Manga Madness: Attack on Titan Parts I & II (2015)

Attack on Titan movie poster featuring Haruma Miura and the Colossus titan.

Part 1: ***

Part 2: **½

Okay, so, Attack on Titan… isn’t great. Scenes drag, the dialogue is cringy and exposition heavy, and the characters are either too boring to care about or so positively infuriating that you actually want them to die. It is the epitome of an interesting premise squandered by amateurish writing. Well of course, I hear you say, it’s a live-action anime adaptation, what do you expect? The thing is… I was talking about the anime.

I was never going to be able to hide it so I might as well say it straight out: I am no fan of the Attack on Titan franchise, so if you are a fan of the giant (haha) hit, feel free to take this review with a pinch of salt. Or go binge season three, I don’t care.

With the disappointment of the anime series still in my mind, it was with some trepidation I came to watch these movies, both directed by Shinji Higuchi and released in 2015. After seeing some of my favourite anime turned into less-than-stellar live-action films I didn’t expect much for an adaptation of such poor source material. Thankfully, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Don’t get me wrong, these films aren’t great, but they were far from the colossal (haha) failure I was expecting. Okay, I’ll stop with the giant jokes now…

Attack on Titan takes place in a world where humans have been all but wiped out, and the remnants of mankind dwell in a huge walled community where they hide from man eating giants (the titular Titans) that roam freely outside. The films, confusingly titled either Part 1 and Part 2 or Attack on Titan and Attack on Titan: End of the World, take the same premise but heads in an overall different direction by the start of the second movie.

The films evoke the setting well. While the medieval-European influence seen in the anime is absent (a deliberate choice explained in Part 2), the sets and locations cleverly evoke the conflicting visions of the land within the walls as both a paradise and a prison. While no-one could make the series’ ‘omni-directional mobility gear’ look anything but stupid in live-action, otherwise the costume department have done a fantastic job of making the Scout Regiment’s highly stylised uniforms look believable in the films’ gritty, dystopian world.

The titans themselves don’t fare quite as well. Far from the impressive beasts they aim to be, the special titans (the Colossus, Armoured and Attack show up in these two instalments) look like animatronics you’d expect to see on a particularly impressive haunted house ride, and are far from convincing when presented next to flesh-and-blood actors. The normal titans are somewhat better, their creepy appearance and movements half making up for their less-than-seamless integration into the in-camera action. Their initial attack on the settlements inside the outer wall is probably the most impressive use of the monsters in this adaptation, and captures the fear and panic of the population perhaps more effectively than the anime. From the moment a guard is splattered with her comrade’s brains when he decides suicide by gunshot is preferable to becoming titan food, it is clear this version is not going to skimp on the brutality that is ever-present in the source material.

Part 1 focuses largely on the attempt by the Scout Regiment (Scout Corps in the manga and anime) to plug the hole in the outer wall created by the Colossus Titan years earlier. While many characters, moments, and plot points will be recognisable to those who have read the manga or watched the anime, the film takes many liberties, and its sequel presents a radical departure from the original mythology surrounding the Titans and their history. This has mixed results. In Part 1, most changes can be put down to compressing the story to fit a feature-length runtime, and mainly consist of combining or cutting characters or changing minor details such as the timing of Eren’s parents deaths, few of which have a significant effect on the story as a whole. Part 2 is where the changes can be felt more strongly, as new villains, schemes and complications are added, and it is revealed that this version of the story is set not in a fantasy world but in our own future, with the Titans being the result of human experiments that spun out of control. While perhaps blasphemous to fans, this new backstory works well when taken in isolation from the established Titan mythos, but the villains and their various nefarious schemes are less compelling, and climax in some rather generic action scenes.

With the exception of a few OTT fight scenes, the cast generally avoid the trap of mimicking anime movements and speech, their naturalistic performances allowing the films to remain grounded and tonally dark. Characterization, however, is patchy: while the first film in particular very effectively conveys the hopelessness and fear experienced by the cadets as they set off on their perilous mission, there is little to move the audience from a generalised empathy to caring for any of the characters as individuals. The three leads in particular display little personality, though having spent too many hours with their anime counterparts, it is hard not to see this as an improvement.

With each film clocking in at around 90 minutes, there is no time for the endless exposition and monologues that made the anime drag so terribly, allowing the story to keep up the pace throughout. While key differences from the source material (all approved by creator Hajime Isayama) may upset fans, this two-part adaptation retains the series’ dark tone and horror elements, telling a story that remains faithful thematically even when the plot takes radical turns. The result is an adaptation that never quite reaches the full potential of its unique premise, but nonetheless, there is much here to appreciate.

Attack on Titan Parts I and II are available now on DVD and Blu-ray.