I’ve no doubt that there’s a story somewhere buried in the heart of KING OF THORN, but I have to wonder if the unsatisfying end result of this production isn’t due in large part to the problems of adapting a larger work: as I understand, it’s based on a manga that might be quite good (there are certainly some wonderfully exotic elements given cursory exploration here), but there’s no way to know based on the film. What starts out as a cautionary tale about contagion and survival descends in its later half into a curious misfire, almost as entangled as the vines featured so prominently on the product packaging.
Somehow, mankind is slowly being driven to the brink of extinction by the Medousa Virus, a lethal plague that (you guessed it!) turns people into stone. Before life itself comes to an end, a mysterious corporation concocts a grand scheme: select 160 virus-free participants to be cryogenically frozen and placed in stasis until such a time that a cure is developed, at which point they could be ‘thawed’ and given the task of repopulating the planet. While the selection criteria remain a bit nebulous, the plan is launched, and young Kasumi (but not her twin sister, Shizuku) is chosen. The computer program running the facility promises to wake everyone up in 100 years OR whenever a cure is assured (whichever comes first), but, to the participants surprise, they are re-activated after only a scant three days! The processing center has been overrun by massive, serpentine plants and man-eating dinosaurs.
Their new mission: save themselves in time to figure out what went wrong?
Certainly, it’s an interesting premise, one that veers into some reasonably creative territory very quickly if not all a little too perfunctorily. There are shades of greater influences here – THE MATRIX, JURASSIC PARK, TRON, etc. – all whipped up into the narrative frenzy. It’s all backed with some great themes – the risk of survival, the loss of family and loved ones – but, sadly, the first hour only sticks to a marketable formula. Eventually, the high-tech facility becomes a decidedly low-tech castle, and our participants discover they’re not so much racing to prevent the extinction of man so much as they are trying to master some vivid video game brought to life by powers much more ‘magical’ than they are ‘scientific.’
That said, I’m comfortable admitting that, had the writers and animated stuck hard and fast to the more scientific elements of KING OF THORN, they might’ve had a winner here. It’s the risk of tinkering with adaptations – losing some of the author’s message in favor of presenting the entirety of the work – that bubbles to the surface here and tears the film in half. The latter half is repeatedly plagued by dreams and, then (even worse), dreams within dreams; from a stylistic standpoint alone, it’s hard to tell where each characters’ story begins and someone else’s ends. Moments that should’ve been revelatory end up being vastly more confusing due to the finished product. It isn’t until the ultimate ending that, as a viewer, you’re assured of what you just saw. While that may work for an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone,’ it all feels loose, forced, and inadequate here.
KING OF THORN isn’t a total disappointment. Instead, it feels rushed and insignificant. I can only hope that manga on which it was based makes more sense.
KING OF THORN was produced by Bandai Visual Company, Sunrise, Enterbrain Inc., Dentsu, Kadokawa Pictures, Sony PCL, and TV Tokyo. DVD distribution is being handled by Funimation. It all looks and sounds pretty solid – I did experience some audio distortion in the second half that required me to turn up the levels a bit, but it was a minor inconvenience. The DVD comes with a handful of extras, including some press briefings, a director interview, and the usual assortment of trailers and TV spots. I didn’t explore them, mostly because I found the film unsatisfying, but they’re there for the interested audience.
RECOMMENDED only for serious fans of anime and/or manga as there’s really very little else here that would make sense to the average viewer. Some clever animation and storytelling trickery just isn’t enough – or strong enough – to elevate KING OF THORN to a respectable adaptation. The last forty minutes becomes largely coherent – that is, until the ultimate ‘reveal’ is revealed – making the viewing experience mostly an exercise in frustration. What starts out feeling an awful lot like ALIENS ends up feeling so ‘alien’ itself that I’m not sure some folks will even finish the disc, but, as they always say, it is what it is.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Funimation provided me with a DVD screener of KING OF THORN for the expressed purposes of completing this review.