Unusually for an animated movie aimed at younger viewers with a full global theatrical release, Ratchet & Clank isn't available to watch in 3D. This is obviously good news for parents who resent paying for multiple pairs of plastic Roy Orbison-style glasses that add an illusion of visual depth to productions that often seem paper-thin in many other areas. Instead, Ratchet & Clank boasts an even more exotic stereoscopic experience: the opportunity to play an already critically and commercially successful PS4 game that is clearly several light years ahead of the usual rushed tie-in.
With so much of the same core talent involved in both versions and vertically integrated character models and assets, the Ratchet & Clank film and game share a perhaps unprecedented amount of creative DNA. The joint release feels like a demonstrable victory for longstanding R&C developer Insomniac and their original creative vision, even if the Pixar brain trust probably aren't looking nervously over their shoulders just yet.
Plot-wise, it's a buffed-up rehash of the original Ratchet & Clank PS2 game from 2002. In a colourful, crammed universe full of cartoonish future-tech and squidgy flora and fauna, the power-hungry Chairman Drek (a Blarg warlord with the pinstripe suit and slicked-back ponytail of a 90s yuppie) unwittingly engineers a fateful meeting between two cosmic orphans.
Ratchet is an Omniwrench-wielding dreamer, surprisingly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed considering he is the last known survivor of his species. This lone Lombax bashes out a living as a grease monkey on a Tatooine-style backwater planet while craving adventure and excitement. Clank is the diminutive, nominally defective droid who, having escaped the Blarg war machine production line, crash-lands on Ratchet's doorstep with vital intelligence concerning Drek's diabolical plans.
Together, they speed to alert mega-chinned dimbulb Captain Quark and his Galactic Rangers, the celebrated guardians of this galaxy. After some ingenious displays of Blarg-bashing and more than a few montages, Ratchet and his robot backpack are soon spearheading the Rangers effort to neutralise Drek's monstrous doomsday weapon, the Deplanetizer. But could there be someone even more sinister - or, if you like, nefarious - pulling all the strings? As hero journeys go, it's a streamlined three-act story that, despite the exuberant sci-fi trappings, feels like it probably originates from a little bit further back than just 2002.
Thanks to his groaning weapon wheel, the game incarnation of Ratchet is always outnumbered but never outgunned. But that moreish play loop of unleashing bullets, lasers, arcing electricity, flames and missiles while side-flipping around panicked Blarg warbots only translates to the screen in small doses. In the movie, there's nothing like the game's (literally) laser-sighted focus on ordnance, although some of the heavy hitters in Ratchet's arsenal get extended cameos. The Tornado Launcher and ludicrously overpowered RYNO practically become plot points, while the comic potential of the Sheepinator is saved, sniper-style, for one big gag. (Sadly, there's no room for the disco-ball-as-dance-off-grenade shenanigans of the Groovitron.)
From a gaming point of view, it's intriguing to see how a nine-hour campaign gets compressed into a 90-minute movie. While the armature of the plot remains fixed, it still feels instructive to witness all the narrative loop-de-loops, long-way-rounds and fetch quests get excised. It's hard to shake the image of a vintage hot air balloonist combating undesired landfall, tossing everything non-essential out of their wicker basket. Rail-grinding? Bin it. Race-winning? Lose it. Brain-harvesting? Over the side it goes, probably with a Wilhelm scream. None of it feels like a huge loss, although I found myself missing the sweeping, sparkling murmuration of collected nuts and bolts that zip toward Ratchet every time he cracks open a crate.
Instead of run'n'gun action, the movie slathers on scattershot humour, with a peculiar emphasis on contemporary social media. As well as an avalanche of texting and hashtag gags, there are Easter Egg appearances by other Sony mascots like Jak, Daxter and Sly Raccoon and even the soothing sound of a classic PS1 booting up. For older viewers, there are also nods to Predator, Robocop, Airplane and even Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But for the most part, the movie cruises along on Captain Qwark's self-regarding shtick and bucketloads of goofy slapstick. The brief appearance of the hovering killbot Zurkons - first as an Aliens-style swarm of motion-sensed blips, then as a charging mob hooting "yoo-hoo!" - is a highlight, and might even be Ratchet & Clank's best chance of a Minions-style spin-off.
Wisely, the movie retains the core voice talent of James Arnold Taylor and David Kaye, the voiceover specialists who have inhabited the roles of Ratchet and Clank for over a decade, and they bring all that experience to their likeable performances. (One wonders how many times has Kaye has been required to say "oh my!" into a mic, in a cramped soundbooth lined with eggboxes.) Jim Ward also returns as Captain Qwark, and seems determined to overtake both Buzz Lightyear and Zapp Brannigan in the booming-but-deluded space hero league table. Among the recognisable Hollywood talent recruited for supporting roles, the great Paul Giamatti gives it some enthusiastic Bond villain oomph as Drek, while Dan Goodman imbues the underwritten Ratchet father figure role of Grim with some surprising grit as well as charm. But after recruiting Sylvester Stallone to voice Drek's thuggish henchbot-in-chief Victor, the movie can't really find much to do with him, which seems a waste.
There is, of course, a post-credits set-up for a sequel, and with more than a dozen Ratchet & Clank game spin-offs, there's plenty of material to tap. Whether the box office will justify another global release is harder to predict. Perhaps Ratchet's cinematic adventures will gravitate to a different platform - which, when you put it like that, sounds like something the Lombax might be asked to do between blasting Blarg cannon fodder. At the very least, Ratchet & Clank is of comparable or greater quality to most of the non-Disney animated movies released in the past few years, and convincingly realises the potential of the weird and wonderful universe created by Insomniac over a decade ago.
We're just weeks away from the launch of the fourth Uncharted, the Sony-exclusive franchise so consistently and enthusiastically compared to the very best Hollywood movies. Presumably the Insomniac team will derive just a little pleasure from being the first developer to unlock the achievement of releasing a fully-fledged movie based on their signature IP. Shots fired, Naughty Dog. Shots fired.
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