Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Review
Fate/Stay Night concerns itself with an ongoing war for the Holy Grail which promises the victor any wish they desire. Set in present-day Japan this war is waged in secret between seven Magi masters and the epic heroes they command referred to as their servants. These epic heroes are the reincarnated souls of legendary figures from throughout history, each blessed with their own unique strengths and abilities. In Unlimited Blade Works we're introduced to Shiro Emiya, a teenage boy who finds himself embroiled in the war for the Holy Grail when he stumbles upon fellow student Rin Tohsaka, an accomplished Magi who has summoned a servant to fight by her side so she can take her place as one of the seven masters. Caught in the crossfire of a battle Shiro - who knows nothing of magic - somehow summons a servant of his own and not long after allies himself with Rin in an effort to keep the Holy Grail out of the wrong hands.
Based upon a Japanese visual novel game Fate/Stay Night has been around in some form or other since 2004 and since then has been adapted into numerous other games, manga, light novels and its own anime series. Unlimited Blade Works is one of three storylines from the visual novel which has been adapted here and focuses primarily on Shiro, Rin and her servant known as Archer. This differs greatly from the anime series previously released here in the UK which is based on the Fate storyline from the visual novel and has a greater emphasis on Shiro and the relationship with his own servant known as Saber. That said, this feature film and the anime series do share a great deal of overlapping storyline with the first act of the film in particular being almost identical to the first eight episodes of the TV series. In this opening act the film plays out very much like a clip show, one that omits a great deal of content and sees characters and time jump all over the place. Even the introduction of Shiro's servant is handled in this manner, surely leaving anyone unfamiliar with the visual novel or anime series at a considerable disadvantage.
Once you've made it past this bumpy introduction the breakneck pace continues unabated as Shiro and Rin find themselves in frequent battles with other masters and their servants. To its credit however the direction becomes considerably more focussed and while locations change frequently and events move from one to the other with little explanation or chance to catch your breath we're no longer in clip show territory. Instead we're allowed to witness some beautifully animated showdowns between these powerful entities and their magic wielding masters as they trade blows and move the plot along with battlefield dialogue while an impressively active camera floats around to give us the most cinematic viewpoints. Visually it's quite a treat and in this respect it fully deserves its movie status with the budget up there on display for all to see. The pacing and frequency of action also go hand in hand with big budget movie status, but it comes at the cost of character development which is slight at best. There are numerous points in the film where as an audience we should feel for the characters as they're submitted to loss, betrayal and deception in amongst the constant threat upon their lives. Unfortunately not even Shiro and Rin are given much of a chance to grow on the audience, there's virtually no attempt to explain their background or even their motivations in this fight, so as you can imagine the secondary characters who fill out the rest of the seven masters and servants make little to no impact whatsoever.
This is unfortunate as Unlimited Bladeworks is - shaky start aside - an entertaining ride and one that could have been so much more. It manages to work on its own as a bold fantasy action adventure but it's clearly been developed for the visual novel's fan-base who will be able to fill in the blanks and be more accepting of the plot's deficiencies. Even with prior knowledge (of the anime series in my case) I would consider it a missed opportunity, one that is made more interesting for how it differs to the anime series rather than something that is markedly improved by having seen said series. On the comparison front it's very much like watching an alternate reality version of the Holy Grail war presented in the TV series, with all the same characters, locations and even some of the same twists present but all used in very different ways. The overall direction of the Unlimited Blade Works plot is considerably different so those who have seen the anime series should not be concerned with it retreading overly familiar ground. In fact I'd say anyone who has seen the series should definitely seek out the film as it's a far more satisfying use of the characters and Fate/stay universe, albeit one that could have done with the extra running time a full series (or longer film) affords.
The DiscAvailable on DVD and Blu-ray through Manga Entertainment with the same content on both discs, we're looking at the DVD presentation for this review. The dual-layer Region 2 coded disc features a pristine anamorphic widescreen transfer which handles the fast-paced action with ease. It looks absolutely fantastic with the detailed backgrounds and colourful displays of magic in the midst of battle showing no signs of edge enhancement or any obvious compression issues. For some reason the end credits looked awful when played on my standalone player but they look just fine on my PC so that's likely a player/setup issue. Either way we're talking about white text (kanji) on a black screen so you're unlikely to miss anything important!
Both Japanese and English DD5.1 soundtracks are provided which really fill out the room with good separation across all channels. The English subtitles are error free and of the yellow with a black outline variety. I viewed the film in its original Japanese but did check out the English dub and was pleased to see that most (if not all) of the voice actors from the TV series returned to voice their characters.
Extras take the form of trailers, trailers and more trailers (Theatrical, TV Spots, Promos etc.) for the film.