Returner (2002)
Nicholas Driscoll
January 23, 2008
Note: review may contain spoilers

Since returning to America from my extended stint in Japan, I haven't written any movie reviews. I've been meaning to get back to them, but I wasn't sure what movie to start with. Then I realized the answer was right in front of me. What movie review should I write after making my illustrious return? Why, Returner, of course!

Returner is a movie that I have been wanting to view even before I went to Japan almost three years ago. The trailer showed many of my favorite elements of the movie going experience. Ludicrous over-the-top gun battles and pseudo kung fu? Check! Aliens in awesome battle armor? Check! Things that go boom? Check! Giant robots that are hidden in human vehicles? Che… Well, no, they're actually alien spaceships, but it's still pretty sweet. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The story begins with a bewildering firefight between a bunch of humans and some super-soldiers that look like cybernetic crosses between the xenomorphs from Alien and Predators from… Predator. We are briefly introduced to the super-mega-adorable Milli (Anne Suzuki, Snow Falling on Cedars) as she must go back in time in a desperate attempt to destroy the alien that first started this terrible war…

After the front credits roll and we get the dramatic title card, the story switches to the present, which isn't much more pleasant. On a cargo ship in a bay off Japan, a very sinister deal is afoot. Mizoguchi (Goro Kishitani of One Missed Call [2004]), a member of an extremely powerful Triad gang syndicate from China, is inspecting a shipment of young children that will be harvested for their organs. Just to make sure that the audience understands that Mizoguchi is very evil, he shoots one of the children to make them shut up. Thankfully for the children (and for the more squeamish audience members), our hero Miyamoto (Takeshi Kaneshiro, House of Flying Daggers), all decked out in his Matrix costume, comes and kills with great style and aplomb, managing to take out almost all the gangsters—except Mizoguchi, the one he wants to kill most. He has a vendetta against the man, and a bad habit of letting him slip through his fingers. At the critical moment when Miyamoto is about to ice Mizoguchi, Milli, who has just arrived via a Terminator-esque glowing ball, makes a noise and takes the bullet meant for Mizoguchi, who takes the opportunity to escape.

As it turns out, Milli is fine—she has futuristic armor that kept her safe. She blackmails Miyamoto into helping her find the "Daggra"—a mysterious and destructive alien force that will apparently be starting an apocalyptic war in just a few days. The Daggra crash-landed on a nearby mountain, and Milli will do anything to find and destroy it. Unfortunately, Mizoguchi is on the same trail—only he wants the Daggra and its craft because of its incredible destructive power. As Milli and Miyamoto match wits with Mizoguchi and his monstrous machinations, the future of all humankind hangs in the balance—and, as is often the case in these alien action extravaganzas, the Daggra is not all that it appears to be…

The story of Returner is fast-paced and filled with a slapdash of ludicrousness. Much like how Japan is famed for borrowing bits and pieces of culture and technology from other nations and remaking them for their own use, similarly Returner borrows heavily from western movies—some of which had also borrowed heavily from Japanese pop culture in the first place. It's an advanced form of entertainment recycling, and if recycling movie plot elements saved the trees, Returner just saved an entire forest. From the transforming alien spacecraft ala the Japanese Transformers; to the Matrix-style fashions, action sequences and bullet-dodging; to the Terminator-derived time-travel plot; to the alien and spacecraft designs yanked from ID4 (including the "aliens-using-people-as-mouthpieces" ploy), Returner is a gleeful potluck of sci-fi standbys that, while sometimes leaning heavily on uninspired derivation rather than inspired borrowing, is nevertheless, in my opinion, very fun and even exciting at times. The movie doesn't include an original thought in its head, but for all that it remains enjoyable in a dumb way.

And it is dumb, no question. Plot holes open up almost as big as some of the explosions (like why it is that Mizoguchi can dodge bullets half the time), and some plot elements simply aren't explained at all, perhaps in the hopes that we won't ask any questions. The characterizations aren't particularly deep, either—Goro Kishitani's Mizoguchi especially is comical in his shallowness. He isn't human, he's just a cocky, violent sadist who kills unthinkingly and only wants power. There is really nothing to his character, though Kishitani is kind of fun in the role. Kaneshiro as Miyamoto comes off better, despite his critically clichéd character. In my estimation, he is fun to watch and injects a little life into the warmed-over angst-filled hero. Suzuki's Milli is the standout, however—her acting swings from solid to stuck-up teenage grating, but she is a likable actress that improves the material by her presence. Miyamoto's cranky informant, as portrayed by Kirin Kiki (who was also Momoko's lovably insane grandmother in Kamikaze Girls [2004]), is the other standout, giving us a selfish, orally-fixated consumeristic lady with the proverbial heart of gold—it's just that her heart is usually outranked by her stomach.

A word must be said, however, about the numerous Caucasian "actors" who populate the scenes of the future, in a time wherein all the remaining humans are holed up in Tibet. For whatever reason, they all speak English, and none of them can act. It literally seems like Toho just rounded up the local English teachers in the area, threw some costumes on them, and told them to have at it, with predictably cheesy results. Anne Suzuki has to speak English in these parts, and she doesn't come off much better—her English, while understandable, isn't good. However, at least it looks like she's acting in the midst of all the special effects warfare.

Concerning those special effects, they're pretty good for a Japanese feature. Some of the CGI work is about the level of a Sci-Fi original production, but occasionally it transcends its cheap roots and looks respectably awesome. The aforementioned transforming spaceships look fairly impressive, as do some scenes of destruction. The animated aliens, though, fail to impress most of the time. Pyrotechnics are a mixed bag as well, and the real explosions come off much better than the computer generated ones.

A word of warning—Returner is rather bloody, and sometimes it can be jarring. There are numerous gouts of blood during the gunfights in the present timeline, and one of the future battles actually features people getting blasted in half. This, in addition to the grimly disturbing child murder and body harvesting theme, makes Returner surprisingly grim for its often breezy presentation. Because of this, the film sometimes comes across as uneven.

Music, much like the rest of the film, is a smorgasbord, from surprisingly understated orchestral movements to pulsing electronica beats to sappy piano pieces. Most of the time it underscores the action fairly well, but it never makes much of an impression.

Returner is rarely a surprise. It delivers what it came to do, and not an iota more—but it has a good time while it's at it. What's most surprising about the film is that the writer/director, Takashi Yamazaki, later went on the make the delightful (and very sentimental) Always: Sunset on Third Street (2005) and its sequel. But, from Returner's perspective, that's looking into the future—and, if you're open to a little grimness with your cheesy action, that future will hopefully find a Returner DVD in your player. If nothing else, it is a wonderful testament to Yamazaki's range.