The Holy Grail War is a secret war between seven chosen Magi known as ‘masters’ that must fight each other with spirits of former warriors known as ‘servants’. The grand prize to the surviving master and servant is the Holy Grail, which is said to be able to grant any wish. Shirou Emiya is an average student that is dragged into this war after accidently summoning Saber as his servant. He quickly learns that another student, Rin Tohsaka, is also a master with a servant named Archer who seems to take a great dislike to Shirou for some reason…
I was originally going to watch and review this film without any knowledge of the TV series. However after reading several reviews and forum posts strongly suggesting the opposite, I decided to quickly binge my way through the complete 24-episode series before tackling this movie. In hindsight I’m very glad I did because, despite this film starting off as a ‘clip-based’ flashback, it quickly changes into something else. The fact that the first two episodes of the TV series are squeezed into the first five minutes before the title card is shown makes that clear. So I’ll reiterate what others have said: this movie is no shortcut to getting you into the franchise; if you’re interested in Fate/Stay Night, you’ll have to take the long route. The complete series box set is available via MVM.
So what does the film offer to those who have already seen the series and/or played the game? Unlimited Blade Works is actually an alternative telling of the series, representing a second ‘route’ to the original Fate/Stay Night visual novel. Although some of the characters and situations are similar, the ending and the getting there is different to the TV version.
The first twenty minutes of the film are basically cliff notes and highly edited scenes from the first eleven episodes, after that the film rapidly changes to focus on Archer’s true identity and Shirou’s new journey based upon those revelations. The change of events and tone will be welcomed by those who weren’t particularly fond of the romanticized route that the TV series took. Thankfully, the film also cuts out a lot of the baggage that made the first third of the series really slow and dragging, such as the boring school antics, Shirou’s bothersome ‘hero of justice’ attitude that gets him into many stupid situations in early part of the series, and the mild harem tone we have with Shirou and the multiple women that visit his home. But in the process, a lot of sacrifices have been made to compensate for the lack of time to get to the main selling point of the film. Characters such as Rider and Illyasviel have greatly reduced screen time, whilst the likes of Shinji and Archer are expanded. Other character motivations and behaviours have altered in accordance to the new timeline, providing some interesting twists along the way. Character development, however, is non-existent; the film’s pace is far too quick and choppy to allow room for character growth so it’s reduced to literally having them change perspective on others and situations at the drop of a hat, whilst teleporting the cast from one location to another to cut time. This is where knowledge of the TV series/visual novel comes in to help fill in the gaps that the film creates.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t cut out one of the issues the TV series had: the lack of focus on the antagonists. The film first makes a detour to Caster and her master, similar to the series but crudely cut down for time, then switches rapidly to the main attraction of the film – Archer. If it had ended with the completion of his and Shirou’s character arcs then it would have still been a strong film with enough new material to warrant its existence. However the threat then jumps again to Gilgamesh, whose character and threat level is greatly reduced compared to the series. Although the battle is still epic to watch, the fact that Shirou takes Saber’s place in it takes away a lot of her initial characterisation, reducing her considerably to nothing more than a prop towards Shirou’s final attack. Ultimately, since the film’s pace is incredibly fast to jump to the next fight, it’s hard to get emotionally invested in the new character revelations. The stakes are far higher on this route, and the main characters are put into very bloody situations but when little time is granted to seeing their emotional struggles, it results in lack of caring for them.
Animation is a big upgrade in quality from its TV counterpart; although the character designs haven’t changed much, it’s slicker, more polished, and has a much higher budget. This works to great effect with the magical powers and the battles, which are now more grand and detailed. Voice acting quality remains the same; the voice of Saber has now changed, but Michelle Huff performs well in the role.
DVD extras include various promo videos and theatrical spots/trailers for the film, nothing more.
This film is for already-made fans of the anime and/or visual novel only. It’s a visually impressive but flawed distraction with some nice new details and revelations added to mostly keep long-standing fans happy, but anyone else will not get much out of it, apart from confusion.