The live-action movie version more or less gives us a remake/re-imagining of the epic journey to the distant planet Iskandar on a quest to obtain an alien device that will save the Earth from its imminent radioactive demise thanks to constant bombardment from radiation bombs dropped by hostile extra-terrestrial forces, but several factors work against this re-telling. First and foremost, one of the aspects that made the original a classic and a Japanese cultural institution in much the same way that STAR TREK is here in the States was its revolutionary emphasis on characterization and allowing the audience to get to know the show's many characters well enough to be emotionally invested in them so that when the audience witnesses the horrifying trials they undergo, we share in their struggle. A twenty-six episode narrative allows a lot of room for character development that simply is not possible in a film that's just over two hours long, so the filmmakers of the live-action feature rely on the audience already being familiar with the characters and the basics of the story's particulars, and as a result the assorted intimacies depicted between the characters are known and understood solely by those in the audience who've seen the original. All others will be left asking "Who's that guy? Why are those two so close and devoted to each other?" and a slew of other questions that the narrative does not have time to answer thanks to the script's brisk pace.
With the action rushed, the classic year-long journey is seen as a relatively straightforward affair, peppered with ambushes and showy CGI space battles, but gone is every trace of suspense, paranoia over impending attacks, the loneliness, boredom and frayed nerves that go with interstellar travel. The all-too-human experience of what was once a crew comprised mostly of rookie cadets has been re-jiggered so that the entire ship's complement are now experienced soldiers and pilots, so the heroes do not learn anything or grow and mature over the course of the journey, and they are virtually fearless in battle, making it impossible to care about any of them. Even the deep, brother-like friendship between protagonist and immediately-promoted-to-acting-captain Susumu Kodai (actor and pop star Takuya Kimura) and ship's helmsman Daisuke Shima (Naoto Ogata) is given no fleshing out and we are expected to take it as rote that the exchanges between them are meaningful.
I could go on and on but instead I'll just present a laundry list of the rest of my issues with the film, just so we can get this over with and move on to something else (I have on a DVD of old episodes of GUNSMOKE as I'm writing this and they are far more engrossing than anything that this film has to offer):
- The film is obviously and heavily influenced by the rebooted version of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, and that is in no way a good thing. The most egregious example of that influence is in the re-imagining of the Yamato's nurse, Yuki Mori, as a Japanese knockoff of Katee Sackhoff's Starbuck.
Actress Meisa Kuroki enacts a character so close to Starbuck that the makers of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA would seem to have every right to sue. Yuki is now a fighter ace, dour in demeanor and short-tempered enough to punch her fellow pilots in the face if they piss her off, in other words an Asian Starbuck clone. Yawn.
- The alien antagonists, the Gamilas, are revealed to be a mostly featureless crystalline species, thus allowing them to be rendered in lackluster CGI instead of them being blue-skinned humanoids who dressed not unlike the Nazi SS, as in the original. This crystalline hive mind's featureless look allows for no visible emotion to be seen, so they are threatening only in terms of sheer number and of no relatable interest. Also, it is discovered that they call themselves "Dessler," which was the name of the compellingly arrogant leader of the Gamilas in the anime, a classic villain whose presence would have livened up this feature's proceedings immeasurably.
- Since there is no getting to know the characters, we end up not caring about any of them and that's a shame because many of them were well worth paying attention to back in the days. The intense and contemplative chief science/tech officer Shiro Sanada (Toshiro Yanagiba) was once a fascinating character who was worthy of a show in his own right, and here he's reduced to a virtual walk-on. The same can be said of the once simultaneously hilarious and melancholy alcoholic Dr. Sado, who has now been needlessly re-imagined as a woman and given practically nothing to do or say. (At least she's seen with her pet cat and lugging around a huge bottle of sake.) In fact, the only familiar cast members who have any kind of halfway decent screen/plot time are Kodai, Yuki, and the dying Captain Okita (Tsutomo Yamazaki, best known in the West as the cowboy/trucker from 1985's classic TAMPOPO).
- Analyzer, the red, sexually-harassing robot that served as an inspiration for the look of R2-D2, is barely a presence in the film, reduced to a hand-held A.I. unit that is only seen in extremely small doses and worn on Kodai's hip or plugged into a fighter as a support computer. It ends up turning into a war droid when the crew reaches Iskandar and is besieged by swarms of Dessler, and it ends up sacrificing itself in the process in a sequence that's meant to be heroic and inspiring. That intended sentiment fails utterly because, just like nearly all of the other characters, Analyzer is not at all developed and we could not care less about him.
- When the crew does meet the Dessler in face-to-face combat on Iskandar, the film cribs so liberally from STARSHIP TROOPERS and ALIENS that it's embarrassingly lazy.
- There is no Stasha, the benevolent alien who sends the Earth the schematics needed to build a warp drive system that will allow the crew to build a ship so they can fulfill their mission. Instead we get a disembodied hive mind that possesses Yuki and describes itself as the opposite side of a coin shared by the Dessler. In fact, Iskandar is found to be a world that's lush and beautiful on one side and barren and scarred on the other, like a planetary Harvey Dent.
- The space battles and CGI all look like a video game — a common gripe of mine over the past decade of moviegoing — and that's a damned shame since series co-developer Lieji Matsumoto's ahead-of-their-time spaceship designs would have been awe-inspiring if rendered in a non-listless fashion. It's a sad statement when the animated version of the titular space battleship still manages to generate genuine thrills nearly forty years on from its TV debut while its mega-budgeted CGI iteration appears as merely a perfunctory prop. The Yamato was as much of a character as any of the series' main cast, while here it may as well be a tarted-up Winnebago. Even the usually-blow-your-balls-off-awesome deployment of the ship's planet-destroying "ripple cannon" (or "wave motion gun" in the STAR BLAZERS translation) barely elicits a reaction.
- And speaking of greatness rendered unremarkable, thanks to the film's condensing of the material, the famous journey to Iskandar and back now holds gravitas on the level of a late-night trip to the local bodega in search of a six-pack of Piels and some scratch-off Lotto tickets.