FATE/STAY NIGHT UNLIMITED BLADE WORKS (15)1 Disc (Distributor: Manga Entertainment) Running time: 107 minutes approx.
A war over the Holy Grail between formidable fighters known as "Servants", controlled by humans possessing magical powers called Magi. These fighters are figures from history given a new lease of life for the sake of the war. Caught in the middle is high school boy Shiro Emiya who discovers a classmate of his, Rin Tohsaka is a Magi with a Servant called Archer. During a clash between Archer and a mammoth Servant called Berserker, Shiro inadvertently summons his own Servant, Saber (sic), who leaps to his defence, marking Shiro's official entry into the Holy Grail war.
A glib summary but fans of the 2006 anime adaptation of Fate/Stay Night (released over here by MVM in 2010) will already be familiar with the story in great detail, something this film takes for granted from the onset. For those who have gone further than the anime and have taken in the visual novels, this film takes a different route to the one in the TV series, but ultimately this is pretty much a sprint through what we already know.
Immediately alienating anyone for whom this is their first experience of the franchise, the opening ten minutes covers the key moments from first seven episodes of the TV series. Our main cast barely get a proper introduction while supporting players such as Shiro's meek school friend-cum-housemaid Sakura Matand excitable teacher Taiga Fujimura remain unidentified and indeed largely unused. There is no time for histories or backstories here as our protagonist, and the viewer, is thrown right into the thick of things. Rin exposes herself right off the bat as a powerful Magi with her servant Archer on hand to offer further support. The Russian loli Illyasviel von Einzbern shows up with her brutish servant Berserker for a scrap which is when Shiro summons Saber for the first time.
We suddenly jump from there to the school the next day where a Servant called Rider appears and beats up the kids, only to be chased away by Rin and Archer. Rider is the Servant of Shiro's mate Shinji Matwho claims she went into business for herself. But not to worry, Shinji has got himself amore powerful Servant instead. Rider, who is never seen again after this, is not the only Servant with ideas of independence as Rin is about to find out. And whose side is Lancer on?
Herein lies the major problem with Unlimited Blade Works - it is all a blur. Trying to achieve what a twenty-four episode TV series did in 106 minutes is sheer folly and something has to be sacrificed. In this case it was the story. The action literally jumps from spot to spot with little in between making little sense in the progress unless one has seen the TV show first. For instance, one of the key story developments of the TV series was Shiro learning to use his magical powers; here he goes from zero to hero in a blink of an eye, able to summon weapons from thin air and fight with them at a competent level. Another subplot from before was the inevitable but burgeoning relationship between master and servant as Shiro and Saber tease crossing the platonic boundaries of their union. No such happenings here, although it is hinted at a few times that there is a deeper, emotional connection between the two.
If you recall, Rin was an enemy of Shiro's until a midway incident lead to a truce; in this telling they are allies from the start. And if the continuity wasn't already scattered beyond belief, at one point the death of a character who hadn't been seen on screen is discussed then an hour later he suddenly shows up alive and well! If one didn't know any better they would be forgiven for thinking was a two hour plus film that had been mercilessly edited down without care or attention for things like narrative and linear storytelling. Frankly, it is amazing it even made it to release stage in this scrappy condition.
On the plus side, the visuals are astounding and those of you with Blu-ray are in for a treat. There is a sense that this was aiming to be a 3D project judging by some of the shot compositions and heavy use of depth of field. The detailed backgrounds and set pieces are given a chance to shine in their own right, while the character designs are slick and more developed than their TV counterparts. Another area in which the restriction of TV regulations is taken advantage of is in the violence, more specifically in the blood letting. The red stuff flows like water here and in great detail if you are watching in HD, with claret droplets hurtling towards the screen in slow motion during many instances of expectoration, and geysers gushing forth from vicious blade inflicted wounds.
Here comes the hard part - whether or not this is a title worthy of recommendation. I'm sure there are many hardcore fans of the Fate/Stay Night who will be aching to have this in their collection. There are the ones who are most likely to be satisfied with this release, not in the least because of the excellent HD visuals. Story wise, it is nothing they've not seen before except for the twist in the final act but not having to sit through waves of exposition means they enjoy the action from the get go. To that end this is a solidly entertaining if uneven and hastily paced affair. Newcomers will be baffled by what they see here and it is possible the action will be the saving grace for them. To them I say hunt down the original series for the true flavour of this story.
Unlimited Blade Works feels like a cynical cash-in but is a good looking one all the same. It presupposes too much to appeal to a wide audience so this is strictly for fans only.
Dolby True HD - English Language Dolby True HD - Japanese Language English Subtitles
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