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Returner (2002)

DVD released February 10, 2004

Overall rating: 7/10

Reviewed by Andy Ling

[Written in March 2004. This is the third in a series of monthly columns by Andy Ling reviewing TV shows, movies and DVDs.]


  • Takeshi Kaneshiro as Miyamoto
  • Anne Suzuki as Milly
  • Goro Kishitani as Mizoguchi

Plot summary

By the year 2087, Earth is an apocalyptic wasteland under siege by aliens. The remnants of humanity manage to send a woman into the past to stop the event that instigates a war with the aliens. She finds a gun-for-hire who reluctantly joins her quest to alter the future.


The first thing that springs to mind about Returner is the word "derivative." Returner is very much a product of the current trend in popcorn summer films, with a minimal plot and stock characters wrapped up in a mishmash of styles, including Hong Kong action cinema, Japanese anime and big-budget Hollywood SF.

Plotwise, the story resembles The Terminator, with a soldier, Milly (Anne Suzuki), travelling to the past to save the world. There are flashbacks of soldiers fighting off merciless attacks across a devastated wasteland and then the obligatory mayhem in the present (the year 2002 in Returner), with a climax at an isolated industrial site (an oil rig).

Milly is introduced as the last hope in flashes during the opening credits sequence. As a more complete version of the flashbacks is run later, the audience discovers that while she might be the last hope, she was not the best one, having picked up the torch when the original candidate died unexpectedly. This may go a long way to explaining her behaviour. She is young, sincere, impressionable and impatient, which makes her early interactions with the killer-for-hire, Miyamoto (Takeshi Kaneshiro), rather entertaining. At least, that is what she is like most of the time; with other people, she's a swaggering braggart. This shift seems out of character, no matter what the circumstances (even when she is in a confrontation with the criminal Mizoguchi [Goro Kishitani] that warranted it).

Her foil is a mercenary in both personality and profession. Miyamoto makes his appearance as a freelancer working for the mob who single-handedly decimates a rival group of Triad goons with an ease that he repeats through the rest of the film. So naturally, after he almost kills her in their initial encounter, Milly recruits him—or rather, coerces him—into assisting her. Miyamoto's is the only character that shows any development: He progresses from a self-centred rogue to a concerned and reformed rogue.

Facing off against them is the Triad lieutenant Mizoguchi, a psychotic who's working on moving upwards in the organization. His latest assignment is the procurement from a government lab of an alien recovered from a UFO crash. It doesn't take him long to spot the opportunity for a power grab.

Finally there is the alien, the target of Milly's mission to the past—a Daggra—who is the cause of the future apocalypse. As this Daggra is wholly computer-generated, it puts in very little screen time and only offers token interaction with others.

The characters are fairly generic, but Kaneshiro and 15-year-old Suzuki have fun with their roles (nowhere is this more evident than in their comical trip through a fashion boutique and salon). They are also capable of fine dramatic performances as well, particularly when the end of the world is near and Miyamoto offers inspiration and encouragement to a despondent Milly. Despite the script, they manage to imbue their characters with a genuine on-screen rapport.

Kishitani chews up the scenery in the manner of Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, James Woods and any number of other actors who have played hyperactive madmen. Unfortunately, his performance is reminiscent of all those other performances and thus fails to be memorable.

Coming back to the plot, there are few surprises. Some of the plot developments are telegraphed (e.g., Mizoguchi's final solution for upward mobility in the Triad), some are just proper form for the genre (Milly and Miyamoto discover that recorded history differs from actual history), and some are just obvious (Miyamoto's escape from a death-trap). There are a few questionable bits of internal logic (one would expect a large security contingent around a recovered UFO, no?). The one genuine surprise in the film owes its shock value not to the script's cleverness but to the fact that the story veers into multiple-ending territory.

The main selling point of this film is the eye-candy. The action sequences are very much of the post-Matrix era, replicating many of the same hallmark effects on a smaller scale. Non-bullet-time effects include computer-generated imagery (e.g., futuristic vistas, aliens, ships, and even something that looks like a Transformer) and carefully concealed wire-work in the martial arts.

Still, one could do worse for a rental. The film doesn't aspire to be original or a blockbuster (though it has done fairly well in Japan), but it does offer a story with engaging leads and computer-generated eye-candy.

DVD features

The first featurette is a fairly pedestrian look at the effects on the film, using a splitscreen to contrast the raw source footage and the final product. Unfortunately, there were no groundbreaking effects debuting in the film, so this featurette is of interest to the casual filmgoer rather than the FX aficionado.

The second featurette is a production diary with a director's commentary voice-over. It was of marginal interest as well.

Neither featurette is a compelling reason to get the DVD. A purchaser/renter would be acquiring the DVD for the film rather than the extras.

I'll give the DVD a 4/10 for extras.

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