Despite the attachment of any major players creatively, King Of Thorn (2010) still promised to be an intriguing, straight up sci-fi horror romp. It had received considerable praise from a number of critical outlets I usually respect. I was optimistic.
King Of Thorn was also, like an overwhelming number of anime, based upon a manga by Yuji Iwahara. The manga ran from 2002-2005. Though I have not read the manga the film allegedly takes considerable liberties with it and alters the ending.
Generally speaking the creature feature and overall monsters-on-the-loose concept works for me. Simple stories that don't tax the brain but entertain are certainly acceptable from time to time. And the unnecessary taxing of the brain is likely where King Of Thorn pricks a bit. Leviathan (1989), Deep Rising (1998), and others have served as passable monster romps for me in the past. In recent memory, The Last Days On Mars (2013) and The Colony (2013) disappointed.
In anime, there are plenty of stand alone science fiction mecha-based films to be sure, but not many science fiction horror fusions in the vein of the near perfect live action film Event Horizon (1997), one that straddles the sci-fi horror line so seamlessly that a thing of beauty is created. King Of Thorn had that potential.
Sadly, King Of Thorn was the first anime film in some time to let me down. It simply didn't grow on me. I'm generally a good predictor of these things, but King Of Thorn deceived me. It ultimately lacked the necessary tension and conviction required to live in its world.
Instead of luring me into its mythology, its science fiction elements were rather confounding at times. These components were so preposterous and even convoluted that the film devolved into something I was eager to finish. King Of Thorn disengaged me and became a thoroughly disconnected experience. Suspending the unbelievable is one thing but you're granted only so many buys per film before the writing begins to work against itself. You have to play within your own rules and within your own world. The Matrix (1999) was certainly complex but it was also comprehensible.
Like the traditional genre fare of science fiction like Split Second (1992) with Rutger Hauer we have certain expectations for these pictures, and they are generally lowered, but when these conventions fall flat the experience becomes a mere blip on the radar screen - forgettable and disappointing. King Of Thorn falls squarely into this category for me along with the films mentioned earlier like The Last Days Of Mars. You want your time back.
The effort, too, put into the digital animation by director Kazuyoshi Katayama is very good, but not extraordinary as some might suggest, but solid enough. I'm never entirely convinced by the digital work applied to anime today. It's hit or miss in its effectiveness. Knights Of Sidonia (2014) is perhaps one series where it effectively implements 3D digital effects animation with the more traditional 2D animation. It works for me.
Character designs for King Of Thorn, by Hidenori Matsubara, and excellent monster designs, by Kenji Andou, are all generally exceptional, despite the archetypes, and yet they are all for naught set within a clichéd script with sometime dubious dialogue, at times even silly, co-written by the director and Hiroshi Yamaguchi, both of course not affiliated with the manga.
The story centers on selected individuals who have been slated for an experimental suspended animation program to escape a present day, lethal virus dubbed Medusa (Medousa). It alludes to the stone-inducing sight of the Gorgon Medusa from Greek mythology. When they awaken, a la Pandorum (2009), a much better film working with such conventions the year previous, those chosen to live are forced to survive. A small band of human survivors makes every effort to work together and make sense of their given circumstances. We do too. Good luck! Only King Of Thorn lacks the kind of intensity that filled the cavernous spaceship of Pandorum. King Of Thorn is set on Earth in a castle covered in thorns that becomes a great winged creature. Come on! I can believe a lot of crazy anime stuff, teenagers turned monstrous in Akira, Angels (and not the kind you're thinking of) turned into Mecha in Neon Genesis Evangelion, even The Island Of Dr. Moreau-like world of Blue Submarine No.6, and all of that sounds pretty preposterous. But yes, I'm in. I'm sold when it's done effectively. But King Of Thorn fails to sell its earthbound tale for this avid sci-fi fan.
Even Resident Evil (2002), of which King Of Thorn sometimes resembles with its artificial intelligence system, ironically named Alice (the character in the 2002 film), was far more successful as a straight up horror sci-fi number set inside an underground, castle-like facility built by the Umbrella Corporation. King Of Thorn echoes or offers some of these familiar conceits and ideas realized better elsewhere.
There are a few interesting sequences. There is a great use of color. The Alien-esque world within the castle is even cool if a bit suspect, and even illogical, but King Of Thorn is a bit too convoluted and left me suspicious and making faces at it. The story attempts to be overly complex when perhaps a simple idea might have made for a more gripping affair and gone a lot further. Perhaps a film like Matango is a good example of keeping the ingredients simple and focused. Suspending disbelief is important, but with King Of Thorn it's just impossible.
I don't want to dog what is a fairly strong artistic effort here and some science fiction aficionados will be much more forgiving. Case in point for those who want to give it a shot. Blu-Ray.com, which I adore, loved it despite a number of (cough) thorny issues which they submit. This would be one occasion I would disagree. It's far too thorny a bush. It is not nearly as fascinating or as exciting as their review would suggest. It's confusing and sometimes a downright bore of nonsense that just doesn't add up in logic.
Sunrise Studios, the animation studio behind it, has delivered some stellar work through the years including Space Battleship Yamato (1974-1975), the Gundam franchise, Patlabor: The New Files (1990-1992), Cowboy Bebop (1998-1999), Witch Hunter Robin (2002), Freedom Project (2006-2008) and films for Cowboy Bebop (2001) and Steamboy (2004). This is just to name a few of the many projects with the Sunrise stamp alongside recent outstanding affairs like Katsuhiro Otomo's Short Peace (2013) and the stellar Space Battleship Yamato 2199 (2013). Certainly King Of Thorn is a solid animation effort to add to the plethora of works by the studio, but it simply doesn't meet the scriptwriting standard for a great film or even a good film. It would rank among the more disappointing works I've seen in recent memory. I was even annoyed watching the film at times. I wish I could tell you definitively this was one worth discovering. King Of Thorn merely reinforced why I so often defer to the anime auteurs of the genre for works of excellence. King Of Thorn wasn't one those films despite its visual strengths. Looks can be deceiving. For me, this film was one thorn painfully in my side. Though I may have to reevaluate one day, for now, I cannot recommend this film. Perhaps you won't find it quite as crazy.