Earth in the year 2084 is a grim place. An alien invasion has ravaged the earth. Humanity's last stand is about to take place in Tibet. In one of the last bases remaining, the human race has built a time machine. Scientists prepare to send a lone soldier back in time -- a soldier who might be able to stop the invasion before it started.
That's part of the set-up for Returner, a Japanese action sci-fi film from 2002. Slickly made and deftly cast, Returner is the most impressive action movie we've seen out of Japan in recent memory. But if the scenario above sounds a little familiar, then you've hit on the reason so many film critics savaged the movie when the import DVDs began drifting across the Pacific. Returner doesn't just riff on The Terminator. There are plenty of elements lifted from other movies as well, including Leon: The Professional, Independence Day, The Matrix, Alien, Predator, and even E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Returner's biggest ambition might just be to rip off as many other movies as possible. We don't agree, however, that such plot theft is necessarily a bad thing, as the story ideas in Returner fit together in a way that few science fiction films manage -- particularly when they involve time travel.
"Stop asking stupid questions
and bring me a Speak-n-Spell!"
In the present of 2002 we meet Miyamoto (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a gun for hire with a predilection for leather jackets and showy martial arts moves. Though a mercenary, he has a particular beef with Mizoguchi (Goro Kishitani), the Japanese point man for the Chinese mob in Japan. Years before, Mizoguchi killed one of Miyamoto's best friends, and Miyamoto still has slow motion flashbacks to the incident, so you know it was traumatic.
An unexpected showdown between Miyamoto and Mizoguchi is interrupted by the appearance of Miri (Ann Suzuki), a young girl who claims to have traveled backwards to our time. After booby-trapping Miyomoto's neck with a tiny explosive to ensure his cooperation, Miri explains that in the future she's from mankind is nearly extinct, wiped out by aliens known only as Daggra. Just as the new-fangled time portal in Tibet is being warmed up, the Daggra (who have the odd habit of disguising themselves as aircraft) attack the base. Miri ends up being the only person able to travel through time, and the only weapon she can bring back with her is a "Sonic Mover" bracelet that speeds her up twenty times relative to her surroundings. As with Jack Deth's "Long Second Watch" in Trancers, the bracelet only works a certain number of times, and she only brought one back with her. If we were going to travel back to the past from a future that has invented bracelets that can freeze time, we'd go back with sack full of the damned things.
Somebody's been watching
too much "Bionicle."
The details of Miri's mission will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen The Terminator, or even a handful of Star Trek episodes: the minds of the future posit that the alien invasion can be stopped simply by killing the first alien to arrive. We would have been disappointed if that had been all there was to it, but the screenwriter has the good sense to throw in a couple of turns, including the fact that the bug-eyed monster has already been scooped up by a government space agency.
An even larger obstacle to Miri's quest is Miyamoto's disbelief in her story -- naturally. By the time she uses her schmancy technology to convince him, the Hong Kong Triad has gotten wind of the otherworldly visitor and decides to steal its ship for themselves. One might wonder what an organized crime syndicate is going to do with a piece of technology they can't possibly figure out, but one mustn't let such trivia get in the way of a good yarn. Because the law of movie coincidences demands it, Miri, Miyamoto, and the Triad thugs eventually all end up on the same cargo ship at the same time. A traditional action blowout ensues, and the fate of the alien invasion and the bad feelings between Miyamoto and Mizoguchi are settled for once and all.
A sudden chill ran down Miri's spine
as she was sucked into an
episode of "Doctor Who."
Obviously, originality is not the point of The Returner, but it strikes us as the cinematic equivalent of the electronics industry: these filmmakers may not have invented the sci-fi thriller, but they certainly have honed it to perfection. Once the film settles into the action scenes, there is a palpable sense of excitement and creativity. The martial arts scenes are a fusion of anime stylings and the choreography of Hong Kong with Matrix style cinematography, thrown together in an exhilarating way that shouldn't work but does. The Daggra battlesuits and accompanying force fields are impressive bits of animation, and the Daggra's transforming fighters will make Macross fans smile to themselves.
Apparently there's no Olive Garden
in the future.
The only part of the movie that drags is the fifteen-minute coda that seems to exist only to remind us that yes, we're watching a movie about time travel. It is also, unfortunately, the only time that story elements don't quite fit together. In order for these last scenes to work, Miyamoto must be either colossally stupid or willfully ignorant to a crucial piece of evidence dropped earlier in the film. Another particularly sloppy point comes when the director simply cannot trust the audience to pick up on visual clues, and literally draws an arrow on screen to point out a detail. It's sad that a movie so full of good ideas loses its faith in its viewers, but these are the kinds of things that make Returner just a good movie, and not a great one.
Returner manages to pull off a kind of time travel of its own, taking viewers back to movies they have seen before. Maybe you've seen this all before. By that measure, however, they've managed to improve on history while giving the past a flavor that is uniquely Japanese. And if there's even a remote chance that means that Disney World will turn into the Miyazaki Fun Forest, you can sign us up.