Knights of the Zodiac Goes From Beloved Manga to Imitation-Blockbuster FantasyMovies Reviews action movies
It would be easy enough to attribute the general impenetrability of Knights of the Zodiac to cultural differences related to its source material. This fantasy film is adapted from the nearly 40-year-old manga series Saint Seiya, about an order of warriors sworn to protect the human incarnation of the goddess Athena, and as such opens with a torrent of exposition that still manages to elide seemingly key details, like why exactly Athena was reborn in the human body of Sienna (Madison Iseman) 18 years ago, or what Athena’s ultimate goals will be when she emerges from Sienna’s consciousness, or what will happen to Sienna’s body and mind after this transformation.
Yet while some of this premise does sound like it might be more intuitive for an audience well-versed in more fantastical manga, the simpler explanation for the ultimate flatness of Knights of the Zodiac is the number of ways that it resembles the worst American YA and fantasy adaptations of the post-Twilight years. This live-action co-production between Sony and a Japanese animation studio begins with the colorful bounce of Paul W.S. Anderson directing a cosmic X-Men knockoff, and quickly runs out of gas in a way that resembles the worst of Sony’s Screen Gems genre arm. (Stage 6, a separate Sony studio that specializes in direct-to-video material, is the actual name in the opening titles, though the lead warrior’s ghostly Pegasus avatar looks a bit like the Tri-Star logo.) Though its story is convoluted, the real problem is the unimaginative cul-de-sac where these convolutions happen.
This is especially disappointing because the movie’s opening section is pretty fun. We join Seiya (Mackenyu), a standoffish young man using his undeveloped connection to the Force-like power of “cosmo” to eke out a living as a cage fighter while searching for his long-lost sister. He’s approached by a mysterious man named Alman (Sean Bean), who informs Seiya that it is his destiny to use his powers to protect Alman’s daughter Sienna from forces led by Guraad (Famke Janssen). Yes, the younger characters are involved in a feud between the villains of Goldeneye; sadly, Alan Cumming remains missing in action.
Before Seiya gets bogged down in this conflict and a total lack of chemistry with Sienna, he engages in some sprightly fight scenes, during which director Tomasz Bagiński tilts and lobs the camera around the room, without losing sight of the graceful choreography on display. (Seiya frustrates his opponents by fighting defensively and dancily, trying his best not to seriously hurt anyone – initially, at least.) There’s a little more of this dexterity as Seiya is shuttled over to train with his newly appointed mentor Marin (Caitlin Hutson), undermined somewhat by the fact that the mystical island looks like a lot like an abandoned rock quarry (and that Marin, whose face is an immobile metal mask, is no less charismatic than the characters given a full range of expression).
The empty quarry masquerading as a magical proving ground is emblematic of the movie as a whole. Knights of the Zodiac reaches a point where it becomes clear that not only will no more new characters be introduced, but there will be no further scenes requiring background extras, or scenery that doesn’t look an abandoned set from another movie. A dismaying amount of the film involves Seiya lifting and breaking rocks, and the comparisons to an old-timey prison are not flattering. The script makes gestures toward a cross-class flirtation between Seiya and Sienna, but depicting class differences depends on more social context than the movie is willing to provide; it’s hard for the lead characters to register as either poor or rich when the movie’s empty locations don’t ever give the impression of a wider world. In this particular context, they barely register as human. They’re all mythology and no soul.
Here and there, Bagiński foregrounds an image worthy of the film’s comic-book origins: A shot of Janssen’s cape silhouetted against a wall of flame, or Iseman subsumed by a vast violet light as Athena takes her over. But the film’s climactic confrontations amount to a purple haze, not unlike the smear of effects that engulfs so many higher-profile American comics adaptations. Tellingly, the special effects in Knights of the Zodiac aren’t especially bad on a technical level, especially for its mid-range budget. They just look that way when applied to a movie reduced to a vaporous imitation of actual fantasy, actual romance, and actual adventure.
Director: Tomasz Bagiński
Writer: Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, Kiel Murray
Starring: Mackenyu, Madison Iseman, Sean Bean, Famke Janssen, Nick Stahl, Diego Tinoco
Release Date: May 12, 2023
Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.