Adapting video games to film is always a unique challenge since video games are interactive media while movies generally are not. Adapting a game like Heavenly Sword to film adds a new challenge in that it is already very cinematic; so the filmmakers have to walk a fine line between offering something fresh and staying true to the game’s presentation. Regrettably, the filmmakers didn’t balance well enough, and they ended up falling over almost completely on the side of making-things-up. As a result, fans of the game will most likely be disappointed.
In this incarnation of Heavenly Sword, an ancient fictional kingdom had been plunged into darkness by an evil conqueror known as the Raven Lord. He was eventually defeated by a deity that descended from the skies and who wielded a mighty sword. The deity vanished after the battle, but not before leaving its weapon, which was known thereafter as the Heavenly Sword. Unfortunately, the sword drove mad any mortal who wielded it, so a clan of guardians arose to take the weapon and hide it. A legend foretold that a son would be born to the leader of that clan, and that child would grow to be the chosen one who would take the sword up and defeat the current evil.
Unfortunately, the leader of the clan had a girl, Nariko (voiced by Anna Torv), instead of a son. Her birth was seen as a curse on the clan, and the people of the clan rejected her, include her father to a large degree. If it were not for another village elder, she wouldn’t even have been trained to fight. Now in her early 20’s, Nariko and her clan face the growing threat of King Bohan (voiced by Alfred Molina), who seeks out the sword, because it is the weapon that can defeat him if wielded by the Chosen One, and Bohan will slay anyone who gets in his way. Fortunately, Nariko learns of a long lost brother, Loki (voiced by Thomas Jane), who fulfills the prophecy and can defeat Bohan. So with her close friend Kai, Nariko sets out to find the Chosen One so he can save the day.
Fans of the game will recognize just how far away from the game the film’s story strays. And the most infuriating aspect is that the changes were absolutely unnecessary. One of the major themes in the video game Heavenly Sword was the defiance of fate and faith. Not only does she disobey her father in trying to rescue the captured clan members instead of running away and hiding, but she also wields the Heavenly Sword even though she knows it will eventually sap her life away. In the film, Nariko is more obedient, seeking out the Chosen One so he can complete the prophecy. Of course, things go awry, forcing Nariko to take up the Heavenly Sword herself, but this isn’t the same defiance of destiny that the game presented. Additionally, screenwriter Todd Farmer completely changed the relationship between Nariko and her father Shen. In the game, Shen was a flawed and conflicted character whom Nariko makes peace with, realizing that even though he was her teacher first and father second, it was the training that kept her alive and gave her the ability to save the clan. In the film, Shen is an irredeemable jerk who would have left Nariko defenseless without any fighting skills. Fortunately, a completely made-up character trained her in secret. Not only are these changes unnecessary, they’re not as good as what the original offered.
The impulse to create something new when adapting an existing property is understandable, but there are ways to do that that doesn’t require changing the existing property. For instance, the film could have developed Shen and Nariko’s relationship by showing him training her when she was younger. In doing so, the film could have explained the “after touch” ability used in the game, which would have surely delighted fans. Or the film could have explored how Nariko discovered Kai and made her part of the clan. Or the film could have done a thousand other things to help fill in the gaps left by the game instead of creating elements out of whole cloth.
It doesn’t help that Anna Torv is the only returning cast member, and even she doesn’t reprise the role exactly the same. Some of this has to do with the new lines, but her pronunciation of certain words slips into American at times, and is audibly jarring. Alfred Molina takes over the role of Bohan from the inimitable Andy Serkis, and while Molina does a fine job, it’s vastly different from Serkis’ performance. The maniacal and insane Bohan of the game has been replaced by a wiser, calmer Bohan in the film, which doesn’t work well within the context of the Heavenly Sword universe. Bohan is surrounded by freakish homicidal sadists; it doesn’t make sense that he should be this regal figure seemingly above the fray. Finally, Thomas Jane gives a throwaway performance that’s borderline bad. Either he wasn’t trying or the animation wasn’t nuanced enough to capture his subtlety. In either case, Jane doesn’t add anything substantial to the film.
The film version of Heavenly Sword doesn’t offer much for newcomers either. Taken as just a film, independent of any source material, this movie just isn’t good. The animation isn’t particularly well done. In fact, it looks like it could have used a few more passes to make the movements less stiff and the textures more detailed. At times, the artwork is particularly sloppy, like when Bohan’s facial scar jumps from eye to eye in the middle of one scene. Obviously, the frame was inverted to match standard cinematic conventions, like character orientation during two-shots, but the flaw is glaring nonetheless. This lack of attention to detail affects other parts of the film, including the credits where a character name is misspelled. Additionally, the pacing of the story is off, with characters being introduced abruptly and plot elements being revealed through exposition rather than unfolding naturally. This is not a good way to be introduced to the Heavenly Sword story. Newcomers would be better served by watching someone play through the game all the way through.
Heavenly Sword the movie is another example of a bad video game adaptation to film that will further jade gamers toward media crossovers. It seems simple, but the number one rule for adapting anything to a new medium should be to stay as true to the source material as possible. Changes should only be made out of necessity. The changes made to the Heavenly Sword story don’t feel necessary. Instead, the film feels like it needs viewers to be familiar with the game to be comprehensible, but then strays so far from the game that fans will feel alienated at once. It’s a needless paradox to put viewers in.
There aren’t many extras on the Blu-ray except for a trailer and a “making of” documentary that consists of interviews with some of the voice talent, the producers and the screenwriter. The interviews with the voice talent are suitably engrossing as the actors give insight into their performances. The producers, however, come off more like apologists for the film than anything else. They explain how the film wouldn’t feel authentic without Anna Torv, but make no mention of authenticity when the topic of Andy Serkis not being involved comes up. Instead, they’re happy with the fresh approach that Alfred Molina brings to the film. It’s easy to imagine the producers saying the same thing if Anna Torv had declined to be part of the project. As such, it’s hard to take anything they say at face value, reducing the necessity of this documentary.