Last night, we caught the world premiere of the live-action movie adaptation of Hiroya Oku's manga Gantz. While a bit slow, Gantz could be the future of science-fiction films, and it's only a matter of time until Hollywood remakes it.
Let me go ahead and admit up front — I have not read the manga nor watched the anime versions of Gantz.. While many Gantz fans have voiced mixed feelings about the director Shinsuke Sato's work, we'll address those concerns later (because they've got a point). But for now, let's talk about first impressions.
The plot of Gantz is actually quite complicated, but once you know the rules of the game it all starts to fall into place. The story is centered around two old childhood friends, Masaru Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama) and Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya). Kei is the loner/misguided hero of the story, I came to think of him as a less nerdy Peter Parker. And Kato is the complicated, brooding misunderstood fellow. After being separated for many years, the two reunite on a subway platform only to wind up entangled in a rescue attempt on the tracks of the train. Long story short, the two ex-best friends are killed instantly by a speeding train.
Moments later, the boys wake up in an all white apartment (with a handful of strangers). There's a giant black ball in the middle of the room that plays a song and then informs the discombobulated group that their old lives are over (via text on the side of the ball). They now belong to him and must do what he says, and "that's the way the cookie crumbles." This is Gantz. Seconds later the sides of the ball splay open (like so):
And a tray, containing guns and suitcases with each person's name on them, appears. Inside each suitcase is a black leather suit with little sensors all over the body. The open orb also exposes a bald little man-being connected to the contraption (though he doesn't respond to stimulation, and is on some sort of breathing apparatus — could this be Gantz in the flesh?). The ball then flashes their "mission" on the side of his black face, tells them to eliminate the target and puts 20 or 15 minutes on a clock, and beams the group to the desired location to each person, slice by slice. It's brilliant you can actually see slices of each characters brain, and eyeballs.
The audience is left in the dark for quite some time, but it's slowly revealed (after buckets of blood, some disturbingly awesome alien creatures, and many deaths of the other random strangers) that Gantz brought all these people back from the dead to hunt aliens all over Japan. Also, the suits are basically super suits that will protect their bodies from alien weaponry and alien super strength, but only within reason.
This movie plays out just like a video game, with a boss and a big boss on each mission. After the "big boss" on the first mission smashes together most of the team with its giant alien hands, Kei and Kato realize they've got to put on their suits and fight the aliens if they want to survive. But oh wait, those aren't all the rules yet. Should an alien stab you five times in the belly while you are on a mission, but you (or a teammate) manages to kill them first and you're STILL alive when the time runs out, you will be transported back to the white room fully healed. But you die on the mission, you die in real life...again. When you get back to the white room, Gantz awards you points — and here's the twist. Once you reach 100 points you can chose to wipe your memory and return back to your normal life, or bring someone back to life who has died on a past mission (and a lot of people do die).
And those are the rules of Gantz. Thank goodness, the movie took a lot less time than I did explaining this. Which means there was a lot more time for alien-fighting and moping. And there were excessive amounts of both. All the folks brought back to life by Gantz have led a pretty miserable existence from the get-go. Kei sees this as his chance to become a superhero and lets his new superpowers go straight to his head. Kato, on the other hand, is the only caregiver for his little brother. So if he dies, his brother has to go back into foster care (or something). Their long period of separation from each other while growing up builds up quite an interesting dynamic between the two. Kei starts showboating, which leads to the deaths of a lot of scared new recruits (brought in by Gantz to replace the people that died in the past mission). Meanwhile Kato kind of lingers in the back. Sure he's ready to help, but Kato has to survive, so he doesn't take any risks — or at least tries not to. It's refreshing to watch a newly formed superhero actually act like a human being with responsibilities. But then again, you could easily side with Kei's somewhat antiheroic point of view — these people were already dead by all rights, so if they're just getting in the way of the mission and endangering your life too, why not let them get bludgeoned to death by an alien robot?
So the gang sets out killing aliens. Kei taking the lead and Kato desperately trying to protect the new and scared recruits. Naturally, the two are going to butt heads, and of course it's bound to happen while trying to kill a 30-foot stone alien in the shape of a giant Buddha, but we always prefer our drama with a side of giant attacking alien monster. Things come to a head between these two in movie's big climax, but I'm not ruining the ending.
Another fantastic element to this movie was the action and FX. The first time you get a good look at the first mission alien (Onion Boy) it will stop you in your tracks (here's the Manga version of the little mutant):
When we finally got a chance to see him whimpering and pleading for his life "I'll give you an onion!" he looked as though a small child and an onion had been dipped in a vat of chemical waste together. Just brilliant. In fact all of the alien creatures are just top notch monster work. Even those that had a lot of CG going on are grounded in some sort of puppet or man in a suit reality (although it NEVER comes close to looking like a guy in a suit or a puppet).
Sadly, the print that was screened was miserably dark. I fear a lot of the FX work was lost in horrible shadows, but what I saw I liked so much I'd watch it again in hopes of seeing more of the awesome alien FX work. The print also messed other scenes as well, combine that with the fact that everyone that wasn't Kei or Kato had some of the most dreadful dub work I've ever seen. It was incredibly frustrating — if you have the choice, see if with subtitles.
Other issues with Gantz included a completely underused and underdeveloped collection of cast members. The girl they are transported with is a dreadfully sad creature who commits suicide after her boyfriend leaves her (which allowed the production company to beam her into Gantz's apartment naked since she dies in the bathtub). She then spends the rest of the movie following Kato around and making puppy eyes at his every move. Her character is pretty flat — and she's the most developed member from the second string of actors. The rest of the gang, from real world friends to the old man that keeps surviving missions long enough to garner a role in the next film, are utterly forgettable. Plus the only person that seemed upset when most of these people were killed off was Kato. Some of the dramatic dialogue left me pretty cold as well. But being a Gantz newbie I was so enthralled in learning the rules of the mission along with the Kei and Kato, it didn't bother me when parts of the film lagged. But I can see how this might irritate the hell out of some fans.
As for the main differences between the original work and the movie, the movie is far less graphic and violent. Yes there are buckets and buckets of blood splashed all over the characters, but it's very very dark (even taking the dark print I saw into consideration). And dark blood starts to look like black paint when you're just throwing it around. Also, I hear the Manga is big on the nudity — sorry to disappoint, but the only naked skin you see in the film is the floating girl and that is kept PG. However, the movie does get playful with Kei's sex drive as he clumsily tries to seduce a girl in his apartment by woefully flopping around a condom.
Pacing issues and print issues aside, I want to see the next film (which they showed a teaser for at the end of the screening). The conclusion was very much a cliff hanger, one hero is in trouble and the other must make a difficult decision to save him. Plus, the final flick looks like it has double the action of the first, which may help speed things along. I'm invested in the rules of this world, and I'm ready to watch the characters improve themselves. Yes, this is a new idea to me, being a Gantz virgin, but the movie had a lot more meat to dig into than the big-budget summer movies we're force-fed every year. It felt new and exceptionally creative — I want to know more about this bald naked mastermind: where he comes from and what his real motives are. And I want the characters to get 100 points so they can make the impossible decision to save either someone else's life, or their own. Gantz, while not perfect, is a terrific spectacle. We hope Hollywood learns something from this deeper version of a video game film and ditches the first person shooter crap for a better class of alien slaughter.