Returner (2002) is a dose of Japanese sci-fi action that borrows from numerous genre standards. You get a dose of Terminator, some Independence Day, E.T., The Matrix, Escape from New York, and more. Black leather trenchcoat and sunglasses clad, good-looking, gun totin', butt kickin' hero?- Check. Obligatory, cute female love interest?- Check. Bad guy from the Gary Oldman School of Over-acting Villains?- Check.
In the year 2084, the Earth is practically devastated due to a war with a alien race we have dubbed the Daggra. As a last ditch effort to save all of humanity, a girl, Milly (Ann Suzuki), is sent back in time to stop the first alien invader. She lands in the present day, right in the middle of a battle between warring gangsters, the evil Mizoguchi (Goro Kishitani) and hitman-for-hire Miyamoto (Takeshi Kaneshiro- Chunking Express, Fallen Angels, who has vowed to avenge his boyhood friend who was killed by Mizoguchi.
Thanks to an implant that will blow his head off at the touch of a button, Miyamoto is made the unwilling pawn in Milly's efforts to find the first invader and dispose of him before he can call the others. But, Mizoguchi's criminal empire has their hands everywhere, including the research facility that houses the spaceship and alien.
You'd think with aliens who disguise their ships Transformer style, the neat-o effect of a time-stopping device in the fights, and liberal doses of good gunplay and wire fu action it would be hard to fail. Unfortunately, I found that for all of its potential cool, Returner never really lives up to the cool factor it so desperately wants to convey.
The real problem, for me, was summed up in the stretched out finale, where following some action, the film drags on with a lot of character drama. The ending seems to be under the impression that we should really care about the characters and established that somehow, despite being part of a shameless popcorn action film, we the viewer should be emotionally invested in them. It is always a bad sign when the weepy orchestra is cued up and you just don't feel the emotional swoon intended.
Likewise, in its various influences, Returner misses the light-hearted, who cares?, just have fun mark it should have. Instead of offering a wink and a nod to its inspiration like Army of Darkness or Versus did, Returner plays it pretty straight. So scenes that look like they were taken straight from Mission Impossible 2, Stargate, and the video game Metal Gear Solid just feel like unimaginative ripping-off instead of knowing tributes to an action influence.
Still, despite the pitfalls, it is a pretty entertaining film, just not the film it could be if director Takeshi Yamakazi let you in that he was paying his respects to his influences. But, as far as empty fantasy action goes, it is a slick and fairly enjoyable ride. The effects are pretty good- some moments like the aliens are weak, but the transforming spaceships and time slo-mo effects are impressive. Luckily the leads are charismatic enough with their heavily cliched characters. While it feels like an effort that missed the target, there is still just enough imagination, good pacing, and interesting bits to keep you entertained.
The DVD: Columbia Tristar
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. The high definition image quality is quite good and it is clear they gave the film a substantial (by Japanese standards) budget. The transfer is free of any glaring technical quirks and is quite crisp and clean. Contrast and sharpness levels are good. The only disappointing quirk is the film makers choice in processing. The entire film was clearly put through a computer and every scene has a sepia toned palette. This makes the contrast not as deep as it cold be and, obviously, inhibits the color spectrum. While it was a nice decision for many of the scenes, be they the action (tanker or oil rig) sets and the flashes of an apocalyptic future, it is a bit overboard because it is used in every scene and the movie has a drabness as a result. Some juxtaposition could have been created if some of the present day scenes had a normal color scheme- ya' know, a little blue would be nice- and the future/action settings kept the bleaker look.
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 Japanese, English, and French audio tracks with optional English, French, Spanish, or Portugese subtitles. Delivers all of the 'whizzz-pow" sci fi sound effects you'll be expecting with adequate punch and crystal clear clarity. The film has the usual techno-laced action score. The dialog is adequate but could use a little beefing up in spots where it is soft in comparison to the fx and music scoring.
Extras: Chapter Selections— Us Trailers for and .— Production Featurettes: Action Coordination (4:58). Art Direction (5:54). Visual Effects: Before and After (8:07). All very informative, if brief, the most interesting being the simple "before and After" which has a split screen showing scenes in their raw form and final fx-laden form. — Production Diary (54:08) with optional commentary by director Takeshi Yamakazi and actress Ann Suzuki. Those familiar with Asian films will recognize this feature, a basic non-narrated video diary of behind the scenes moments. The commentary adds some lighthearted observations to this basic look at the making of the film.
Conclusion: Flawed but entertaining sci fi, that should provide, at the least, a solid rental or a good late nights entertainment. The DVD delivers with some good extras, picture quality, and sound, making it worth a purchase.