Judge Joel Pearce thinks this apocalyptic anime would've been better if its ending involved Mel Gibson, the bad guy, a pair of handcuffs, a hacksaw, and a car on the verge of exploding.
When the world ends, what will you do?
Every now and then a film works that should, by all logical measures, fail completely. Dragonhead is one of these. It has a flawed premise and a handful of other serious problems. It's a beautiful film, though, with moments that stayed with me long after the credits rolled. It's not a masterpiece by any stretch, but it's a nice departure from, well, everything else. I just don't ever want to go back again.
Facts of the Case
Teru (Satoshi Tsumabuki, Sabu) wakes up after his train crashed in a tunnel. He finds himself surrounded by his dead classmates, and the tunnel has completely collapsed. He soon realizes he is not completely alone. Two other students have also survived the crash. Nobuo (Takayuki Yamada) has gone completely insane in the crash, sick of being bullied for so long by his classmates. Ako (Sayaka) is unsure who to trust, but mostly just wants to escape Nobuo's violent revenge.
Although Teru and Ako believe that they will be rescued if they just wait long enough, Nobuo belives he saw a strange red flash just before the train crashed. He is convinced that the world is destroyed, that they are the only three that have survived. After a fight, Teru and Ako escape from the collapsed tunnel through a tube that leads into the world above, although neither of them know what to expect once they reach the surface.
Just trying to describe Dragonhead is a challenge. It's almost like a blend between Mad Max, Apocalypse Now, and Lord of the Flies. The setting is both desolate and beautiful, a post-nuclear wasteland of floating ash, shattered cities, and glowing red light. The cinematography creates a landscape of loneliness and desperation, which brilliantly sets the tone of the film. Like Apocalypse Now, this movie is an exploration of madness. It begins with the breakdown of its hero, who is then taken on a journey into further insanity. As Dragonhead continues, it becomes increasingly surreal and bizarre. Taru and Ako meet soldiers, orphaned children, and gangs of barbaric killers. Although their journey doesn't lead them towards a Kurtz-like revelation of the truth, the insanity is the same. Like Lord of the Flies, it also explores the thin layer of civilization that keeps us from reverting to savage violence. It only takes one major catastrophe to turn us into violent, roaming gangs. Given the recent experiences of 9/11, the Tsunami in Asia, and the hurricane in New Orleans, Dragonhead is a timely film. Its suggestion that we are lulled into complacency and civilization through simple tricks and pleasures is a frightening one, but one that does hold some water.
The movie looks fantastic, too. Although Dragonhead uses a lot of CGI, it rarely looks cheesy or fake. From the grimy, grainy tunnel of the beginning to the vast gray post-apocalyptic wasteland, every frame of the film is beautifully drawn and perfectly assembled. Color schemes have been used to distinguish between settings, and the scope of the film is jaw-dropping at times. The video transfer from Media Blasters captures the images perfectly with an exquisite panorama-friendly 2.35:1 transfer. I've often been disappointed with their video transfers in the past, but there is nothing to complain about here. Because of the detail and motion, it must have been a film to transfer to DVD, but they have done a fine job.
The sound design is also fantastic, with rich Dolby 5.1 sound transfers in both Japanese and English. The music fills the room, and your subwoofer will get a good workout. The surround channels aren't handled in an especially subtle way, but the creators have made great use of the whole sound stage. The dub is not as strong as the original language track, thanks to some lackluster and poorly timed performances.
There are a number of extras on the second disc of the set. First up is a reel of production footage, which unfortunately comes in the form of raw film footage. I would love to see some of the post-production work for Dragonhead, how they went from that raw footage to the stunning scenery of the finished product. There are also some interviews with the three key actors on set. It's not especially deep, but they seem to be having fun. Also included are several trailers and some B-roll footage that was eventually pulled from the film. A photo gallery and a shooting diary round out the second disc. The diary, recounting the experience of shooting in Uzbekistan, is just a truncated version of the production reel.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, the production of Dragonhead is also riddled with major flaws. Although it is a fascinating and beautiful film, the biggest flaw is the lousy pacing. Some sequences last forever, and the exciting moments are too few and far between. The entire film feels stilted, as though it hasn't been adapted enough from the original manga series. There are a few too many scenes that just end by fading to black then picking up in the next episode of the film. A tighter, more logical screenplay would have turned this into a cult classic. Ultimately, this film is just too dull to watch multiple times and show to groups of friends.
The other serious problem is the acting. I complained about Satoshi Tsumabuki's whiny performance in my review of Sabu, and his work here isn't any better. Teru spends half the film stumbling around like an idiot, and the other half whining. Sayaka whines and moans as Ako stumbles through the ash-filled landscape. Many of the characters they meet aren't nearly as quirky as they should be, instead just coming off as the victims of amateurish voice talent. These bad performances often detract from the stark reality presented by the visuals.
Neither of these flaws destroy the film completely, but they prevent it from being everything it could have been. Post-apocalyptic visions on film have always been rare, and its a theme that has so much potential.
If you enjoy trying something different, Dragonhead is certainly worth a rental. It's one of the most visually stunning films of the past few years, and it covers concepts that few films attempt. I can't really advise a purchase, though, as I doubt many people will have the patience to sit through it multiple times.
Dragonhead is found guilty of promising too much.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Media Blasters
• Production Featurette
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