Ever since James Cameron asked the eternal question, “can I get away with ripping off an episode of The Outer Limits?”, time travel movies have followed a fairly set rote; man comes back from apocalypse, finds Partner/Scientist/Chosen One/Tits McGuffin, fights things through a combination of True Guts and Slow-Motion, and saves the day/saves the future/sets up a time-paradox you can drive a lorry through. So, after picking up and reading the back of the 2002 Takashi Yamazaki directed Returner, I was expecting more of the same but with a bit of gun-fu.
I’m very happy to report that I was wrong, and that instead of a bit of lightheaded scoffery, I ended up being engaged and enjoying most of it. Okay, so it’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination; the FX don’t hold up that well, it’s about 30 minutes too long, and it’s got a small (but pleasantly formed) time paradox going on. But it’s also full of surprises in a genre that, whilst not gigantic, make it its own beast and worth a watch.
For starters, the time-traveller is Milly (played by Anne Suzuki), the realistically kick-arse trooper from the future. She’s not really what you’d call a natural warrior, but the future has been all kinds of Apocalypsing since the Daggra turned up to kill all humans, so has done what any sensible human has done and fights. Why was she sent? Well, in a change from the normal nonsense, it’s because the person who should have been on the mission died horribly and she was the only one able to make the jump through the whirling vortex of plot. A nicely handled change to things, both neither her skill set nor her gender being overly played as issues. Not bad for a film over fifteen years old.
Then there is the time-native, Miyamoto (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro, his jacket and a sneer). He’s you’re average, everyday angel of death hitman with a mysterious past and a heart of gold. Okay, maybe not that much innovation there but at least it’s a cliché from a totally different set of movies and there aren’t any excessive James Bond moments. True, he does frequently tell Milly to run whilst he faces the bad guys (headed up by Mizoguchi, played by Gorô Kishitani, his haircut and an amazing suit) but it’s pretty much because she knows how to save the world and all he can do is shoot things.
After they meet, on what would be a romantic boat trip if it wasn’t the site of a gangland massacre, there is the inevitable “bollocks! You aren’t from the future… oh, okay. Maybe you are” moment it’s off to find The Incident That Started It All and avoid The Bad Guy. Only it’s soon apparent that history got it all wrong and Milly’s mission changes, which gives the whole thing a new twist that just cranks it up above the normal fair. It’s not gigantic, but it’s fairly well hidden and that’s all that’s needed sometimes to kick a film up into the enjoyable ranks. Kill the Bad Guy doesn’t change in any way though, partly because Mizoguchi evilly does really obvious dumb things to doom mankind and partly because you just want to see him dead for his backstory and an unrelenting smug grin.
Through all of this, Milly and Miyamoto’s friendship grows and he has the great joy of being basic level pleasant to someone who’s sent the last forever living in Armageddon. This isn’t overly played, in any direction, and is a catalogue of small things that add up whilst they stay mission focused. You also get the sense that Milly feels definite survivors’ guilt over not longer being at the end of the world, and I can’t remember the last time that got shown in such a film.
Once the day is saved, and enough things have been shot at, blown up, and generally destroyed with sufficient style to make you feel like it was worth it, the ending kicks in and adds the final bit of dazzle to the whole affair. Whilst you kind of see it a mile off it manages to switch up a cliché into something new enough to make you go “ooh, that’s nice”, and, again, just adds something to the proceedings.
And that’s really the whole film: standard template, above standard execution, very pleasant and unexpected flourishes. It won’t redefine cinema for you, but it’s a pleasant ride through a bit of new but recognisable territory. Possibly too twee or cutesy for some, but then again with enough death and doom to avoid it becoming saccharine. If it had been shorter it would be classed as a classic, but it wasn’t so you’ll need to find the time and willingness to forgive some of its quieter moments in exchange for an overall heartwarming roadtrip.