THE Attack On Titan films are based on the ongoing manga series of the same name, which began in 2009. Attack On Titan has been hugely successful since its beginning, spawning a series of light novels as well as a live action TV series and these two films. Unfortunately, this history and popularity means that criticism of anything based on Attack On Titan tends to compare it to previous works (usually the anime or the manga).
While this is a natural response, I don’t think that it is appropriate. It’s certainly an interesting critical exercise, but I’m ultimately much more in favour of judging a work on its own merits.
However, these changes may be worth discussing; not because their existence makes the film bad, but looking at the different choices in style and tone can give us an insight into the different directions the anime and film take, as well as giving those who have seen the anime a reference point to better understand the film.
The differences between the film and the anime are apparent in the first few moments of the film, which creates a few odd sensations; we are introduced to characters familiar to those who have seen the anime, while at the same time observing a number of differences, including a fairly large change in personality of one of the characters and a number of aesthetic differences.
However, the tone and aesthetic of the film change dramatically after the end of the first act, which is fairly interesting and doubtless intentional; the bright colours and fairly open spaces of the opening are taken away with a transition of destruction and gore giving way to the darker tone and colour palette of the rest of the film, as the world the characters inhabit changes from one tinged with sadness, but with a strong layer of hope, to one of hardship, despair and loss.
The tone and visual style in the second act of the first film remains fairly consistent throughout, so it’s worth addressing; it is a difference which a number of people have commented on, which, as mentioned earlier, I think should be discussed on its own merits rather than dismissed for being different to the anime. The aesthetic is much darker and more obviously post-apocalyptic than the anime, with the world being much more grey and visually similar to a post-apocalyptic version of our own, with more advanced technology than seen in the anime (for example a form of armoured personnel carriers are used, unlike the anime where horses are a more common means of transportation).
This is most obvious, and possibly most impactful, in the earlier scenes of act two before the characters embark on the main mission they will spend this movie and the next one carrying out. These scenes occur in a military camp, separated from the rest of the community by a fence. In these scenes everything from the costume design and the makeup to the dialogue, the lighting, and the set design reinforce not only how awful the world has become, but also the position of those recruited into the military in this world. This is very different from the anime, but, as with a number of the differences, I think it works fairly well.
The tone created with these scenes in the camp becomes much more impactful as the mission begins. This is also where the film seems to have a moment of internal irregularity. The visual change between the first and second acts is important and useful, but here it seems as though that change went so far as to be an architectural change, which feels inconsistent. Rather than the fairly simple one – maybe two story buildings we see in the first act, with fairly narrow alleyways between them – in the second act we see abandoned cityscapes, with multi-story apparetement buildings. Even though this is supposed to be an area in which, until a few years ago, the same people lived, it simply doesn’t feel as if the same people lived in these buildings. Despite this moment of discord, this is where the first film really shines. There are some great moments of people wandering through abandoned cityscapes as titans burble menacingly in the background, and the titans themselves as monsters are handled really well, even if the specifics of their presentation and appearance differ from the anime.
Around this point the film transitions to being slightly more action-based, but it is handled really well, and to some degree handles things better than the anime. At this stage, the characters we follow start counter-attacking the titans to a degree. The way this works, the messages the film uses this to deliver, and the way in which this differs from the anime is really interesting.
For those that don’t know: In Attack on Titan, the way humans counter-attack titans is by using a piece of technology called either the 3D maneuver gear or the omnidirectional maneuver gear. It is worn on the hip and works by firing small grappling hooks which attach to surfaces, allowing a super to rapidly propel themselves towards whatever the hook is embedded in, combined with well-timed blasts of pressurised air which allow the user to maneuver themselves through the air to attack a titan’s weak spot.
In both the anime and the films this is an exceptionally dangerous endeavour, but is used slightly differently in each. In the anime, characters often die using the maneuver gear, usually because they get unlucky or because the titans happen to grab one of their lines, or simply crush them in mid air. These characters emphasise the power the titans have simply due to their size, and how small even humanity’s best hope against them is.
However, in the film it is slightly different; most of the characters who die to titans never actually get off the ground, and a number of those with maneuver gear never actually use it. Not only this but a character at one state explicitly says that people are allowing themselves to be held back, and one must use the maneuver gear without fear. So in the film, the maneuver gear is not used to emphasise the danger posed by the titans, but to show the danger posed by fear. While this change works with the more horror-based and bleaker outlook of the film, it doesn’t quite fit with the end of the film and the second installment. However, it does go some way to making something that happens in the second film make more sense.
The climax of the first film is…. honestly not as good as the rest of it. It is fairly spectacular, and certainly does its job as a climax, but a few things about it are less than super. One problem is that certain titans (and those familiar with the anime will know what I’m referring to) not only look different to other titans, but have an almost totally different visual style, which is a bit strange. Also, the humanoid nature of titans means that some of the fights at the end look a little strange when titans are interacting with titans, rather than normal sized people.
There’s also a bit of thematic dissonance at the end: because of the emphasis on overcoming fear earlier in the film, it falls a bit flat when the cause of victory in the end is massive boost in power, meaning they no longer have a reason to fear. I suppose this can be justified in terms of giving up one’s internal limits, but spending most of the film talking about how fear causing us to seek security is the enemy, and then having the cause of victory being a massive increase in power meaning they no longer have a reason to fear, and are now secure, seems to be a bit dissonant.
The second film is where things go dramatically downhill. I thought the first one was a good film that did a lot of interesting things really well. However, the second film decides to throw out all of the interesting changes in tone and nice horror movie bits in favour of far less interesting action scenes, against two characters who had previously been interesting in the first movie but who, in the second movie, become over-the-top totally insane Saturday morning cartoon villains.
This dramatic change in tone is evident from the end of the first scene, in which a titan drops from the ceiling to flatten a principal antagonist. From there the movie rapidly descends into meaningless action which isn’t even particularly well done, with every character involved losing any subtlety or nuance that they may have had in the first movie, becoming unpleasant caricatures of themselves.
It should be noted that this isn’t a bad movie because it diverges significantly from the anime (which it does), it is a bad movie because it manages to not only be totally inconsistent in tone, style and content with the first movie, but also inconsistent within itself. In the first half hour of the film, there is a scene which feels as though it is a dream sequence from a different, better version of itself. Instead this scene is treated as being totally real, despite the surreal, randomly appearing and disappearing props, awkward tilted camera angles usually used in dream sequences, and the floor randomly becoming covered in sand, which is never explained.
Despite my description of the tone as leaning heavily towards cartoonish action, the film really only has two action scenes. However, the film is so short – and the rest of it so bland – that it feels as though these action scenes dominate most of the movie. This wouldn’t be so awful – after all, some very good films are after all dominated by a few action scenes – if the nature and quality of the scenes didn’t make them seem like an utter waste of film. These scenes feature fights between titans which, despite the high quality of the normal titans in the first film, are done with an art style that seems as though it escaped from an episode of Power Rangers, which is totally inconsistent with the tone of the first film, and with the aesthetic style used in all other situations in both films.
These scenes, which also feature the transformation of fairly interesting characters into nonsensical hyper-villains, and otherwise normal characters engaging in nonsensical feats of strength and endurance (contrasting heavily with the tone of the first film, which went out of its way to show the fragility of regular humans) are successful only in transforming the second film into a near-incomprehensible mire of nonsense.
Which leads us to the final question: should you see Attack On Titan, parts one and two? Well, I would say definitely see part one, as it does a lot of things right and is a pretty great take on the source material. I’d say probably give part two a miss though, unless that particular style of over-the-top action is your cup of tea.