Fixed-position projector (c. AD 2084) Girl arrives in 2002 to alter history, then return
Review by Chris Adams. 2003.11.04. Edited 2003.11.13.
The soldier-mecha of the Daggra, an alien 'grey' race who have brought war to on Earth for decades, finally break into mankind's
last Himalayan stronghold in 2084. As a final fail-safe, Milly, a plucky post-apoc teen who has fought all her young life alongside
the resistance, throws herself into a prototype time portal, to try and find out how the war began, and avert it.
October, 2002. At night, on the Yokohama docks, a one-man gangland-war named Miyamoto attacks a child kidnapping ring, to
steal its cash. After wasting most of his opponents (and setting the kids free) Miyamoto comes face-to-face with an old enemy
that doesn't remember him, flesh-trafficker and arms dealer Mizaguchi. In his moment of vengeful triumph, he is distracted by
Milly's sudden appearance, and reflexively shoots her.
The wicked Mizaguchi slips away and so begins Returner, a melodramatic Japanese thrill ride from beginning to
end. In describing it cinematically, it's hard to add anything to what most critics, fan and pro, have said: Returner
is a well-contructed action picture, which borrows from a long list of recognizable themes and moments from other pictures,
and yet somehow makes it all fresh and enjoyable. Though not really original.
Don't shoot the messenger who brings
So when we discover our time girl was saved from the bullet by a hard piece of future metal she was carrying, it's not
supposed to be a deep revelation of subtle causality, but an easy-watching movie's way of rolling the ball forward. In the end,
it proves to be a little of both.
Just enough screentime is spent on Milly convincing Miyamoto that she's from the future, including action like her using a
time-dilation device to place a threatening-looking microdot on Miyamoto's neck to ensure his cooperation. One clever scene
seems to hearken to the heartwarming moments of earlier Japanese films where the hero decides to trust his strange young
companion, against all common sense (i.e. the children leading the adults in the Godzilla films). Miyamoto declares that
in his line of work, you can tell if someone is lying by their eyes alone. This convinces Milly to remove the microdot from his
neck, after which he promptly laughs at and berates the "time traveller". Needless to say, it's back on him in half a heartbeat.
Of course, all mankind is at stake, so why is Milly harrassing some lowlife for help? Is there no time for her to go through
standard channels, the police, the military, the government? Actually, no: She arrives with barely days to spare before the onset
of hostilities. But beyond that, in director Takashi Yamazaki's world, the Chinese Triads and the yakuza are already four steps
ahead of everyone else, right down to having operatives in the top secret R&D facility where the first Daggra crash wreckage
(and pilot) is brought. Hence it comes as little surprise when Mizaguchi himself muscles his way in to act as Earth's badwill
ambassador, kidnapping our visitor, and stealing his ride for its weapons tech. To time travel aficianados, this is the moment
one realizes that Milly's brave journey to the past has only allowed the inciter of the war to survive long enough to get the
ball rolling although the movie itself doesn't focus sharply on this particular nicety of the genre.
Thus Milly's choice of hero not only works in movieshow terms, it even makes some temporal sense, since who would be best
to stop the instigator of an interstellar war, than his most ardent sworn enemy? ...Okay, so it mostly works in movieshow
melodrama terms. The actual steps which Returner takes to reach its hero's victory will be as clear as precognition to
any action flick junkie. But this entertainment leaves us free to pay greater attention to Milly's troubles. We wait for the
slipknot of paradox sneaking up on her while explosions, speeding vehicles, and the expected Japanese consumerist scenes of
eating and shopping, mark the little hours she has left.
Now for our inevitable spoilers. The ultimate fate of Milly is tied in with her agony-wracked post-apoc
childhood, which she both wants to rewrite and revisit. She muses idly over "returning" but of course has no explanation
as to how this is to happen, save silence. Once the bad guys are pasted, and the ETs go home smiling, Milly starts to fade
away in the morning light. In a scene more poignant than its counterparts in BTTF or Farscape, the issue of
Milly's "return" takes on a Shinto finality, as she and Miyamoto refuse to directly acknowledge how her vanishing spells her
end; what "returning home" really means, when you torpedo your own timeline.
But then Miyamoto is rescued in a well-orchestrated and -foreshadowed denouement by a Milly who is using a plainly more
sophisticated time machine than the one she started with. Us time buffs are left, as usual, with more questions than answers
at the end, but that seems to be the emotion Yamazaki has been aiming for all along. He borrowed thunder from a dozen other
pictures, and braved the recognition each reworking would incite, and it all seems to lead to this simple ending, about the
act of reworking itself. It's like he wanted everyone to relive that feeling of frustrated wonder one felt the
first time one heard about time travel, or saw a time travel story on the silver screen, and this is
the closest he could come to rewritng our own familiarity. And he comes remarkably close; close enough to watch it melt back
into the morning of one's mind.