Recently available on a Taiwanese import DVD, Returner features stylized gunfights and kung fu battles, as well as time travel, robots, and aliens. On one hand, these familiar spectacles mark the movie’s indebtedness to the usual suspects: The Terminator, Independence Day, Escape From New York, and The Matrix, even E.T. Indeed, digital effects, pyrotechnics, wirework, and kung fu choreography make the movie compelling to watch. On another hand, at least for a time, Returner offers a timely argument against intolerance towards cultural and racial differences.
The plot begins in the future, when long preserved government reports detail the invasion of Earth by shape-shifting robotic aliens in 2002. Years later, these documents are read by the last human survivors who are hiding in an underground fortress in Tibet. Here they build a machine to travel back in time in order to prevent the war; they plan to kill the first alien that scouted Earth before it communicates with its buddies. In these early scenes, the humans see their only possible response to aggression as more (and more sophisticated) violence, and you are asked to share their view. The aliens are ferocious adversaries deserving to die, as they are depicted destroying cities full of people—including children.
When the aliens mount a surprise attack on the Tibetan base, Milly (Anne Suzuki) not only survives, but also bravely jumps inside the time machine, arriving in 2002 Japan. Here she meets the mercenary, Miyamoto (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who is determined to kill Mizoguchi (Goro Kishitani), a ruthless mafia soldier. As revealed in a series of flashbacks, Mizoguchi murdered Miyamoto’s best friend when they were just kids, which justifies Miyamoto’s violent behavior.
Milly “convinces” Miyamoto (by planting an explosive device in his neck) to help her find the alien ship, which has crash-landed nearby. Predictably, military scientists are eagerly performing experiments on the ship and its occupant, in the name of science and national security. But, as Milly and Miyamato discover, the alien is actually small, cute, and unthreatening; and yes, like E.T., it uses telepathic communication to say it just wants to go home. Surprise: humans have caused the war after all, and the demonization of the aliens was just a government cover-up.
By the time the aliens do show up in search of their missing fellow, fear and prejudice are deeply affecting both sides. Certainly, humans have no right to capture and vivisect an alien creature just because it is “different” and they can’t understand it, but at the same time, the aliens appear rather bad-tempered when they destroy the planet as punishment for this offense.
It is worth noticing that Returner‘s argument against intolerance and prejudice extends beyond inter-species conflicts. The film contends that these qualities are integral to human culture. When we are introduced to Mizoguchi, he is a slave trader, and his employer is a racist Chinese don who hates everything Japanese. Initially, Miyamoto, our hero, is hardly more “progressive”: he feels threatened by Milly when he thinks she is a foreigner and one of Mizoguchi’s slaves.
Considering the bigotry and fear that shape the scenes set in 2002 Japan, it is perhaps ironic that the last humans—of various races and nationalities—are working together at the base in Tibet in the future. An apocalypse has inspired this community, by redirecting violence and antipathy against a single enemy force, the aliens. These thematic complexities, however they are eventually trivialized in Returner‘s action set pieces, speak to our post-9/11 context. The object lesson emerging from these complexities is worth attending: zero tolerance for difference results in disaster.