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REVIEW: Attack on Titan (2015)

Written by Mark Russell

The first of two live action films to be released this year, Attack on Titan is based on the popular manga by Hajime Isayama. The expectations of adapting something to the big screen is always a challenge, but director Shinji Higuchi, with the blessing of Isayama, took the big screen version of Attack on Titan in its own direction. It doesn’t directly adapt the manga, but rather is its own story set in an alternate take on the story. Produced by Toho, the film actually works pretty well as a decent horror/monster movie with some decent visuals and memorable monsters in the form of the scary titular Titans. However, the story and characters are something to be desired. So, let’s grab our manoeuvre gear and go attack this movie.

Seid ihr das Essen? Nein, wir sind die Jäger! *awesome soundtrack* No, no, we ain’t got no time for that. We’ve got a film to review!

The manga and anime are set in a post-apocalyptic European setting, but here, it is changed to a post-modern Japan with remnants of the past world like downed helicopters and undetonated bombs. While this is not overly an issue in the film, the change does prevent a lot of the characters from being incorporated into the story since just about everyone in the manga is Caucasian rather than Asian. One hundred years ago, terrifying man-eating giants called Titans mysteriously appeared and began devouring humanity. The survivors barricaded themselves behind three enormous walls, keeping the Titans out, and there was relative peace for a century.

Our hero is Eren Yeager (Haruma Miura), a teenage boy who dreams of escaping the cage humanity is trapped in and exploring the world beyond Wall Maria, an idea shared with his friends Mikasa Ackerman (Kiko Mizuhara) and Armin Arlert (Kanata Hongō). However, the enormous Colossal Titan appears before the wall and quite literally kicks off the plot by smashing a hole through the wall, allowing the Titans to invade the local town and devour everyone. Eren and Armin escape, but Mikasa is apparently eaten by Titans. Two years on, the two have been enrolled into the Survey Corps, a military force whose job it is to wipe out the Titans and plan to plug up the hole in Wall Maria with explosives. The Survey Corps are also equipped with omni-directional manoeuvring gear that allows the members to grapple through the air. Think Spider-Man’s web shooters but gas powered and with blades.

The first act is pretty good with fantastic pacing and a grand sense of both horror and despair. The arrival of the Colossal Titan, destruction of the wall, and the approach of the freaky-faced Titans is just brilliant and absolutely jaw dropping. It is when the film goes into the second act that the plot starts to become paper thin, for it lacks the world-building and character depth that made the manga and anime so appealing. However, I can praise the film for its small but enjoyable moments of quietness where the characters simply interact. There isn’t much character development per say, but the film’s world feels a lot more dire and depressing than in the anime.

Character wise, very few stand out. Eren is a very flat protagonist and I can’t really describe him here, showing the minimal of his manga counterpart’s personality. Eren is supposed to be an emotional, headstrong, angry individual driven by a desire of love and revenge. His mother is devoured before his eyes in the manga and that is Eren’s key motive. Here, he doesn’t really have much of a motive. See, we later find out that Mikasa survived the initial Titan invasion and became a badass Titan killer but is now emotionally withdrawn after failing to save a baby and was nearly eaten herself. And, yet it is somehow Eren’s fault, even though because of the situation, he was unable to reach her and while he carries guilt for this, there is no legitimate reason why it is his fault unless he has survivor guilt.

Mikasa’s portrayal is probably the biggest failure of the movie. Though Kiko Mizuhara was cast perfectly as Mikasa, the character is just mishandled. In the manga, she is a tough as nails, calm, but somewhat overprotective and even at times psychotic adopted sister to Eren who would screw over the entire world to keep him safe. Here, she is a broken shell with confusing reasons for hating Eren, which will confuse newcomers and enrage fans. Her layer actions in the third act are even more stupid. The rest of the characters don’t really have much to offer. Some characters brought over from the manga like Armin, Jean Kirstein (Takahiro Miura), Sasha Blouse (Nanami Sakuraba), and a renamed Zoe Hanji (Satomi Ishihara) remain close to their counterparts, particularly the latter two. Others are repurposed or renamed for some reason, or we get new characters all together. Acting is mediocre at best, and the only performances that stand out are the more eccentric-based characters.

Towards the end of the second act, things go a little into the bizarre, doing things that irk me as a fan of the source material. Eren meets Captain Shikishima (Hiroki Hasegawa), the Captain America of the Survey Corps who is for better or for worst, meant to be a replacement for the manga’s most popular character, Captain Levi. Why they needed to replace Levi with a strange, cheesy, overacting, possibly immoral character is beyond me? And to make matters worse, he appears to be in some kind of sexual relationship with Eren, leading to a very strange moment when he starts getting touchy feely with Mikasa right in front of poor Eren. And this is just after the scene where Mikasa revealed she was nearly eaten and has a giant jaw-shaped scar on her body. Like we really need a love triangle when the world is at stake.

But wait, it gets worse. Eren runs off to scream out his frustrations but is stopped by a new character Hiana (Ayame Misaki) who takes him to a secluded spot for some comforting. Hiana is a single mother and only joined the armed forces to get money for her baby. But then things go completely out of whack when she suddenly unbuttons her shirt and asks Eren to be the father to her baby. What in the world? And that is just before Eren realises a Titan is watching them like some nosy voyeur, and Eren’s expression is not exactly one of frozen in fear but more like “Do you mind!?” All of this crazy romance stuff is very awkward. The only implied romance I like is between Armin and Sasha.

I would have to say the highlight of the film is the visual effects. Only the Colossal Titan is completely computer generated, but the first time it peers over the wall and stares down the camera is just amazing to watch. The Titans themselves. Wow, they are the definition of creepy. They crawled right out of the uncanny valley. A clever mix of makeup, slight CGI, and green screen make the Titans look legitimately terrifying and make my skin crawl. Being a horror film, it pulls out all of the stops to make the audience squirm. There’s no stupid jump scares, fake outs, or mocking of horror tropes here. The Titans are out to devour humanity for no reason and they are will stop at nothing to do it.

The film is even more gorier and possibly more frightening than the manga and anime combined. The gruesomeness is unforgiving, and I squirm each time a Titan chows down on a poor character. The actors are drenched in blood, guts, and Titan drool like it is a messed up gameshow and I love it. I think the best scene is when Eren and Hiana follow noises of a crying baby and discover a Titan-sized infant just looking for a meal. A pretty effective scene when you realise Hiana’s goal is to return to her baby and fulfil some twisted desire of a flawed happy ending (explaining her weird moves on Eren). The scenes where the characters use the manoeuvring gear to fly through the air varies depending on each shot. At times it looks legit, and other times, they look like they using an obvious green screen.

The last twenty minutes or so are great fun and really ramp up the monster vs. monster combat sorely missing from last year’s Godzilla film. I won’t spoil what happens since it is of great importance to the story, but even after all the downsides of this film, seeing the Titans getting demolished in bloody gory fashion is just fantastic, particularly since it is done in the style of classic Godzilla films with people in costumes fighting it out in a miniaturised cityscape. The second film comes out in September, so hopefully the follow up will be a little better with more characterization and a more interesting story. This film also features an irrelevant subplot about a mysterious cloaked saboteur trying to stop the Survey Corps, but it has little impact on the story. So, Attack on Titan may not be the most loyal of adaptations, but is does work as a fun, decent horror or monster movie.

Have you seen the film and what are your thoughts on it? Do you enjoy the manga or anime? Sound off now below in the comments or leave a message on our Twitter feed.

About the author

Mark Russell