I've always been told that Diana Rigg was absolutely great in the original TV show The Avengers as Emma Peel, and I'm sure she was. I'd heard plenty of good things about the program that had aired for almost all of the 1960s before seeing the movie based on the show. But how unmercifully awful was that film! The remake starred three superb actors, had magnificent sets, looked and sounded brilliant, and was unrelentingly horrible anyway. If you'd never seen the TV series, you'd start to wonder why anyone liked it in the first place, though in the back of your head you'd know it was an unfair comparison. The movie X is very much like the movie of The Avengers--both look awesome, both are well made, and both stink to high heaven. The manga of X is incredibly popular in Japan and has a major following in the US as well, and I can only imagine that it is far better than the film it shares its title with. Since I've not read it, my comments should be read to imply the movie only.

X wants to be a dark, brooding, complex movie, and it does a good job at the first two. However, the plot of the film is amazingly simple...it's a two minute story that they try to weave in and out of dream sequences so many times that the viewer gets confused. Long and short of it is this. The Dragons of Earth are the bad guys who want to destroy mankind in order to restore the Earth's balance. The Dragons of Heaven are determined to stop this from occurring, and each member of the Dragons of Heaven controls a special shield that protects humankind from destruction when things get nasty. Tokyo is, of course, the proving ground to see if the apocalypse is really going to happen, or if the mass destruction will stop on this side of Mount Fuji. Each side has its players, and Kamui and Fuma are friends from long ago that must pick their sides. There are dreams, visions, nightmares, etc, but they all go back to this basic plot. The two sides come together often to battle and kill each other. Almost everyone dies. Rinse, wash, and repeat until the finale ninety minutes later.

My first clue should have been that X is the first movie that Rintaro has directed since The Dagger of Kamui (which, surprisingly enough for its title, does not star a character named Kamui like X does). Now Dagger was considered an instant classic when it came out, but it has not aged that well. In a recent review, I gave Dagger a cautiously positive rating, listing its many faults but also remembering that parts of the movie were very good indeed. I've come to the conclusion since watching X, however, that Rintaro has a great eye but cannot edit a film worth squat. X is way too long, and you start going numb somewhere into the second half. The plot is repeated over and over and over as if the audience wouldn't get it. We also have all sorts of people telling us that this is the beginning of the end, or maybe the start of the beginning, or maybe the prelude to the overture to the warmup to the beginning of the end. Repetition is boring, friends, and X is a 30 minute show repeated three mind-boggling times for your viewing pleasure.

Rintaro also should have realized from Dagger that the way to make an epic picture is to realize the importance of scope, but to also give each person a back story. Dagger of Kamui certainly was appealing in that respect, in that every character had some personality. Rintaro's heroes and villains in X are stock, cardboard figures that you cannot possibly care about. The lone exception to this rule is, perhaps, Kamui. But then we get into something worse than a lack of characterization--the lack of motivation. We can understand that Kamui would want to fight for the good side because that's who he is. The problem is that Fuma, his good friend, is told that he is Kamui's spirit twin and therefore must be Kamui's opponent no matter what side he chooses. We don't know why Fuma doesn't reject his destiny--he just follows it mindlessly. There is no reason other than prophecy directing his actions, and so Fuma is not tragic, just insipid. There are hints that might give us an idea of why Fuma might want to challenge Kamui, but they are so weak that only someone familiar with the manga would know. In fact, that is the whole problem in a nutshell--only someone who is intimately familiar with these characters after reading the comic version will understand who these people are. That makes for bad cinema.

Is there action in X? Yes. Is it any good? Sadly, no. Things blow up a lot and we get to watch parts of Tokyo disintegrate, but we got to see that happen on a much more grand and beautiful scale in Akira. The fights themselves are pretty disappointing, very seldom lasting more than 45 seconds of screen time. If you're wanting to see an action film, forget it--the trailers show a mess of cool stuff, but this is a plodding, dramatic film that wants to be more important than it is.

Is there any reason to see this film? If you are particularly fond of seeing unique artwork styles, then this is a great place to look. The artwork is admittedly excellent, with unique designs by CLAMP, a group of women writers and artists who created X initially. Their design work is very interesting, and combined with admittedly top-notch animation, the film is visually interesting. It's the only thing, sadly, worth much in this misguided picture. While I'm on the subject of CLAMP, I'll also mention that viewers or readers of Tokyo Babylon (another CLAMP title) may be in for a surprise...two of the main characters from that series appear here briefly, so you can see them on the big screen. However, unless you know their names, you'll never recognize them, since no back story for any character is explained. What happens is also a bit of a spoiler, so be warned.

My wife, my webmaster, and I all had the dubious privilege of seeing X at a movie theatre, where it becomes clear that this movie was meant to be seen big. Lots of money was thrown on the screen in the attempt to make everything better than it really is. Manga Entertainment is sending a couple of copies of this film around the country, but for my dollar it'd be better seen on DVD or even (gasp!) videotape. You lose the big factor, but the prints are wearing out, and the film looks bad as a result.

I so wanted X to be a decent entry for anime, something that could prove to the mainstream that anime is a legitimate art form. This isn't it, however. There's the sad feeling after watching this movie that there is so much more that could have been experienced with these characters. I did some research on the Internet directly after watching the movie, and it is clear from reading just a few pages that the manga story is detailed, complex, and rich with interweaving characters and plots that could truly be entertaining. There's supposedly a TV show based on X, and I honestly feel that's a good thing. Maybe then the travesty that is the movie will be cleansed by a show that can capture the heart of what was originally a very good manga series. If one can watch the original Avengers series without grieving over the movie, certainly a TV show of X could deliver the goods, too.

X -- violence (some graphic), brief nudity -- D+