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Knights of the Zodiac: 2023 Film Review

Not even some visceral action can save Knights of the Zodiac from being as fleeting as a shooting star.

Directed by Tomek Baginski, Knights of the Zodiac is a live action adaptation of the anime and manga series Saint Seiya. It follows Seiya (Mackenyu), who one day finds himself wrapped up in a feud between Alman Kiddo (Sean Bean) and Guraad (Famke Janssen) over Sienna (Madison Iseman), the reincarnation of the goddess Athena. He then discovers that the force is strong with him and is destined to protect Sienna by killing Voldemort when he turns sixteen and liberate humanity from the Matrix – hang on, I think I got my stories mixed up…

Live action adaptations of anime have garnered a stigma equivalent to walking into a Star Wars theme park wearing a Star Trek shirt, and it’s not hard to see why. Many of them fail to capture the bizarre and exaggerated nature of most anime. For instance, spiky multicolored hair is a cool stylization in animation, but in real life will seem like you walked out of a terrorist attack on a hair dye store. It has resulted in some truly infamous films, like Dragonball Evolution (2009). So, Knights of the Zodiac was already fighting an uphill battle.

At the same time, however, I was able to keep a relatively open mind with this one, for one reason: I was largely unfamiliar with the source material. Some might say that makes my opinions invalid, but I disagree: I feel an outsider’s perspective is just as important, as sometimes an adaptation can stand on its own regardless of how faithful it is. A case like this is Edge of Tomorrow, which deviates largely in story and tone from its original light novel All You Need is Kill (that’s not how English works), but still succeeds in being a good movie.

loud and clear reviews Knights of the Zodiac film 2023 movie
Mackenyu in Stage 6 and Toei Animation’s Knights of the Zodiac (David Lukacs, Toei Animation, © 2023 CTMG, All Rights Reserved.)

Sadly, Knights of the Zodiac fails on that account, and is the worst kind of failure: the boring kind where it cannot survive even as a meme for how bad it is. The story might as well have been copy pasted from the countless YA “chosen one” novels at the local bookstore. Disgruntled teen gets wrapped up into a strange world, finds out they have a grand destiny, may the force be with you. For the first hour or so, I had to keep checking if I somehow turned on Star Wars for how similar some concepts and story beats felt. The barebones twists and a hefty dose of sequelbaiting at the end didn’t help.

The plot also struggles with exposition dumps. There is clearly a fleshed out world, here, involving gods, mystical energy that is totally not the force, and magical artifacts. But the film just has Sean Bean go through most of it in the first twenty minutes or so by simply talking through them. I mean, listening to Sean Bean isn’t a terrible experience, but after a while you stop paying attention to whatever new detail he’s lecturing and start to wonder whether he will keep up his infamous “die in every movie” streak.

What makes this bland story worse is that even the presentation feels sloppy. Awkward dialogue persists throughout the film, where every line is either forced exposition like a BBC documentary or stuff like:

Sienna: What if I was born to bring misery and ruin into this world?
Seiya: That’s not who you are.
Sienna: How do you know?
Seiya: I guess I just know.

FYI, before this, Seiya and Sienna had spent approximately 11 minutes together (I counted), and that’s including exposition or randomly snarking at each other. In addition, the film puts them apart for half an hour, making their relationship feel as unnatural and insubstantial as smashing two action figures’ lips together.

Perhaps that awkward writing affected the actors as well. Mackenyu is mainly there to look handsome and be shirtless at the end, which may convince some reviewers to bump up their scores a bit, but in terms of actual emotions, he barely changes his expression beyond “intense concentration mode.” Veterans like Sean Bean or Famke Jensen do their best, but then we have cases like Sienna. At one point, Guraad arrives trying to capture Sienna and kill everyone else. To this, Sienna says “It’s my mother,” like she just got caught skipping curfew.

What’s frustrating is that there was some potential for interesting characters here. Sienna, for instance, has to struggle with the fact that the goddess Athena inside her is taking over her personality, and that she might end up destroying humanity. Guraad also shows some promise, as her reasons for going after Sienna aren’t for some world domination plot, but to save humanity from the possible danger of Athena. Yet the movie has the attention span of an anime fan at a figure shop, never taking enough time to flesh out anyone’s story for me to get attached to them.

I’ve been pretty harsh, so let me give credit where credit’s due. The action managed to surprise me with how good it was. Yes, all of them feel about as real as waving two origami figures in front of my eyes, but the shots are steady and wide, and the choreography is snappy and feels quite visceral. Though that effect is somewhat dampened when the film starts lathering more and more CG effects the quality of a Youtube fan film on top, but it still looks cool enough.

However, I am not a fan of the coloration. Again, I am not going to harp on comparisons to the original too much, but things like costumes have gotten significantly greyer and less interesting. In the final battle, I actually mistook who the main character was because the two opponents were both dressed in grey, metallic grey, dark grey, and greyest grey. It’s an accomplishment when you can make warriors with the power of the stars look like they walked out of an edgy teen’s D&D campaign.

I haven’t read the original Saint Seiya manga, but I hope this movie is not an accurate representation of its source material. Knights of the Zodiac didn’t offend me or made me want to chuck my drink at the screen. But it did make me spill that drink because I zoned out from how barebones its story elements felt. It could have shot for the stars, but chose to hug the ground instead.

Knights of the Zodiac will be released in theaters on May 12, 2023.

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