Netflix's Live-Action 'Fullmetal Alchemist' Movie Is Almost Worthy of the Original
When Netflix announced that it would distribute Japanese director Fumihiko Sori’s live-action adaptation of Hiromu Arakawa’s beloved Fullmetal Alchemist property -- first a manga and, later, two separate anime series -- many anime fans felt a familiar mix of excitement and skepticism. And for good reason. Adapting animation-first material has presented a special set of challenges, and anime series are particularly tricky -- something that the filmmakers behind Ghost in the Shell and Death Note found out last year.
Right off the bat, there’s the representation issue: Anime is a Japanese art form whose characters, for a variety of reasons, often do not look Japanese, and in a Hollywood desperately in need of more diversity, this presents some casting complications. Then there’s special effects: Much of anime is packed with fantastical elements, which, when recreated with CGI, inevitably wreak havoc on a film’s budget. Fans present another problem: Anime geeks are passionate, and any deviation from source material whatsoever might be met with responses ranging between scorn and fury. And deviation, of course, is a necessity when you’re boiling down a big series into a 120-minute film.
Fullmetal Alchemist is an ambitious movie, condensing about the first third of the original series and parts of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood's final arc into a little over two hours. While it might have seemed that the film's biggest adaptation hurdle was going to be the special effects -- what with characters possessing the ability to transmute matter into pretty much anything, shoot fire from their hands, and move around in bodiless suits of metal -- in reality, the trickiest sticking point was always going to be time.
The FMA storyline, in all iterations, is... complicated. It deals with massive philosophical themes, juggling questions about the nature of truth and the existence of God, and whether consciousness without a body is enough to confirm that a person exists. It involves a civil war, factional political squabbling, a giant government conspiracy, and each of the seven deadly sins made flesh as artificial, superpowered humans called homunculi. That doesn’t even include the very complicated rules for how alchemy -- the practice of which relies primarily on the scientific (not magical) law of equivalent exchange -- works.
Thankfully, focusing on the crux of the original story is what the live-action adaptation does best. That would be of the Elric brothers, Edward and Alphonse, and their quest to repair their bodies following an attempt of using alchemy to bring their mother back from the dead -- a forbidden practice with what turns out to be an impossible goal. As a result of playing with powers they couldn’t understand or control, the brothers were sucked through a portal into another dimension, where they learn the fundamental Truth behind alchemy. For this, they paid a price: Ed lost his left leg and Al lost his entire body, and Ed was forced to sacrifice his right arm in order to keep Al’s soul tied to the material world. He did so by welding it to a giant suit of armor, which Al’s soul is able to manipulate as if it's his own body. Ed’s childhood friend, Winry, outfits him with an automail arm and leg, and he learns that he can now perform alchemy without the use of a transmutation circle, a tool typically essential to the process. He and Al begin a quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, a fabled alchemical object believed to let alchemists bypass the law of equivalent exchange, in the hopes that its powers will allow them to repair their bodies. The military soon recognizes Ed's talents and employs him as the youngest state alchemist in the history of his country, Amestris. His codename? Fullmetal. (Cue the theme music, aptly adapted from the anime for the film by Reiji Kitazato.)
The film condenses a lot of very complicated plotlines nicely, including a brutal tear-jerker of an arc that is a fan favorite despite being seemingly custom-built to make you hate humanity. The casting, in general, works: the major characters -- most important being the Elrics, Colonel Roy Mustang, and Captain Maes Hughes -- were well-cast and done justice. And decisions to conflate certain characters in order to slim down on the anime’s massive world typically worked, with General Hakuro, presented first as an ally and later as the film’s secondary villain, filling roles in a way that cut down on what would have involved a lot of infodump conversations otherwise.
The drawback is that a very complex world is distilled into something less complex but with the same DNA; as such, those who have never seen any iteration of FMA will probably be left pretty confused about how alchemy actually works, and who or what that faceless body Ed talks to when he’s sucked through the portal actually is, and where the homunculi come from and what they really want. It’s clear Sori did his best to make these things cogent, but there was no way for that to happen organically in such a short time. (As Ed would say in Brotherhood, "Sacrifices are necessary. You can't gain anything without losing something first.")
At the same time, the film did manage to effectively mirror some of the series’ dramatic pacing -- Ed’s conversations with Al and Mustang, and the time spent on anime’s trademark melodramatic philosophical meanderings, felt very true to the cartoons. And yet, it left the film feeling both too short and too long at the same time. Even in movies, the laws of equivalent exchange apply: you can’t get out any more, or any less, than what you put in.
What Fullmetal Alchemist accomplishes remarkably, though, is establishing itself both as a standalone entity and a launching point for a future potential series, thanks in part to a savvy post-credits scene. While parts of the political intrigue and Elric body quest plotlines satisfyingly wrap up, they are certainly not concluded. Even for skeptics, the possibility of the Elrics learning more about the creator of the homunculi, and the prospect of seeing Wrath, Sloth, Pride, and Greed make appearances, should be a hook in another entry for any potential franchise. As long as the film’s heart stays strong enough to overcome any obstacle.