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"Robotech: Shadow Chronicles" 2-Disc: Worthy Successor

Well, it took Harmony Gold almost twenty years to do it, but in 2006 they finally produced their first complete sequel to the original Robotech series. In this day and age, the word ‘sequel’ is quite out of the ordinary when it comes to 1980s animated franchises. Transformers, Masters of the Universe, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have all had new animated adventures since their 80s heyday, but none of the latter-day series have been genuine sequels; instead, they’ve reinvented their respective core concepts for new audiences, complete with new continuity. With Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles being an unambiguous sequel to Robotech, even going so far as to pick up where the final episode left off, this is clearly a production more for the long-term fans of the franchise rather than an all-new audience. In a way, that makes for a refreshing change, allowing a certain sensibility to the story that makes for a worthy continuation of the more mature themes found in the original series compared to its contemporaries.

Spoiler warnings for what follows.

As noted, the story more-or-less picks up directly from the final episode of the final chapter of Robotech, with a few modifications to better suit the story being told here. Picking up in the year 2044, toward the end of the battle with the Invid for the Earth, the Robotech Expeditionary Force turns up in number to destroy the Invid—at any cost. Unfortunately for the remaining humans on Earth, this includes the incredibly destructive Neutron-S missiles. As the Invid conflict draws to its close, the Invid Regess ominously recognizes the technology behind the Neutron-S missiles, and although allowing Earth to be spared, wastes no time in getting as far away from the planet as possible, lest the originators of the Shadow technology make their move. As it turns out, most current Robotechnology now incorporates devices such as the Shadow shields and Neutron-S missiles, obtained in good faith from the Haydonites, a race also keen to destroy the Invid. Only through Admiral Rick Hunter’s testing of their latest Haydonite-derived technology are the warnings first given. Now together only with Scott Bernard and Marlene/Ariel’s assistance does the true purpose of the Haydonites become clear; to destroy any race that uses Protoculture, even their human ‘allies’.

While the general storyline isn’t totally original, with a robotic-based alien race essentially seeking the destruction of humanity, the story is in general told very well. As can be inevitably expected from any sequel to Robotech after so long a time, our heroes are faced with an all-new adversary in the form of the Haydonites. In a nice piece of added continuity, the Haydonites’ history is directly tied in with the Invid, allowing a satisfying ‘passing of the torch’ of sorts between the two races as the primary villains. The Haydonites themselves are appropriately creepy, and the eventual revelation of what they actually look like was worth waiting for, as they are given a refreshing non-humanoid appearance. In an obvious concession to the limitations of telling a story in a film rather than a series, much of the rest of the story relies on events not directly related on-screen. While some of the story was found in the original Robotech series, there are still quite a few ‘new’ historical story points only mentioned in passing. Thankfully, those points were filled in by the characters themselves rather than having the overused and intruding narrator as found in the original series.

In terms of pacing, the film itself is a tightly-edited production all round, and there’s never a moment of wasted action. The characters, both old and new, are all pleasantly engaging and interesting. Of the previously seen characters, Scott Bernard perhaps unsurprisingly comes off the best. Ariel’s torn devotion between the Invid and Humanity is also handled well, but after the departure of the Invid, she does essentially become a plot device, with no stated limitations to her ever-growing powers. Of the new characters, Marcus Rush and Maia Sterling undoubtedly make the most impact, and they are certainly worthy Robotech character archetypes. From Robotech II: The Sentinels there’s also Vince Grant, now a seasoned (and married) Captain, and the android Janice, now struggling with emerging human emotions. One thing that made me appreciate the characters’ relationships with each other are the small emotional moments found here and there, in the best of melodramatic Robotech tradition. If I only had one complaint it would be that there should have been a few more quieter moments, and even some of the ‘everyday routine’ sequences we saw on occasion in the original series. Still, moments such as those that are included were great to see, and it was no doubt in no small part to the 90-minutes running time that they were able to be included, something Marvel and DC would be well advised to take note of with their animated DTVs.

The animation itself is of a high anime standard, being produced by the excellent Korean studio DR Movie, who’ve also worked on Macross Plus. The character designs, thankfully also done in a clear anime-standard style, are obviously tailored to more modern tastes, but most of the redesigns are pretty good reinventions of the originals. For the most part, you’d have no trouble recognizing them if you were a fan back in the day. Perhaps the most notable exception would be Rick Hunter himself, now bearing only a passing resemblance to either his Macross or The Sentinels counterpart, no doubt due to legal difficulties with Macross-specific characters or concepts. In common with many modern science-fiction anime, all the spaceships and mecha are rendered in CGI. While compared to the original Robotech series this is somewhat jarring, the visuals are far more dynamic than they would otherwise have been, considering the movie’s budget. In a respectable touch, the new mecha designs are clear derivatives of past designs rather than totally new designs, so there is also clear visual continuity between the old and new.

On the audio front, the actors performances are uniformly excellent, especially with returning players such as Richard Epcar, Dan Woren, and Greg Snegoff to name but three. Also, the music from composer Scott Glasgow is also quite befitting of such a classical space opera story, making effective use of the Robotech theme alongside some appropriately Star Trek-esque music.

With this being such a long-awaited sequel to an old classic, there are also a few fun Easter Eggs to be found in the film, such as an homage to an early scene in the very first episode, the classic ‘Itano Circus’ missile trails, and even a copyright-bending modification of the Macross emblem into a new symbol. Speaking of the classic Macross, The Shadow Chronicles is a very welcome return to classic space opera styled anime of the 80s and early 90s, free from the tiresome commercial considerations (all female crews, etc.) seen in actual modern anime. It’s just as well with the comparisons to Macross, as any and all new installments of the actual Macross franchise have been in legal limbo since the release of Macross Plus: The Movie back in 1997.

This latest release is a special edition two-disc version of the film, and features several extras not present in the original release. The menu style is virtually identical to the one disc version, but the film itself now comes complete with an informative commentary track from director Tommy Yune, screenwriter Ford Riley, and Scott Glasgow. Also included on both releases is a documentary charting the creation of The Shadow Chronicles. This is actually pretty interesting at times, and features the odd candid moment from various contributors, of whom even Mark Hamill is included. It tends to confirm that the actual plot emerged from a committee intent on crossing off items on a checklist—which makes it all the more surprising that the end result is as tightly-plotted as it is. One thing I did find noticeable is that only clips from Mospeada were shown, even when Frank Agrama is clearly referencing Roy Fokker’s death in The Macross Saga.

There were two things hinted at in the documentary that I would have liked to have seen more of on the extras disc, however. One of these would be the copious amounts of production sketches seen briefly in the doc; the disc itself only has the barest smattering of these. Another, more surprising omission (considering that it is specifically mentioned in the documentary) is the Robotech United Nations PSA, which was the first new Robotech animation released by The Shadow Chronicles‘ production team. Even though the PSA is a bit of an oddity, I really would have liked to have seen it included, if only for completeness.

In its place however, and exclusive to the two-disc version, is the brief Robotech 3000 promotional reel from Netter Digital. Legend has it that the overwhelming negative response this received caused the project to be cancelled overnight. Watching the promo in action, it’s not hard to see why. From lazy CG animation, to horrendous character designs, to overly clichéd characters, and a general all-round disregard for Robotech as it has classically been known, Robotech 3000 would have been regarded as a non-canonical disaster if it had ever been made. Amusingly enough, even the DVD makers realize this with a humorous caption introducing the short! Aside from the Robotech 3000 short however, the extras disc amounts to a few promotional trailers, animatics, and the aforementioned brief galleries. I would have liked to have seen a lot more from the production side of things.

In conclusion, Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles isn’t quite perfect as a continuation of Robotech, but given the time constraints involved, and also considering the terribly ill-advised previous attempts at a new show, this film was far, far better than I expected it to be. Naturally, with such a long-running generational saga, The Shadow Chronicles purposefully leaves plenty of room for further adventures, and I eagerly anticipate future stories with the continuing quest for Rick Hunter (and possibly even other Macross characters), and future developments with engaging new characters like Marcus Rush, and particularly Maia Sterling. Roll on Robotech: Shadow Rising!

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