I'm writing this only a few days after an announcement that a live-action Attack On Titan movie is to be produced by a Hollywood studio. It couldn't happen soon enough. There are so many things wrong with the existing live-action Attack On Titan movie that I scarcely know from what end to begin slicing this particular rotten tomato. Fans of the original material will despise it for mangling the storyline, the characters, the setting, and the significance of much of what happens. Casual viewers, if any can be found for this thing, will wrinkle their nose and drum their fingers. But the biggest problem is not that it's an inept adaptation; it's that it's an ugly, joyless, ungainly movie by any standard.
Half a Titan, or less
Titan uses the boiled bones of the original story to produce something superficially like it. Humanity came under attack by the massive, sexless Titans, was all but decimated, and retreated into relative safety behind three concentric walls. At the opening of the movie, a Titan larger than any previously seen smashes a hole in the outer wall, and a massacre ensues. Humanity creates a special squad of soldiers to kill the Titans. Our formerly diffident protagonist Eren is galvanized by the tragedy into joining up, and discovers Things Are Not What They Seem. You get the idea.
The original story did not lend itself to being compressed effectively into a movie format, and it shows. A great deal has been thrown out, telescoped, or rearranged to make things fit. Characters have the names and some of the outward attributes of their namesakes, but that's about all. They feel less like they exist to serve a function in the narrative, and more to fulfill a requirement or an expectation. Even Eren, the most pivotal character in the story, feels less like someone who things happen because of, and more someone who things simply happen to. I have to admit, this doesn't bode well for any potential re-remake, but the problems with this film are not limited to the way it clumsily adapts the source material.
Still, clumsy is as clumsy does. One of the attractions of the original Titan was its world-building. Some care and attention had been put into realizing every aspect of the setting. The movie ignores all that and provides us with an incoherent jumble of things that don't make any sense side by side — e.g., how is it that they have working gasoline-powered vehicles, but not the technology to create explosives? In the original story, we had at least some provisional explanation for how the "3D Maneuvering Gear" could exist; here, those things fall by the wayside. And while the movie does eventually spill the beans about where the Titans came from and why, it's about what you would expect, and it's not enough to make everything we went through worth it.
Director Shinji Higuchi has had a long career in anime as one of the four founding members of GAINAX, but this is far from being his first foray into live-action. He'd previously done special effects for the late 1990s version of the Gamera franchise, and directed the 2006 adaptation of the novel Japan Sinks (which I have not seen) as well as a good-but-not-great remake of Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (which I have). That makes Attack on Titan even more inexplicable, in a way; it feels like the kind of thing that comes as a first-time effort from someone graduating from the technical side of filmmaking into the director's chair.
Too many of the wrong pieces
We've had anime and manga properties adapted to live-action movies for a few decades now — some good (Rurouni Kenshin), some bad (Devilman), some mind-bogglingly terrible. Several things have become clear to me about this process over the years.
First, you cannot simply transpose action in one ream to action in another realm, item-for-item, without the risk of it looking silly — unless you want it to look silly, which is a perfectly legitimate goal on its own. A live-action movie is a live-action movie, and a manga is a manga, and an anime is an anime. They exist as separate creative modalities for a reason. Using CGI to tart up a live-action production to make it look closer to the other two just makes everything look gaudy and awful, and Higuchi and his crew didn't find a way to escape that trap here. When Eren and his buddies go zipping through space at the Titans with their maneuvering gear, it's all too obviously actors in front of a green screen. Ironically, this kind of thing can work if it's obviously all in fun, as it did sporadically with Hideaki Anno's live-action Cutey Honey production, but here it just looks cheap — the kind of cheap you don't want in a movie that is supposed to be a prestige production instead of a quirky, scrappy underdog creation.
Another is that love of the material alone does not confer upon you any particular skill in adapting it to another medium. If you're a massive fan of something, that makes it all the harder to make tough judgment calls about what stays, what goes, and how it's presented. I don't think Higuchi had contempt for the material, and that's the problem. If anything, I think he might have loved Titan a little too much, in the same way Gary Whitta's enthusiasm for AKIRA led him into blind alleys about how best to do justice to the material. Details from the original are wedged into the frame — e.g., Sasha and her mania for potatoes — but they don't add up to being anything other than spot details.
But when I go over all the things in Titan that do not work, the one thing I keep coming back to isn't exclusively an artifact of it being adapted from another medium. It's the pacing, one of the things that can kill any movie dead, no matter where it comes from or what it's been made out of. This feels like a two-and-a-half hour movie, or even a two-and-ten, that was bulked up by having all the dramatic scenes shot at half-speed and by having all the action scenes padded out to twice their needed length. Barely a sequence goes by that doesn't feel overlong or aimless or drawn out. The few that do conclude succinctly are ineptly written, or don't tell us anything we don't already know. Shots linger pointlessly. Lines are spoken and just hang in the air like someone missed their cue. The movie wastes agonizing amounts of time on things that don't add up to anything important, while things that could be addressed or expanded on are simply never touched on. When the movie churns into action mode as a supposed compensation for it, it also doesn't know when to quit. An action scene is not twice as fun for being twice as long, it's just longer. This is what I meant by the whole thing feeling like a first-timer's job. It's not just that there's no evidence Higuchi seems to understand what works in animation versus what works in live action, it's that his direction is lousy, period.
I can forgive a great deal in any project if it makes up for it in other realms. I kept hoping Attack On Titan's leaden pace and marshy storytelling would be leavened by some of the bold imagery that the manga and anime provided us with. It's there, all right — the sight of that massive, skinless Titan looming over the wall is a great moment — but without the strength of the original story to give it weight and meaning, all we have is another freeze-frame for the box art. The biggest problem with this film is not just that it's a bad adaptation. It's a bad movie, period, and there's no excuse for that.