Fullmetal Alchemist Live Action Movie Review: Bringing Equivalent Exchange to Life

fullmetal alchemist liveaction


Ed and Al are brother’s who have been studying alchemy when their mother dies unexpectedly. Determined to bring her back, they commit a taboo and in the process Al loses his body and Ed loses his arm and leg. Now a State Alchemist, Ed is determined to learn the secret of the philosopher’s stone and use it to restore his brother’s body.

Review – With spoilers for those who have never read or seen any adaptation of this story:

I must admit, one of my greatest fears going in to this movie was that they would actually try to fit the whole saga of FMA into a movie which was guaranteed to fail without any chance of redemption. Fortunately, this movie seems to understand it was an adaptation and decided on a sensible stopping point in the narrative to bring the movie to a close and also made some pretty solid choices on what to cut and what to keep in the story.

Admittedly, purists who want the source adhered to are going to hate it. There’s no Scar, the Fuhrer doesn’t appear at all, various actions and motives get attributed to the characters that were left in the story in order to fill some of the gaps left by the entire arcs that have literally been hacked out. But the end result is surprisingly okay. There’s a few bits of awkwardness, a couple of plot threads that people who aren’t familiar with the story are going to be puzzled over because they are just kind of floated out there and left dangling for a sequel, and the pacing isn’t spot on, but this definitely could have been worse.

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And that is probably going to be the mantra of this review. It could have been worse. That is hardly a glowing recommendation but I honestly found that I enjoyed this movie well enough, but at the same time, I’d rather watch the anime. Either version of the anime.

Taking this logically, I’m going to point out the first twenty minutes of this feel need to be redone. It is a horrible beginning and almost had me reaching for the remote the first time through, unsure if I could stomach watching the farce FMA had become. The second try watching was actually worse and I would have stopped it except that I remembered things got better. So what is wrong?

The child versions of Ed and Al are not good actors (let’s not talk about the hair, really, we’ll save that for the grown up version of Ed). They do not pull off the whole tragic backstory that was so incredibly hard hitting in the anime. And possibly even the director realised this given the aftermath of their attempt to bring their mother back to life is only told in a dream sequence by Ed where the older version of Ed stands in instead of child-form. It is completely illogical that older Ed would be there and yet so much better than what that scene would have looked like if the younger version had attempted that scene.

But actually, the bigger issue with the start of the movie is the action sequence. Yep, FMA is a shounen story through and through and it has some incredible and fantastical fight sequences. These were always going to be really hard to translate into live action and yet somehow I think they could have done better than this.

Whether it is the pained expressions on the actor’s faces, the poor trajectory of Ed’s leap off the roof (seriously, he did not land anywhere near where the landing shot showed him landing, that was incredibly badly cut), the very average CG, the poor attempt at inserting some of the slapstick humour into the story (which just resulted in me declaring the main character dead about ten minutes into the movie), or even Al’s dreadful attempt at pacifying the crowd and explaining alchemy in one of the clunkiest exposition dumps I’ve seen in recent memory… Just no.

Quite literally the only good thing to come out of the opening sequence is Al’s first appearance and that was entirely deflated because we had already seen that exact moment in a teaser trailer. That moments and reveal utterly powerless because we were just kind of waiting for exactly that to happen.

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Throw in the disappointment that came when I first saw Mustang (no, he did not live up to my impossibly high standards given he’s one of my all time favourite characters), and really the opening of this movie left me really wishing I’d decided not to bother.

By the end of the movie, I would re-evaluate that thought.

Mustang grew on me as the movie progressed and to be honest, while the actor never quite pulled off the nonchalant attitude Mustang usually has when not in combat, he certainly pulled off the final of this movie in the confrontation with the homunculus. He was every bit the Flame Alchemist I wanted to see in action. He delivered and to be honest the removal of the comedic Colonel wasn’t such a downside in this movie.

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However, there is no escaping discussing the appearances of the characters. While I know the reasons they chose an all Japanese cast, one has to wonder why they then decided that they had to stay true to the Elric’s being blonde. Would having a hair colour that didn’t look totally ridiculous on the actor really have been that difficult? Given all the other changes to the FMA universe, would we have been that upset by a dark haired protagonist? I’d like to say no. And given FMA isn’t set in Japan in the first place, if you wanted to keep them blonde then don’t use a Japanese actor. There is genuinely no escaping that Ed looks bad. The hair is the main culprit here with the plait looking completely detached from the rest of his hair most of the time and the whole time it just looks nasty (distractingly so).

And the costumes themselves, while faithful reproductions of what the characters wore in the anime (and possible the manga – never read it), they don’t look good in real life. All of the characters look like they escaped from a cosplay convention where a few minor modifications would have brought the outfits in line with the reality they were trying to construct. This is a case where slavishly trying to replicate something has resulted in an inferior product rather than giving this movie the look it deserved.

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Though, while still on appearances, they nailed Hughes, Lust and Envy (Gluttony, not so much – okay, not at all). Hughes particularly, though he had about four scenes, managed to be exactly the character he needed to. Similar enough to what we were familiar with and yet he made Hughes come alive in a way most of the other characters fail to do during most of the run time.

To get to more positives, I loved the attention on Ed’s feelings of guilt toward Al for the majority of the first half. While there were certainly other stories that could have taken the lime-light, this story managed to humanise the characters and it is a story that managed to play out in the time given. Some great choices in shots and the relationship between these brothers gets the spot light and it manages to hold up very well.

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However, that does come at the expense of Nina and Alexander’s moment which becomes more a moment for Ed and Al. I didn’t mind this too much given it fit the context of the film, but the anime definitely handled this particular story better.

I also really liked that they realised that in their short length of time the Homunculi couldn’t be these massively unkillable creatures where fights took up episodes. Sure, they were tough enough to be a threat but reasonably scaled down to be dealt with in the course of the movie and while we might all be sad if our favourites didn’t appear, or were killed off too quickly, I think this was a sensible choice.

So it is a mixed bag. There are some great choices here and some really good moments, and then there are some poor choices and less outstanding scenes. I think your enjoyment of this movie will come from whether you are willing to accept the compromises that were needed to bring the movie to life or not and whether you are willing to ignore the incredibly bad hair on so many of the characters.  It might seem like a petty complaint, but it is definitely distracting.

After a second watch through, I definitely know that I enjoyed this well enough, but if I want to see FMA again, I’ll watch the Brotherhood box set. However, will I watch a follow up movie to this? Probably.

Thanks for reading.

Karandi James


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28 thoughts on “Fullmetal Alchemist Live Action Movie Review: Bringing Equivalent Exchange to Life

  1. Honestly, I waited until my expectations were low to watch this. I knew going in it would be a B or C movie, but so much was compressed. Watching it I kept having the thought “I wish they didn’t change to this, but I can see why they had to” The biggest SIN this movie had (second being the wigs) is that ending which demands a 2nd movie to resolve it.

    I would NOT recommend the movie to someone who isn’t a fan of FMA / FMAB

  2. It’s funny how the most disappointing thing about the movie is Ed’s hair, but that is actually VERY true. LOL This a very nice review. ^_^

    1. Thank you, and yes, I know it seems like a petty complaint but it was just such an unnecessary distraction that could have easily been done away with.

  3. Being a huge fan of FMA, I was really sceptical of this live action production when they announced it not least because of the CG. I did watch the trailers and whilst Al looled pretty good, I couldn’t wrap my head round Ed’s appearance. I have to agree with you; that hair is distracting. It just doesn’t look good at all. Honestly a none blonde Ed would hardly have made a difference at this stage. I feel like giving this movie a shot after reading your review since there does seem to be some good points about the adaptation and I’m curious to see exactly what they did with the source material.

    1. It was certainly a reasonable attempt at an adaptation. I wasn’t left with a ‘what were they thinking’ kind of vibe except about Ed’s hair.

      1. To be fair that’s something. Reasonable is something I should be able to deal with since I had no expectations for this at all.

        1. That was more or less me. I went in expecting them to try to cram far too much in and fail miserably, but ended up reasonably enjoying the watch, after we got past the opening sequences.

          1. That’s exactly what I was expecting – too much crammed into too less time resulting in a right mess.
            I’ll try and sit through the opening sequence otherwise I’ll just forward it. 😂

  4. I didn’t even realize there was a live-action adaptation, so thanks for keeping abreast of that. I still need to figure out if I have the time for it, but I’m happy to know it exists. It’s been so long since the anime…

    1. I hope you get a chance to watch it. They’ve changed a bunch of stuff but it can still be enjoyed as long as you don’t get in with too high an expectation of it.

  5. I wondered before if I should watch it or not. I knew there was a huge chance of being horribly disappointed but it’s impossible to know a FMA adaptation exists and not want to watch it. From your review, I can at least give it a try.
    I do wonder why they always do that half-half thing with live adaptation. If you’re going to be changing the setting, might as well go all the way? If they are worried about purists, truth is, they’re going to be mad at the slightest things anyway. Making Ed’s hair darker would have been so much better, it just looks out of place in the trailer.

    1. That just looks out of place feeling gets worse as you watch it.
      Yeah, don’t go halfway. They changed so much anyway (and some of those changes were needed to make this work) that changing Ed’s hair wouldn’t have been the biggest issue for purists. Besides, Winry’s hair looks fantastic in brown and that certainly isn’t true to the original.

  6. Yay Dean Fujioka and I’m sure it gonna be a disappointing movie but I’ll watch it anyway.

    1. I think if you go in not expecting much you should find it at least passingly entertaining. If you went in expecting a masterpiece you would probably be disappointed.

  7. I still plan to see this now that is in the UK Netflix. I suspect that some of the changes may not sit entirely week with me, bit we shall see. If it entertains, that’s the main thing.

    1. Part of me wishes Scar had been included, but realistically there was no way to shorten his arc to a length that would fit within a movie and still allow it to make sense and to tell any other part of the story. So I kind of understand why this got cut.
      Still, some fans will be disappointed with some of the omissions.

  8. I’m happy to read another review in which the writer actually seemed to enjoy the good bits and pieces pulled from this film. While I haven’t seen it yet, I do plan to, as I’m a huge fan of, surprisingly, Lust and Envy. Also, the trailer caught my eye a long while back when it first debuted. Anyway, I like to think this was a win for live action anime, despite it only being a small step in the right direction (that is, decent story adaptation above all else).

    1. It was definitely better than I expected it to be. I was worried they would adhere to the story so incredibly rigidly it would really prevent this from translating into movie format. So, kind of happy to see that they actually made some of the hard choices in order to present a decent story in the run time. While people might like to second guess which bits should have been cut and included, I think this goes a long way to getting more stories adapted.

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