Wednesday 7 August 2019

Movie REVIEW: Ultraman R/B the Movie: Select! The Crystal of Bond

The annual team up movie is a tokusatsu staple no matter the franchise, and since the beginning of the New Generation Hero chapter in the Ultra Series it’s very much customary for the latest Ultra warrior to crossover with their closest predecessor. 2019 was the turn of Ultraman R/B, as the cast met with that of Ultraman Geed in Ultraman R/B the Movie: Select! The Crystal of Bond. As well as acting as an epilogue to R/B itself, this movie is the final piece in the Ultra Series to be released in the Heisei era - with Tsuburaya Productions off the Reiwa era in style a few months later with Ultraman Taiga.

It’s been a year since Ayaka City was last attacked by monsters, and in this newfound peace the Minato family have continued with their daily lives. Isami is working hard at university, while Asahi is flourishing at school as she studies to become a nurse one day. Meanwhile Ushio’s store is booming, and Mio has been selected as the temporary president of Aizen Tech. Everyone seems to have found their place except Katsumi, who struggles to find his place in a world that no longer needs Ultraman.

Katsumi visits his old school friend Toi, who despite once striving to become a games creator has since become withdrawn from the world. As it turns out there’s also another force manipulating Toi - Tregear, an evil Ultraman who manipulates his victims with the promise to fulfil their dreams. When his scheming brings Riku Asakura/Ultraman Geed to the Minato’s dimension, the three Ultramen team up to defeat Tregear and save Toi from the darkness.

Ultraman R/B was a show about family, and despite all its flaws that one aspect of the series remained consistently strong throughout both its story and characters. Select! The Crystal of Bond continues this, though it puts the focus squarely on Katsumi. Unlike the rest of the family his path has never been clear to him, and not only is the film about him finding that path but also he and his brother learning to go their separate ways to pursue their own dreams. Though it may have the backdrop of alien heroes and giant monsters it’s a very personal story, and one that will be thoroughly relatable to a lot of people. Meanwhile the portrayal of Toi emphasises the sense of despair and isolation that can come from such struggles, and in typical Ultraman fashion pushes through the darkness to turn it into something more hopeful.

And while the subject matter might feel all too real to some, the film is far from dour. Ultraman R/B’s more light-hearted approach led to some of its more memorable moments being the offbeat humorous ones, and the same can certainly be said here. If the in media res opening of Rosso sticking cartoonishly out of the top of a building aren’t enough to persuade you, then the sight of the Minato brothers and Riku accidentally attempting to transform in the same place certainly will. The sight of classic kanji like Bemstar and Gan Q is always a welcome one, as are the ever loveable Pigmon. So while it will undoubtedly hit viewers of a certain age on a personal level, there’s still plenty of fun to be had as a well as an ever present love for all things Ultra.

But for many people the main draw of the film is going to be the introduction of Ultrawoman Grigio, as Asahi finally joins her brothers in the Ultra ranks. As the first female Ultra warrior to appear in well over a decade her addition was long overdue, and with Asahi undoubtedly being the heart and soul of Ultraman R/B it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving character. That said Grigio’s arrival comes at a strange point in the story, since Asahi’s character development is mostly complete by this stage which leaves her without a properly defined arc here. There’s a touching little scene she shares with Riku where they reflect upon their births and “families”, but her actual ascension to Ultra status is just an end-cap to her friendship with Saki.

Grigio’s debut could (and arguably should) have been the focus of the film but sadly her screen time is criminally minimal, not to mention anywhere near as effective or empowering as it should have been. Asahi taking up Saki’s Gyro and proclaiming protecting shouldn’t defined by gender is a great moment, her then proceeding to mostly make cutesy poses and be the team healer is less so. Not that there’s anything especially wrong with either of those things, but as such a big moment (not just for the movie but the Ultra Series in general) it would have been nice to see Grigio have her own solo moment to shine.

The film’s success on a more personal level comes at another price too, as the wider story feels considerably underdeveloped by comparison. As nice as it is to have Riku and Pega along for the ride their appearance in the film feels like one born solely out of necessity and convenience. Ultraman Geed is here solely because these films have become a crossover event, and even if you took him out of the equation the story doesn’t feel like it would be any different. The nature of the story also means Select! The Crystal of Bond lacks the weight previous Ultraman movies have carried. The X and Orb movies both had anniversary elements to give them a sense of grandeur whilst the Geed movie delved into the origins of its most popular New Generation kaiju. One could argue that Ultrawoman Grigio’s introduction ensures the film makes its mark in a similar way, but it certainly isn’t played up to that effect.

Most of these particular problems come down to the film’s obvious mishandling of Tregear. Despite his great design and personality, the film gives nothing away about this all-new evil Ultra warrior. There’s no mention of his origins or end goal, and his scheme feels more along the lines of an extended episode plot rather than something befitting of a feature length story. On the one hand the trickster-like approach to Tregear’s chaos is a welcome contrast to Belial’s apocalyptic scheming, but it results in making Tregear feel like an afterthought in his debut movie. If it wasn’t for his current appearance in Ultraman Taiga, there wouldn't really be anything to latch on here at all other than a cool design and an overwhelming (yet frustrating) sense of mystery. Given the delightfully ominous post-credits scene and you have to wonder whether Tregear was here mostly as a teaser for things to come.

The visuals are up to Tsuburaya’s usual high standards when it comes the action sequences, with plenty of large scale miniature sets gleefully smashed as the Ultras butt heads with kaiju new and old. The fight scenes also do an excellent job of showing off all the characters’ different forms and abilities, which is particularly effective in Geed’s case as his forms have a wide variety of looks and fighting styles. Since the film may also be Geed’s final appearance in any significant capacity, a full display of his powers also works nicely as a last hurrah of sorts. But Tsubuaraya excelling at suit choreography and miniature work is par for the course by now, so what’s more notable about Select! The Crystal of Bond is how it tries to push the studio’s CGI capabilities. Although an actual suit was made for Ultraman Groob (the movie-exclusive combination of Rosso, Blu and Grigio), their fight sequence with Tregear is entirely produced with CG – not only properly adding flight into the choreography but also allowing it to move at a far more exhilarating pace than suit work can manage. Budget limits in tokusatsu mean CG can often look ropey at the best of times, and though Groob’s spotlight doesn’t measure up to Tsuburaya’s physical craftsmanship it definitely feels like a step in the right direction. The CG modelling is sharp, and the frantic pacing of the fight prevents it from lingering and feeling too out of place. Overall it feels like a compliment to the physical special effects rather than a replacement of it, proving a different kind of fight scene to work as the film’s big climax.

Much like the series itself, Ultraman R/B the Movie: Select! The Crystal of Bond is a collection of good ideas surrounded by a equal number of bad ones. The more personal focus is an excellent touch and far more befitting of these characters, but results in an overarching story that poorly utilises both its crossover potential and its lead villain. That said it’s great to see Ashahi take the place in Ultraman lore she’s always deserved, and from a purely character standpoint it’s both a fitting and uplifting goodbye to the Minato family. Even though it may be the weakest of the New Generation Hero series, Ultraman R/B consistently shows off the heart and soul that makes this franchise so endearing.


M said...
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Alex said...

Yeah I’d probably say Geed, though I do have a soft spot for X as well.

M said...

Favorite New Generation Ultra ? Mine is Geed.

(Deleted by accident)

Stephen Cassat said...

Blu is my favorite design in this one.