It’s no secret that for the past several decades, Hollywood has been trying to find a way to crack the anime market. It’s been growing in prominence slowly but surely and studio executives have been clamoring for a piece of that pie. However, whenever they do attempt to try to create their own unique takes on beloved anime franchises like Dragon Ball or Cowboy Bebop, the results are almost universally reviled. The only times they do succeed are when you put people in charge that actually give a damn about the franchise they’re adapting, like when the Wackowskis’ directed Speed Racer or James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez tag teamed for Alita: Battle Angel.
Enter now Knights of the Zodiac, also known as Saint Seiya. The franchise has been around since the 80s and has several dozen volumes of manga and well over 200 episodes spread across seven different series. It’s a popular franchise, but one that never really was able to crack the North American market like other series from its era. So of course, why not try to make a film that rejuvenates the series for a new generation and provides Sony with a fantasy action series to rake in the cash?
I mean, it would rake in the cash if it was good, but it most certainly is not. In fact, it’s probably one of the most soulless and joyless movies I’ve seen in quite some time.
Knights of the Zodiac
Director: Tomek Baginski
Release Date: May 12, 2023 (Theatrical)
The plot of Knights of the Zodiac is one that you’ve heard before. There’s a street orphan named Seiya (Mackenyu) who discovers that he has the ability to tap into a magical power known as Cosmos, which is presented here as a generic mystical power source that can do anything. Once he discovers this power after getting into a fight, he’s taken in by a wealthy entrepreneur named Alman (Sean Bean), who tasks him with protecting his daughter, Sienna (Madison Iseman). Sienna is also the reincarnation of the goddess Athena and contains the Cosmos of the goddess within her, which basically means she’s a ticking time bomb of destructive powers. Alman wants to protect her while his wife, Guraad (Famke Janssen), wants to kill her to save the world, and only Seiya and his powers as one of Athena’s knights can stop her.
Despite having seen the movie only two hours ago, I can’t get over how aggressively mediocre nearly all aspects of the film are. You can tell that this movie was shot on a limited budget not just because of the emphasis on magical CG special effects, but from just how much of the film is greenscreened. There were so many times throughout the film that I just looked a the action that was onscreen and felt so disconnected from it because I knew it looked fake. It didn’t appear that any of the actors were actually in the locations they were supposed to be in and were just middling around on a set.
The film’s also unnecessarily cynical and bitter, with most of its characters acting snarky and rude to each other. I think the attempt was to try and have the characters comment on the absurdity of the situation they find themselves in, but it instead just comes across as the writers ridiculing the source material. Poking fun at a silly premise is one thing, but there are times when you can tell the writers were just on autopilot to try and bang the script out and be done with it. In the climax, one of the villains even blurts out “No, you fool!” and we’re meant to take them seriously in that moment despite the weak dialogue.
This causes me to become severely disinterested in any of the characters. We’re supposed to empathize with Sienna and the responsibility that’s been thrust on her shoulder as the reincarnation of a God, but the writing just makes her feel so lifeless. She is either snarky towards Seiya or bemoans the burden that’s been placed on her shoulders with nothing in between. Characters are just broadly divided into good and evil camps with no real nuance until the very end. The only time it works is with one of Guraad’s supporting goons, Cassios (Nick Stahl), who has a raging hate boner for Seiya for no reason whatsoever. Like he just wants this kid dead for absolutely no discernible reason and I can’t help but both love how simple and effective it is yet hate how there is absolutely no depth to the character.
But that’s just it with Knights of the Zodiac; there is no depth to any of its elements. It’s a barebones action film that can’t do either part right. The fantasy elements feel too nebulous and ill-defined outside of a single exposition dump given to us about 15 minutes into the film. We get vague notions of what the Cosmos is, but nothing that actually amounts to anything important. As for the action, while a lot of it is some fairly decent martial arts, the camera cuts away from the action and does a whole lot of slow-mo to really sell how awesome and intense the choreography is rather than letting the action speak for itself. There are times when between the ADR dubbing and the rapidly cut martial arts I felt like I was watching an episode of Power Rangers and I do not mean that as a compliment.
The manga and anime are known for their bright colors and cosmic aesthetic, but Knights of the Zodiac feels so muted and dull. Most of the sets are grey or brown with no color to them whatsoever, but that may be because the only splashes of color come from the special effects. I’m reminded of how in Dragon Ball Evolution, in order to prove to audiences that a character was supposed to be Bulma, they gave her a single strand of blue hair and that was the only color that would actually be on the screen that was discernable. Oh and for the record, having me compare an anime adaptation to Dragon Ball Evolution is a very bad sign.
But the comparisons don’t stop there! There’s also just a forced edginess to the film that would make this film feel at home in the mid to late 2000s. Seiya is an edgy street orphan who fights in a bunch of underground tournaments and is rough on the outside, but kind on the inside. None of the mystical and lightheartedness of the original series remains, instead replaced by a desire to be taken seriously by the audience. It doesn’t need any of this juvenile and kiddy anime nonsense! This is a mature story with mature end-of-the-world stakes about a guy who uses the power of a magic horse to fight against a woman with robot soldiers dang it!
This is just a classic example of Sony not understanding what to do with their films. They’ve been doing this with their Spider-Man adjacent films where they want to try and start franchises that draw viewers in but forget that the movies have to actually be good. Knights of the Zodiac feels so empty and lifeless to the point where it left absolutely no impact on me. It didn’t even feel like it was a studio mandate to try and appeal to the anime community. Frankly, I don’t even know who this is targeted for since it’s too unfaithful to the original source material yet too bland to appeal to general audiences. It’s just a movie that somehow exists and I’m not even sure Sony is banking on it becoming a financial success. It has virtually no marketing and is releasing after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3., so maybe they sent it to die just to be rid of it. I’d believe it.
The final scene of the film teases that there are more adventures to come for Seiya and Sienna, but the only way that this is going to become a franchise is if each installment releases straight to VOD where it belongs. Get this half-ass attempt at building a franchise out of theaters. It has no right to be there.