"Lensman" is to animated features what Sam Raimi's "Darkman" is to horror thrillers: a return to older traditions via new technologies. Unfortunately, "Lensman" is not as inspired as "Darkman."
Based on the 1930s pulp writing of E.E. "Doc" Smith, the film is an amalgam of sci-fi cliches; ironically, Smith actually established many of them in the '30s when he conceived his 25th Century Galactic Patrol adventures. Like "Star Wars," "Lensman" jumps onto a narrative escalator, a serial effect in which crucial events have taken place before the first frame and consequences will be felt in the inevitable sequels.
On a quiet homesteading planet, young Kimball Kinnison, son of the now disabled founder of the Galactic Patrol, is suddenly drawn into the ongoing conflict between the Patrol and the Boskone, evil space pirates with a lot of Darth Vader about them. After his father is killed and his planet blown apart, Kinnison teams up with the bearish Von Buskirk (wookie of the year), the serpentine Worsel, Bill (who looks like an aging Billy Idol and sounds like a speeding Wolfman Jack) and a Jane Fonda-like Patrol nurse who has watched "Barbarella" too many times.
It would have cost more than "Heaven's Gate" and "Days of Thunder" together for a live-action simulation of Smith's universe, but animation provided a $5 million out. Unfortunately, the makers of "Lensman" chose to mix high-tech computer-graphic animation with more traditional animation, and the results are equally mixed.
Cost considerations that kept "Lensman" from a live-action rendering seem to have dulled the imaginations of directors Yoshiaki Kawakiri and Kazuyuki Hirokawa. While Kinnison and his cohorts manage to stay one frame ahead of disaster, the filmmakers drag out assorted chase sequences and overly repeat sunburst yellow and rocket red pyrotechnics.
Although it's a Japanese production (with the 3-D graphics coming from the New York Institute of Technology Computer Graphics Laboratory), the dialogue in this 107-minute film is in English and the human characters are almost all Occidental; the nonhuman creatures, of course, almost all look accidental. Unlike the cyber-punk energy of the comics-based "Akira," a recent, and better, Biograph offering, "Lensman" plays like the old-fashioned pulp story it's rooted in. It's absent the violence, but it also lacks the emotional resonance needed to grab one's attention.
Lensman, at the Biograph, is unrated.