In the world of Fullmetal Alchemist, alchemy is a measure science. To create something anew, a component of equal value must be lost. In the case of the live action film trilogy, it is just about everything story wise that made Hiromu Arakawa’s manga and subsequent anime adaptations so good. All three films were directed and written by Fumihiko Sori, who clearly strived to make films that honoured the manga, at least on a visual level. The costumes and props are undeniably accurate to the source material, but no amount of fanservice can make up for poor storytelling.
The biggest obstacles these movies face for being truly good are awful pacing, often wooden acting, and special effects done on a budget. Each film is nearly two hours and a half, but dedicate themselves to cramming in every single major or memorable incident from the manga, at the expense of any substance.
The counterpart to these films would be the well-intentioned Attack on Titan films, which went in the opposition direction, choosing to focus on tone, atmosphere, and mild character development. In that case, they were based on an incomplete manga, so they had to improvise by telling their own stories. Fullmetal Alchemist does not have that problem, especially in its final instalment, The Final Alchemy (or Final Transmutation).
If anyone cares to remember, the Elric brothers, Edward (Ryosuke Yamada) and Alphonse (Atom Mizuishi) continue their quest to mend their broken bodies after failing to resurrect their dead mother with alchemy. Throughout the first two films, the Elrics and friends uncovered a conspiracy involving the state military and evil beings called the Homunculi, who have manipulated events for sinister reasons. The second film ended with Edward, his friend Ling Yao (Keisuke Watanabe), and the shapeshifting Envy (Kanata Hongo) were eaten by Gluttony (Shinji Uchiyama). Alphonse convinces Gluttony to take him to his creator, Father (Seiyo Uchino), who resembles their own absent dad Hohenheim (also Uchino).
In the space of about ten minutes, Ed and co. escape Gluttony’s stomach, get captured by Father, who proceeds to turn Ling into a homunculus named Greed. They escape, teaming up with their nemesis Scar (Mackenyu) and Xingese princess Mei Chang (Monroe Ron). They discover that their homeland doubles as a giant transmutation circled orchestrated by the Homunculi so Father can basically become a god. The gang then split up to do different things as part of a plan to stop the Homunculi before an upcoming eclipse is used to activate the apocalyptic transmutation. Concurrently, Colonel Roy Mustang (Dean Fujioka) and Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye (Misako Renbutsu) take the fight to the military’s higher ups, including the Fuhrer King Bradley (Hiroshi Tachi), who is actually Wrath.
Aside from that as the general premise, there are a dozen other subplots flying around like the script was put to a leafblower. Characters who are crucial to the story are rapidly introduced in succession, then shoved to the side until needed again. In the manga, Greed was a rogue homunculus who ran his own gang until captured, killed, and resurrected in Ling as a new character. He later regains his memories and rebels when he remembers that Wrath murdered his friends. In the film, Greed is introduced in one scene and two scenes later he has gone rogue without rhyme or reason. Characters are so inconsequential to the rocket car of a plot, they might as well have been cut out.
The same thing happens from beginning to end as the film races non-stop to cover every single story beat from manga. Chiaki Kuriyama of Kill Bill fame shows up as the indominable Major General Olivier Armstrong, but like most of the cast, she is underutilised and then just disappears from the film. The character arc for Scar was wrapped up in the second film, so he just pops up here and there when needed. Ed’s crush Winry Rockbell (Tsubasa Honda) played a major role in the manga’s third act, but her conflict with Scar is already resolved. So she randomly shows up to fix Ed’s prosthetic limbs, despite chat that she is a hostage, only to then be sent off home without incident.
The acting varies across the board. Ryosuke Yamada has grown to become a good Edward, as has Tsubasa Honda as Winry despite her limited screen time. Unfortunately, a majority of scenes played out by the cast standing around delivering expositive dialogue with stoic expressions. What should be tense or even moving interactions are often plagued by wooden acting or overshadowed by the shoddy special effects.
For the film’s commitment to capturing the visual details of the manga’s world, the special effects used are often an eyesore. Trivial things like a lit torch or a character falling into water are done using green screens. They finally managed to balance out Alphonse’s role as the deuteragonist; giving him more screentime when compared to the previous films, even improving the realism of his armour.
As with the previous films, Fullmetal Alchemist: The Final Alchemy feels and looks like a well polished fan film. Just re-creating the visuals of the manga isn’t enough, even if the effort is good. It was an endeavour to adapt, especially when trying to condense and shove the entire story into what is six hours in all. The inability to slow down and focus on the characters really dragged down the trilogy. If the manga was adapted into a live action, multi-season TV series, perhaps it could work better.
What are your thoughts on the Fullmetal Alchemist film trilogy? Are they better than they appear, or missing an arm and leg? Leave a comment below, or on our Twitter feed.