If it weren’t for Michael Arias’s name on Heaven’s Door I might never have bothered to say anything about Heaven’s Door. When I heard the director of Tekkonkinkreet was directing his first live-action feature, I was intrigued. Then I actually started watching the movie, and intrigue gave way to disappointment and finally annoyance. All the imagination that fueled the former movie has been siphoned out and replaced with clichés.
Door’s premise is simple enough to fit on a gum wrapper. Two young people, garage mechanic Masato (Tomoya Nagase) and hospital aid Harumi (Mayuko Fukuda), are both dying of cancer. They walk out of the hospital where he’s currently staying (after a very funny scene where they both get drunk on tequila left by a former patient who died of alcoholism), steal a car, and decide to live a little before they’re dead. Unfortunately the car belongs to a corporate mogul, and it contains his stash of dirty graft money — which the two of them spend on hotels and boutique clothing. They then end up with both the cops and the businessman’s henchmen after them, and their whole life boils down to not getting shot or arrested long enough to sit together at the seaside for the first time.
I often talk about a failed movie by contrasting it with a successful one. The contrasting example that comes most readily to mind is Kao (Face), another road-trip story. Why did that one work so well, while this one turns into such a tiresome retread? Predictability, I guess. With Face I was always in suspense, and the movie mined plausible human behavior in an unsentimental and adventurous way. Door is built out of bits and pieces of other lovers-on-the-lam films and doesn’t bring anything except local color. The characters are all defined by what the plot feeds them, so they’re only interesting as elements in a script. When you realize you’re dealing with a movie that fundamentally mechanical, the thrill’s gone; there’s nothing to do but watch the whole thing unspool as it must. Attempts at characterization in the form of Masato mumbling about how life’s dealt him a bum hand only make it less endearing. We know all this stuff is just contrivance, so we don’t care.
This tendency comes through most blatantly with the movie’s dumb subplot with the money and the crooked businessman. The script rigs it so it’s driven by coincidence and the whims of the story, not actual human behavior. Worse, the movie bends the rules to keep it that way. At one point the two of them are in a Mexican restaurant, which has been clearly surrounded by the cops. Then, poof, they’re gone: they’ve taken off in the restaurant owner’s mini-van. This isn’t poetic license. It’s cheating, plain and simple. Even dumber is the follow-up scene, where they’re chased by a truck for no reason other than to give the filmmakers an excuse to give us car crashes and other stuff lifted wholesale from Thelma and Louise. It all looks great — Arias adds some thoughtful visual touches, like using a lens that makes cities and landscapes look like toy sets — but it adds up to so little.
Some research showed me this is actually a remake of a 1997 German movie, which I have not seen. Not that it matters; any movie ultimately has to stand on its own. I didn’t mind that Tekkonkinkreet was an adaptation of Taiyo Matsumoto’s manga. If anything, it ennobled the original by being as good as it was. But that movie was alive and awake. This one sleepwalks and stumbles into the furniture.