Before I get into the real meat of Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works and find out what makes it tick, I'd like to point out that this review is going to be equal parts an overview of the pros and (many) cons of this movie, an insight into the reviewing process itself and a lesson in how to write a screenplay. Why, you ask? Simply because it seems Studio Deen need to be told how to do it right.
But let's start from the top: Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Bean Works is set in an alternate timeline to Studio Deen's previous Fate/Stay adaptation, Fate/Stay Night, but with the same basic premise: Seven mages are chosen to fight in the Holy Grail War, summoning legendary heroes from the past to help them in their goal of surviving a humongous battle royale. Emiya Shirou is one of these chosen mages who befriends another chosen mage, Tohsaka Rin, straight off the bat, therefore pretty much neglecting the whole “fight to the death” scenario. Shirou then summons Saber quite by accident and sets about his mission of being the only person in the War who seemingly wants to fight every battle himself as some kind of suicide mission.
I feel I need to interject at this point. Despite the previous paragraph, I did actually enjoy the plot to F/SN:UBW because the premise is an interesting one and Unlisted Blade Works is a lot darker than the original series. Whereas the best scene in the 2006 edition of the Fate/Stay universe was undoubtedly a snarky but honourable Archer taking on a vastly overpowered Berserker in a dark, tear-soaked, nihilistic setting, this 2010 update decided to build its very foundations on that atmosphere and pepper it with some truly gory (not to mention, simply cruel) moments. Yet, overall, the story failed horribly.
A rule of reviewing I've learnt to live by is: Always view a series/movie as a standalone piece of art. This isn't steadfast but it works. Take Code Geass, for instance. Fantastic first season, terrible second season. However, memory of the first meant that it took a while for me to see R2 for what it really was: a steaming pile of horse manure. To apply this to Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Widgets, the only thing that really holds the story up is the fact that everybody already knows the characters and the basic plot. Take out this foreknowledge and despite it being a complete reset, the viewer is lost from the start.
To say that pacing is an issue is like calling the duckbilled playpus “a little different”. The first ten minutes is a barrage of plot points, not to mention a pointless exercise in dot-to-dot, which results in a laughable summary of the Holy Grail War and Emiya's involvement in it playing out like an animated version of a wiki entry (or my overview above even). Characters are thrown at us and the writers cross their fingers that they'll stick. No-one gets an introduction, everyone just appears. Then disappears. Twists fly at you in a flurry before you've even had time to check if you're still in Kansas. And the reason for all this is because Studio Deen have done the ridiculous thing of trying to squash a whole game's worth of plot into a measly hour forty-five [insert facepalm here].
The animation has changed very little from the Fate/Stay Night series, with only minor touch ups with regards to character design. Gilgamesh notably loses his golden suit of armour but the symbolism behind this is beyond me. The artists themselves seem to have attended the “Dragon Ball Z School of Art” (probably sat next to the Bleach artists) with their tendency to spawn crater-inducing aura explosions all over the shop and giving every familiar the unerring ability to fly into battle despite it being pretty common knowledge that King Arthur wasn't a flier. It would have come up at some point if he'd been caught doing that (then again, if they couldn't figure out he was a she, then who knows what else they left out!).
Aside from the psychedelic sex scene which implodes into lots of lovely blue diamonds, which was nice and all but completely inconsequential mumbo-jumbo – aside from that, there's no subtlety to the art. It hammers away at the viewer like the plot does – in short, sharp sword stabs. One of the things I liked about the original F/SN was the decision to show Shirou being slightly repulsed by Saber's rather manly body, but it was quite clear that she occupied the damsel in distress role in UBW. Quite how anyone managed to mistake that ample bosom in Anglo Saxon times is anyone's guess.
It's worth noting that this score is also lowered by ufotable's 2011 effort, Fate/Zero, because while I'm conscious of my reviewing rule about viewing in a vacuum, it's clear to see what can be done with the right tools and only a year later, no less.
The only saving grace. The opening is almost tribal and the soaring melodies give a good springboard for the movie that the action unfortunately doesn't take up and run with. Kenji Kawai's score uses the chorus as an instrument, rather than letting words drown the heart-thumping soundtrack. This only lets up at the end when a power rock ballad invades, but even then, it oddly suits the movie's ending of bitter-sweetness.
The cast of voice actors is largely the same as the 2006 version, but they all seem to have learnt a lot in the four year gap. Gone are Shirou's constant mewlings and thankfully, he's learnt more words than just Saber's name. Noriaki Sugiyama even managed to make this Shirou sound worthy in his ideals and that takes some effort.
Sure, we all like Saber and the other familiars, especially the unpredictability of the villainous Gilgamesh and Archer going rogue was a touch of genius too, but then he flitted between different alliances like an indecisive whore. Hint, Studio Deen: there's a reason I use “touch” – if you put your whole hand on it, you smother the “genius” part.
The overriding problem with the characters though, is the lack of any semblance of characterisation. In the mind of F/SN:UBW, characterisation means saying the character's name. In this manner, we meet Lancer, Ilya and Shinji – then promptly don't see them again for half an hour or more while more names are thrown at us. Plot twists were severely let down by the fact that characters appeared from the smokescreen to audible gasps, only for the viewer to go “Wait a tick, who's he?” Shirou's teacher is the perfect example: Was he even introduced before that scene? I mean, even Scooby Doo introduced the ghost's real identity before they got to the unmasking bit. That's logical, isn't it, Studio Deen? Here's a tip for you: real scripts should go:
Basis → Character building → interaction → internal struggle meets external forces → twist.
It shouldn't go:
Basis → twist → twist → twist → twistwistwist → deus ex machina → end.
I'm afraid, try as I might, I can't add anything else under the banner of characters because there literally isn't anything else to say about them. Key conversations were never had, back stories were never completed, motivations were never even discussed (except for Shirou, briefly): with failings like that, how can a character even be called a character?
In my mind, this movie was made purely to pander to the substantial number of fans that the Fate/Stay Night franchise has attracted, and if you look at the figures, it worked, topping the Blu-Ray sales for the month it was released.
Yet, there are flaws that cannot be dismissed under the heading of “For Fanboys Only.” Fate/Stay Night: Unloved Bone Wank suffers from ADHD, seemingly unable to stay in one place for more than five minutes, and that makes it feel fragmented. There are many lessons for Studio Deen to learn from this venture, the most important of which being that they simply cannot force that much plot into a movie so short. There's no chance to build the suspense and characters with action happening every two seconds and there's certainly no room for internal monologues which could have helped to bring it all together.
What Studio Deen should have learnt in Scripting 101 is: Plot twists shouldn't come thick and fast, they should be used sparingly. A game is not the same as a film. They should have cut large portions of the plot out and focussed solely on the driving force of the movie. Sure, a lot of fans would have complained. Sure, reducing a cast of this size down to a mere handful despite the premise specifically stating there are seven mages and seven familiars has a risk of opening major plotholes. And I agree, the plot would have had to be cut, pasted and sewn back together later on an unholy number of times to avoid the hulking great mess that UBW turned into. But if a little plot had been sacrificed in order to make this a pleasurable and all-inclusive experience, then this movie could have gone where only Fate/Zero is starting to take the franchise now.