anime series almost forty years ago.