Less than a year after the release of the Playstation 3, developer Ninja Theory put out one of the first substantial narrative-driven experiences for Sony's console: Heavenly Sword, a fantasy-action game built to satisfy the hunger for a fast-paced, visceral rush of adrenaline in the vein of Sony's popular God of War series. Driven by a fated heroine, Nariko, with flowing red hair, deep-tan skin and a massive blade under her protection that's gradually consuming her existence, it's a straightforward but mythical tale of sacrifice and devotion that, amid the hacking and slashing, takes breathers for moments of poeticism and empowerment. More than that, the game's pacing -- and, sure, its extensive cutscenes designed to flex graphical muscle -- seemed tailor-made for a film adaptation, possessing a cinematic quality that would easily convert to a standard film structure with extensions to the action and a touch of back-story for Nariko. That's why it was exciting to hear about Heavenly Sword getting adapted into an animated film some seven years later, and why it's so disappointing to see many of the things that made it distinct get lost or contorted in this direct-to-video translation.
Drive Angry and Jason X writer Todd Farmer shoulders the challenge of filling out Heavenly Sword's narrative, yet he also jumps at the opportunity to make alterations for the sake of enhanced cinematic storytelling ... similar to other videogame adaptations that lost their resemblance to the source. At a cursory glance, much of the story's structure appears intact: a long time ago, a legendary battle between divine and demonic forces ends by the stroke of an ancient sword, which was discovered and overseen by a warrior tribe in a quasi-Asian mortal realm. Cut to the film's present era where wars have been fought over this powerful relic, now in jeopardy by the domination of King Bohan's (Alfred Molina) forces. The warrior tribe safeguarding the sword have been awaiting a prophesized "chosen one" -- born on a specific date -- to wield the blade and bring peace to the land, but in his absence and amid the attack, the clan's leader, Shen (Nolan North), offers the sword to his neglected and supposedly "cursed" daughter, Nariko (Anna Torv), so she might flee and keep it safe.
Even with hazy memories of playing the game over half a decade ago, the alterations to Nariko's story stick out enough to grasp that much of this animated feature deviates from the happenings of the original Heavenly Sword. Todd Farmer's writing awkwardly expands on Nariko being a shunned member of the clan due to her being born a woman instead of the anticipated man of prophecy, introducing unneeded questions around how she's (unsuccessfully) forced by her father to be this untrained warrior -- quite a shift from Nariko's claim that he's "my tutor first and my father second" from the game -- then later hastily entrusted with defending the all-important relic. It's also transformed Nariko and her bizarre sister Kai's (Ashleigh Ball) journey into a search for the true chosen one, Loki (Thomas Jane), revealed to have already been born, which undercuts Nariko's presence as the absorbing focal point. Capped off with illegitimate children and shoehorned traitors for drama, and you've got a lot of superfluous bloat that feels more like a haphazard videogame script than a stab at making the most of a dynamic cinematic adaptation.
Frustratingly, Heavenly Sword does retain many of the game's bracing action beats (read: boss battles) within Todd Farmer's modified context, creating a deceptive and unsatisfying hybrid between the old and the new. While the animation studio deserves to be commended for its use of familiar digital resources and aesthetics in capturing the essence of Ninja Theory's universe, the animation itself comes across as cumbersome and economical in motion, forcing Nariko's fluid fighting style to deal with wooden opponents, colorful-yet-humdrum environments, and outlandish rule-breaking of the body's limitations. Slower moments avoid that generalization -- Nariko practicing a kata with an instructor and many sequences involving Kai's graceful maneuvering -- but as the action moves faster and gains intensity, the rigidity of the modeling becomes more distracting. In attempting to stay somewhat true to the source, the end result feels too much like a stretch of game cutscenes taped together instead of a cohesive motion picture, without the gratification of button-mashing during the orchestrated battles.
Perhaps the most maddening thing about Heavenly Sword comes in seeing these appealing characters struggle within such a flimsy telling of their story. Blunt dialogue and exposition gets tossed in the laps of substantial talents like Alfred Molina and Thomas Jane to render remarkably one-dimensional personalities around the heroine's journey, ringing false as they mechanically serve their purposes; Molina's theatrical, less-chaotic take on King Bohan is a far cry from Andy Serkis' madness. This even applies to Nariko: despite relishing the chance to hear the now-famous Fringe actress Anna Torv in a slightly different take on the red-haired swordstress, even she suffers from a lack of capable direction, the character's responses to her tribulations, destiny, and spiritual conflict with the cursed blade coming off as too bridled and on-the-nose at crucial moments. As her epic story comes full circle and the significance of her connection with the sword revealed in a bittersweet climax, the hollow duplication and deviations within Heavenly Sword's mythical tempo does little beyond making someone want to revisit Ninja Theory's game as a palate-cleanser, succeeding neither as a substitute nor as its own spin-off.
Video and Audio:
The line dividing limitations in animation and transfer quality gets a little fuzzy in Heavenly Sword, which largely looks divine in Cinedigm's 1080p AVC encode. The deep red of Nariko's hair provides one of many vivid colors present in the visual style, especially reds and oranges -- the churning of lava, the flicker of flames, the piercing reds of Bohan's horse -- while the slate grays in cloudy skies and deep browns of the rocky landscape are wood textures offer stable gradation, if a bit bulky at times. The disc truly shines with textures, from Nariko's freckles to the etching within armor and the curves of the majestic sword, responding well to flickering lights and metallic sheens. Problems arise with broad, subtle arcs and contours, which exhibit some jagged edges that'll stick out on larger sets, as well as some jerkiness that throws a kink in 24fps motion ... though that's likely inherent in the animation style. Despite how one feels about the animation style as a whole, Cinedigm's Blu-ray is up to the task.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio admirably slices its way through consistent activity, but it's lacking the punch and authenticity at times to give it the oomph of a fantasy-action film. It certainly doesn't lack for surround activity: whether it's the buzzing an clanking of battle or the subtle creaks of a wooden house and the flickers of a campfire, activity persistently occupies both the front and rear channels, pouring through cleanly and assertively. The clarity of the voice work delivers precisely what's needed without any distortion or dips in clarity, from Anna Torv's deep-alto registry as Nariko or Alfred Molina's billowing theatricality, while the scoring frequently occupies both front and rear channels, only intermittently dominating certain elements. Some of the stronger sound effect, however, are too slight for their own good -- the thump of arrows, the slicing of blades, the bombardment of fiery iron balls on a stronghold -- and pull the experience back a few notches. All points considered, it's a clear and immersive track. Optional English subtitles are available.
The only extra of substance, The Making of Heavenly Sword (14:55, 16x9 HD), cobbles together cheerful interviews with writer Todd Farmer, actors Anna Torv and Alfred Molina, and other producers involved with its making. Little bits are gleaned about the rationale behind making a respectful-yet-divergent adaptation of the game, and it's always a joy to hear Anna Torv chat about her projects, especially as she discusses the nuance of voice-acting and the potency of videogames as a storytelling medium.
A full-length Trailer (1:35, 16x9 HD) and a series of four Teasers (6:04, 16x9 HD) have also been included.
Those who have played the game hoping for a decent adaptation -- perhaps as a quick memento to revisit the story -- probably won't find this Heavenly Sword too satisfying given its plentiful divergences and rough execution, and those who haven't played the game should know that they're walking into a largely-tweaked experience that doesn't really substitute for Ninja Theory's blockbuster creation. Taken on its own merits as a loose take on the story that looks and sounds rather close to the real deal, including a return from Anna Torv as Nariko, it's still a limp and shallow slice of animated fantasy storytelling that inelegantly follows a different path to similar destinations as the game. Unless you're jonesing for an Olivia fix following the cancellation of Fringe or might get a charge at the mere sight and sound of these characters in motion again, it's best to dodge and parry this take on the divine blade. Skip It.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site