Judge Adam Arseneau did review this sepia-toned kung fu sci-fi adventure, but then hopped in his Wayback Machine in order to save the future from aliens. We expect him back any day now.
The future could be history!
Blink, and you could mistake Returner for a Japanese remake of The Matrix, at least until the time traveling starts and the extra-terrestrials show up. Sexy, stylish, and sepia-toned, Returner takes a little bit from every good science fiction you have ever seen in the last twenty years, digests it, and then feeds it back to you as an over-the-top, butt-kicking, action-packed sci-fi adventure, the end result of which is uniquely Japanese, but should feel immediately familiar to science fiction fans everywhere—kind of like warm milk would feel if it wore a black trench coat and did slow-motion kung-fu kicks to the back of your head.
Facts of the Case
The year is 2084, and all is not well in the future. An alien invasion force has overtaken the planet, systematically wiping out all human life after decades of brutal conflict and war. The last human survivors have banded together in Tibet in a desperate attempt to change the course of destiny by constructing a Time Shifter in the hope of going back to change the course of history, to prevent the invasion from ever happening.
However, right before the Time Shifter is to be activated, the alien army invades the secret location and attacks. In frantic desperation, the only survivor of the attack hurls herself into the Time Shifter seconds before the aliens destroy the machine, and is plummeted backwards…
…into the modern day. The time traveler, a young woman named Milly, lands right in front of a young man named Miyamoto, a leather-clad, gun-toting martial art expert who walks a fine line between being a criminal and a superhero. Having no one else to turn to, she tries to enlist his services in saving the future, but her story is not easily believed. Desperate and having no other choice, she forcibly "persuades" Miyamoto to assist her in her quest. Together they go about trying to stop the pivotal event in history that caused the entire destruction of the Earth, a local crime lord who captures a crashed extra-terrestrial object. The only problem is, they have only 72 hours to figure out how to stop history from repeating itself again, or else humanity is doomed!
Returner is the quintessential Japanese take on a North American summer blockbuster…big, shiny, full of bullets and explosions that border on the obnoxious, a plot that borders ever-so-slightly on the vacuous and nonsensical, and most importantly, enough computer generated special effects to choke a donkey—well, at least, a virtual, computer-generated donkey, since the movie itself is rather sparse on donkeys. But all donkey-related issues aside for now, okay?
If such a film were to come out natively in North America, critics and the general public would sneer and dismiss the film as an obvious Matrix clone; on the surface, they wouldn't be far off. Clearly, Returner owes a lot to Keanu and his leather-clad fashion sense, slow-motion bullet dodging, and heady kung-fu knowledge. However, probe a bit deeper, and you begin to understand that Returner, while not being as grandiose, well written, or deep as The Matrix, has its own unique strengths and ultimately, owes more to the science-fiction genre as a whole than to any one particular film.
Like a giant blender, Returner takes elements from numerous other genres and films too numerous to name and combines them in a bizarre concoction that, at times, is almost too awkward and ridiculous to be taken seriously. It never crosses the line into absurdity, of course, but rather, dances tantalizingly close to being a complete conceptual flop, pulling off some great visual and conceptual tricks all the while kung-fu, time traveling, alien invasions, gangster violence, and fast motorcycles criss-cross in a complex, bewildering dance. We may have seen it before, but odds are, we have never seen it put together in quite such a unique way. And this makes Returner worth a look.
Columbia didn't skimp on the technical end, either. Despite an inherent graininess to the image, the high definition, anamorphic widescreen transfer of Returner looks strong and impressive. The detail is sharp and clear, and there are no artifacts or edge enhancements to be seen. Black levels can be murky at times, but overall, this is a clean, respectable transfer well worthy of the film. The sound is even better, with the original Japanese track presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, as well as English and French tracks (both in Dolby Digital 5.1), which is excellent, because you can watch either the subtitled or dubbed version and sacrifice no quality in the audio department. All three mixes sound virtually identical, save the Japanese track, in which the dialogue is mixed slightly more naturally and conservatively. The music, which alternates between the standard orchestral action movie soundtrack and a futuristic pounding electronic techno beat, sounds fantastic throughout, and the bullets and explosions travel through all five channels effectively and convincingly, with respectable bass levels. The impression of immersion is fairly detailed and well executed, though the primary action does happens in the front channels, and more could have been mixed into the rear. The subtitles are very cohesive and well written, and in comparison to the verbal liberties taken by the English dub, is probably the preferable method of comprehending the film.
Though the packaging makes absolutely no mention of it, Returner comes saddled with some interesting extra features. Three short featurettes are included, which consist respectively of interviews with the action coordinator, the art director, and a feature entitled "Visual Effects: Before and After." The latter offers a side-by-side comparison of the opening sequence, before and after special effects have been applied, so one can understand the level of manipulation applied to the film in order to achieve its visual splendor. A few trailers are also included, as well as the main feature: a production diary with optional commentary (in Japanese, subtitled for your pleasure) by director Takashi Yamazaki and star Anne Suzuki, who giggle like schoolchildren and make jokes to one another like old friends. Clocking in just under an hour, the diary goes behind-the-scenes throughout the shooting of Returner, offering some great footage and outtakes of various stages of the shoot, and the lively commentary is awfully entertaining and bound to put a smile on your face.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Nary a truly original idea emanates from Returner, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you watch your movies. Every recognizable trope of science-fiction cinema appears in this film: time traveling, kung fu fighting, long black trench coats, designer sunglasses, violence, high-speed motorcycles, massive explosions, and alien spaceships…you name it, and it's here somewhere. People questing for original ideas will feel slightly disappointed by Returner, a film that undeniably executes all of its individual elements with skill and fervor, but contributes absolutely nothing original back into the film universe it admires so.
Columbia made a good call nabbing Returner from Japan and releasing it in a dignified and complete fashion here at home. Other studios (who shall remain nameless, but whose names start with an "M" and rhyme with "irimax") can take a lesson from this DVD on how to release foreign titles in North America. You do it quickly, efficiently, and with an absolute minimum of fuss: no re-tooling, cuts, or meddling.
Returner will make fans of slow-motion bullets, time traveling, alien invasion, kung-fu fighting, and just plain old science fiction very, very happy. It will be equally as proud sitting atop your rump-kicking sci-fi action DVD collection or in your DVD drive as a rental flick. Pop the popcorn, check excess brain cells at the door, and enjoy the heck out of Returner.
Everybody wins! Court is over! Happy fun day!
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Scales of Justice
• Production Diary with Commentary by Director Takashi Yamazaki and Actress Anne Suzuki
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