Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Overlook Theatre Reviews: King of Thorn

4 of 7 viewers "Liked" "King of Thorn" (2009, Japan)
Creature reviews have been minimally altered in an attempt to maintain their voice:

Lord Battle - "I love animation. I enjoy specific anime. I always thought this was because I mostly dislike the Betty Boop inspired style or the high energy drama of the Japanese. After watching King of Thorn I realized exactly why I dislike most anime: its the narrative tropes. Visual tropes like a casual shot from beneath a skirt, a teardrop embodying embarrassment, or the blunt and racist depiction of people from different countries with an execution that would make Ralph Bakshi blush is fine (I actually enjoy these as they appear in even the most absurd situations, i.e. in space, medieval fantasy), but when King of Thorn drops its horror/mystery atmosphere two thirds in and becomes an emotionally charged metaphor about the strength of family... it completely loses me. I still don't understand why Japan likes retelling the same story over and over but insists that its characters come packaged for a specific genre and armed with a new mascot. I should say the first two acts are captivating and atmospheric, a great set up for what could have been a strong Scifi/Horror anime." - 2.5 Stars

The Berkeley Blazer - "King of Thorn has some spectacularly brutal moments, some majestic visuals, and brilliantly crafted set pieces. While it can feel gimmicky in how it sets these moments up, I never felt like getting off the ride. The reason I can’t go for the full 4 stars is the story and pacing start to become muddled, like they tried to fit too much in and I did nod off a little at one point when they started getting into “here’s random nouns to explain stuff” territory. Nonetheless, if you enjoy horror anime this one is worth a look. The manga might be the best way to digest this story if you’re really looking to be invested." - 3.5 Stars

Math Mage - "I remembered liking this movie a lot more, but that was 6 years ago. Perhaps my standards have changed." - 3.5 Stars

Wandering Panda - "King of Thorn had so much potential and I had a lot of fun watching it but the final act started feeling like Inception and became hard to follow." - 3 Stars

Matte Black Cat - "Well... It definitely brought the thorns." - 3 Stars

Huntress -  Fell Asleep - Default 2 Stars

Eddie the Gamer Ghoul - Fell Asleep - Default 2 Stars

The Overlook Theatre Final Rating*
(Below is for after you've seen the film)

All stories need conflict, it can take many forms but there has to be some element of struggle or there won’t be anything to talk about. Most stories take a decidedly humanistic approach to this; bad things happen because bad people cause them. Even stories where the conflict centers on some disaster usually have a villain; someone whose negligence or malice caused or exacerbated the disaster in the first place, or someone whose greed or cowardice makes a bad situation worse. King of Thorn* inverts this trope to great effect. 

The starting point of our story is after a disease appears that turns people into stone. The transformation is sudden and there are no other symptoms during the incubation period, which can be days, weeks or months. As is also explained via news clips during the opening credits (remember this technique for later) a test to find infected people is quickly found; but there is no treatment and no information about how it spreads. The terror of an incurable fatal disease with an unknown transmission method, and a wildly inconsistent incubation period inspires some questionable decisions. 

An ominously named pharmaceutical company offers to freeze victims of the disease until a cure is found, “reassuring” everyone that the process is overseen by an AI with one red eye that can control dreams (because this is a technology that exists, apparently). An unspecified branch of government suspects the company of creating the disease and sends spies to infiltrate the creepy castle where the freezing will take place. And here’s where that inversion begins; the government doesn’t have any evidence supporting their theory. It just seems natural that this suspicious company is responsible, and somebody has to be responsible. Even better, since the company is obviously responsible, they must have a vaccine or cure. So this government sends in commandos to attack a private, humanitarian institution and they’re completely justified in doing so. They have to obtain the cure this clearly evil organization is holding back, because if they don’t then the government will have to admit it’s powerless against the disease. 

In most films that attitude would be vindicated by the government's assumptions being correct; in this case they are not. The company does know more than they’re saying (or at least they think they do), but the disease is a more or less natural phenomena. There’s no grand conspiracy, no mad scientist, no alien intelligence. It’s just a virus, and the inability of those involved to accept that leads to a tragedy of errors. 

The commando attack (because spies weren’t enough) interrupts an arcane ritual, causing monsters. Late in the film, there is an extended sequence where the pharmaceutical company's president explains the plot. In a manner that provides too much information and yet also not enough, he explains the disease is from space, it brings dreams to life (sort of), also evolution. Maybe, and little girl’s dreams are the cure or something. My tone becomes sarcastic here because of the organic presentation of information at the beginning of the film is at odds with this scene telling you what the movie is about. This is especially problematic because of who’s giving us this info. We believe him because we see events in flashbacks, but we have no evidence that his conclusions are correct. He’s adamant that the interrupted ritual would have helped but is unclear how. It may have just been making things worse. 

Rather than having an unreliable character just tell us the plot 90 minutes in, a more organic method of storytelling should have been used. Like log files perhaps, that we could read at our leisure as we play. Because this movie is totally a video game. 

For all the praise it deserves for subverting tropes, King of Thorn is a survival horror game. After that cut scene like intro, it’s easy to imagine the (already too long) runtime being padded with another 8-15 hours of key hunting, ammo conserving, escort questing, backtracking game play. Insert an hour or two more between the fake climax and the final boss fight(s), stick on some tank controls and you’ve got yourself a game. With that extra space the creators might find time to be subtle, instead of wasting good mysteries by having everything explained. (“You’re a traitor because of your necklace!” not because you’re suspiciously well informed, or wearing the wrong pants or wearing a bloody shirt but there’s no blood on your face or generally being suspicious). 

In all: King of Thorn* is a video-gamey, survival-horror style location-based action-drama with too many good ideas and poor execution. A film based on mysteries that can’t think of a way to resolve them except by having characters explain them. And an animated gore-fest where (due to poor CG) the various horrors are more believable and often less scary than the clumsy marionettes that are our human characters.

*the asterisk is for every time I wrote King of Thorns instead

-Math Mage

The Overlook Theatre materialized in a residence for a screening on 5/10/2018
*Based on the star ratings turned in by character reviewers, others viewed and got to "Dislike" or "Like" but that does not affect the rating.

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