If you’ve seen anything at all about the live-action Fullmetal Alchemist film, it’s probably been negative. This isn’t exactly unexpected – there’s always natural suspicion with a live-action remake, half because it comes across as a callous cash-grab, and half because some things just look nightmarish in reality. Nevertheless, 28% on Rotten Tomatoes is pretty damning. So is it really all that bad?
The problem is, if – like me – you unanimously agreed FMA was the best series to ever grace the screen and then proceeded not to watch it for several years, you may find yourself slightly shaky on the original details. As such, watching Netflix’s rough-and-ready 2hr 15 version feels roughly akin to playing whack-a-mole with your memories. Did Ed ever beat up Al? Did Roy shoot Hughes? Was there… hypnosis? A massive stone face? Did that person just die? And who is this guy, nominally Roy’s boss, who is introduced like a long-lost friend but just has me shouting ‘Who?’ at the screen? Have we seen him before? Is it all original content?
In fairness, it’s easy to justify most of the narrative decisions the FMA movie makes – it is nigh impossible to fit 27 volumes of manga into a feature-length film. But just like a homunculus, the experience still ends up a shadow of what it used to be. FMA has been consistently praised for its character-building, its complexity, and its morality. I’m actually fairly impressed on that last front – the ending, while rushed and incomplete, captures the moral of FMA better than the original anime ever did, and there are passes at scientific and military ethics, transient as they are. Unfortunately, without characters we care about to link these messages to, everything feels like it’s floating.
Meanwhile, aside from a drawn-out initial fight scene, it feels like significant events are passed by in rote. There are just three sins, characters get picked off early, there’s no Scar, Mei, Ling or Hohenheim – hell, no Armstrong. This FMA passes, necessarily, from A to B in incredibly pared-back form. There’s no time to build up relationships – it’s all tell, no show.
Which is a shame, because one of the positives of the live action form is that the visual effects are – by and large – pretty stunning. I am not talking about the cosplay wigs. I am talking about walls of stone growing out of the ground. In places it would have been very, very easy to go wrong – the chimera scene, for starters, or Al’s armoured body – the film consistently nails it. For a lot of people, that’s going to be enough. But then you have Al flying away on a floorboard at what’s supposed to be the emotional crux of the film, and it shatters that illusion slightly.
Look, there’s quite a significant problem, and that’s the acting. When the film does attempt to replicate lines of dialogue, it comes across as melodrama. You’re not meant to be laughing at [insert scene which cost him an arm and a leg], or Roy bluntly telling Ed to ‘stop being miserable’ while sitting on the steps in the rain – you’re meant to be horrified. Unfortunately, unless you’re a better person than me, you probably are. In the switch from anime to live-action, some things just don’t transmute.
But at the end of the day: do we care? The thing with live-action anime adaptations is that I’m never sure which audience they’re playing for. Anyone who hasn’t seen the series will be frantically scouring the Wikipedia page – anyone who has is going in fully expecting a bitch-fest. So are we all watching it for the memes? Perhaps. Does it deliver? Absolutely.
Katie Knight (@codaevermore) is a Classics grad and librarian working in the UK. She spent her first lockdown discovering the Death Note Musical. She’s spending her second lockdown trying to catch up on 5 years of One Piece (before its 1000th chapter).