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"Gundam 00 – A Wakening of the Trailblazer": Loving The Alien

by on August 24, 2011

Two years have passed since Celestial Being defeated Ribbons and his rogue Innovades. With the reorganized Federation government working towards a genuine peace, the anti-war organization has switched to non-Gundam small scale interventions as a form of clean up. It’s a strategy which is helped by Celestial Being happening to be on its last legs, its waning financial revenue and manpower tapped out by the previous conflict and related sabotage.

When a centuries-old Jupiter exploration ship drifts into Earth orbit, the Federation obliterate it and consider the matter resolved. But strange occurrences happen wherever wreckage from the ship has crashed to the surface. All manner of vehicles and machines start operating on their own, endangering human lives. As the mystery deepens, Celestial Being becomes involved, and soon all of humanity faces a grim prospect: an intergalactic war that they may not be able to win.

The major milestone ushered in by this film is that it’s the very first Gundam story to tackle the concept of aliens from outer space. Lesser known spin offs like SD Gundam may have toyed with the idea, and SEED brought in a space whale fossil as a seemingly retconned plot point, but 00 is the first Gundam universe to flat out involve them. Given the franchise’s long held tradition of human-on-human war, this is likely to make some uneasy. I myself have long held the opinion that aliens hold no place in Gundam, and that there are plenty of other mecha series for those wanting such a plot. But A Wakening manages to handle the idea in a way that works well and feels like the natural next step for the 00 story. Towards the end of season 2, much was made of how humanity would react if/when they encountered other life in the universe and how wrong it could go if we were still clinging to territorial terrestrial conflicts. With this movie, we see that an alien encounter was indeed an inevitability. A strength of 00 has always been to tell its own story whilst clearly asking ‘What if this happened in real life?’ Season one focused on what if a Celestial Being operated in reality. Season 2 focused on what if reality became closer to the unification elements seen in Gundam. The movie is very clearly focused on what would happen if aliens appeared. The ELS (Extraterrestrial Living metal Shapeshifters) are a truly alien creation, a sentient metal hive that can change shape at will. The sheer non-human nature of them is key to the story, as the idea of communication would be lost if they were another Star Trek style ‘tape a Mars bar to a guy’s head and apply face paint’ race. There’s even a surprising amount of horror gained from them, as the film slowly builds up to the moment of their appearance. The ELS are an ominous and threatening force, a complete opposite to the mix of personalities that make up the human side of the cast.

At the forefront of things is Setsuna. We last left him having evolved into humanity’s first purebred Innovator and the film explores just what this transformation means on a personal level and for wider human society. Unsure of how he can now interact with others, and carrying the immense burden of learning how he should use these abilities, he struggles with natural doubt and confusion. Struggling with this on a different level is Feldt. I’ve rarely mentioned her character in my reviews of the television series, if only because there were slightly more dynamic plot threads to discuss. It’s been a long road for Feldt. When she first appeared, she seemed to be another ‘moe loli idol’-type, but good writing made her so much more. We’ve seen her grow up from a shy teenage girl to a strong-willed and kind-hearted woman, with Setsuna almost like a surrogate brother to her. As was hinted at near the end of the series, however, her feelings for him actually go deeper. Feldt’s plight is one of a young woman whose heart belongs to the man who is saddled with being a pioneer for human reform. It also doesn’t help that he’s as dense on a woman’s feelings as any male. That girl sure can pick ’em.

During production, the film was jokingly referred to as ‘Graham’s Counterattack’ and on that front the film does not disappoint. Having gotten over his stint as a crazed masked man, Graham is now back to the capable ace he was in season 1, holding a respect for Setsuna as he leads a successor to the former Overflags team.

One of the major newcomers is Descartes Shaman, a Federation allied Innovator. The promotion for the movie makes a big deal of the character, suggesting him to be a rival/counterpoint to Setsuna. In actuality, the character is underused, and does little more then actually prop Setsuna up further. Season 2 highlighted that Innovation wouldn’t magically fix the flaws in human character, and indeed the idea of another genuine Innovator who reacts to the ELS with pure military force is a valid viewpoint and one worth exploring. Shaman does go to show that simply being an Innovator means little in the face of the aliens, but I would have liked to have seen his role expanded. As is, he sadly falls under the bracket of realities that the series chooses to ignore to speed up the idea of global unity.

Lastly on the character front, there a few surprise cameos that work well. In particular, a backstabbing, long-term secondary character in the Federation turns out to be alive and seeking redemption. I complained that in season 2 the antagonists often veered into cartoon villainy, so this brief appearance is a nice bit of maturity. I’d written the character off as dead in the TV finale, but we’re instead treated to him facing up to the despicable lengths he was willing to go to for his own advancement.

Fitting in with the overall theme of evolution and advancement, we once again have a fun new set of mobile suits that expand on what has come before. As expected, each of the four Gundams has a spiritual successor. They’re an interesting batch, partly because the concepts were made public periodically and fan reaction to these updates steered things to what we see here. This final set of Gundams are all pretty bulky, having learned from their previous run of facing a world armed with GN weapons. Each of the designs sees its core motif through to it logical conclusion, with the likes of Lockon’s Zabanaya combining precision shooting with adaptable armour and Allelujah’s Harute boosting thrusters that dwarf the Gundam itself. The only units I’m not sold on are Setsuna’s, sadly. He initially uses a repaired 00 Raiser, making do with particle tanks in place of its absent GN Drives. This seems fairly inconsistent, given how previously much was made of paired Drives being essential to its performance. Side stories offer an explanation of improved technology during the hiatus (more on this later) but it still feels awkward even with the obvious need to show that even the 00 Raiser is no match in this conflict. As for the brand new 00 [QAN]T, it’s not a bad design but it does feel a bit too much like giving Setsuna a Gundam that looks more ‘special’ then the others. It’s the same problem I had with evolving Freedom into Strike Freedom in SEED Destiny. Sometimes a design achieves a sense of completion, and if you keep adding to it you risk losing what worked in the first place. [QAN]T feels like its forcing notability, much like how Strike Freedom added extra weapons and gold plated joints. It also doesn’t help that it’s noticeably skinnier and lightly armed compared to its siblings.

On the Federation side of things, we have another successive generation of the GN-X with elements of the Ahead and a GN successor to Graham’s beloved Flag, the Brave. The true stand out, though, is Descartes Gadelazzo, a Mobile Armour the size of Ptolemy and with remote Fangs each as powerful as a normal MS. As a Gundam/mecha fan, I’ve come to generally accept the idea of 60ft-tall war machines zipping around and performing barrel rolls. But watching a monster like this not only match but excel those manoeuvres led to one of the few times I’ve genuinely been awed yet terrified by the idea that these things might exist.

In terms of overall story the film does well, but like season 2 it abounds with good but under-unexploited ideas. The ending—which isn’t bad—is particularly weak. The movie raises the issue of how society will move forward in the wake of Innovators and the ELS but doesn’t really commit to this factor. I don’t want to give too much away, but it doesn’t even explain what the survivors do next. (A brief epilogue does confirm the fate of a secondary character, and drops one last controversial bombshell.) Furthermore, all the talk in the series about Celestial Being accepting their punishment when the time comes seems to amount to little more then window dressing.

I’m probably making this sound like it’s a mess but as someone who loved 00 for its cast it saddens me that the fates of these characters may remain unknown unless you read some obscure spin off media. Which leads me to my next complaint.

I’ve discussed the major misgiving I’ve had with the television shows: Want to know how Descartes became an Innovator or what’s up with the suspiciously Nena Trinity-like Nina Carmine? You have to read a guidebook or the novelisation, which are readily available to Japanese fans but not to international ones. It’s bad storytelling and makes the show less accessible. Worse, things like the Shaman question could easily be answered on screen with a quick line of dialogue. Given the big deal that was made over Setsuna awakening in the series, it would surely make sense to make it clear on screen where more Innovators were suddenly coming from. Regardless, this kind of marketing strategy needs to stop. Companion publications are fine for exploring things that can’t easily fit into the main narrative, but by no means should they become essential to address plot holes or quirks.

The animation is beautiful. It’s not always the most lavish I’ve seen from Japan (a few moments struck me as just about better then season 2) but it is mostly smooth and really shines through in the battle scenes. Each encounter with the ELS is harsh and frantic, and the film displays this perfectly and in a way a television budget never could. These are easily the most intense battles seen in a Gundam production to date, whirling cyclones of choreographed chaos that avoid the pitfalls seen in the likes of the live-action Transformers movies. The only real issue I had was the mildly awkward uses of CGI/cell shading, often for space battleships. It’s not as awkward as similar uses a decade ago but it does briefly take you out of the moment.

One of the strongest elements of the 00 cocktail has always been the soundtrack and Kenji Kawai manages to outdo himself. As before, established themes return to evolve or spin off in a new direction (‘Trans-Am Raiser’ is pushed to its triumphant limit) but there’s also a strong number of new pieces. One element that works really well is the groaning sound used in pieces related to the ELS. It’s very haunting, creepy and foreboding, a mix somewhere between strained metal and alien screeching. It perfectly complements the otherworldly visuals they present in the animation.

The film is available on a choice of Blu-ray or DVD, and it’s unfortunate that the odds are stacked in the former’s favour. Beyond the obvious picture and sound comparisons, the DVD lacks any special features. In an ironic way you could say this echoes the story’s stance on leaving outdated things behind and moving towards the new and shiny, but taken as a matter of fact I don’t like it. The transition to Blu-ray is currently not an option for some (I myself only recently acquired one by way of a Playstation 3), so its unfair to effectively punish those who can only afford the mainstream standard DVD format.

Regardless, the extras are pretty enjoyable. The vast majority of them are promotional videos, trailers and TV spots. Whilst they eventually start to overuse the same scenes and dialogue as with any movie promotional blitz, they are fairly well edited. The promotional videos in particular are interesting as we get to see the aforementioned early Gundam designs briefly in action. The remaining two extras are a TV Series Guide and a ‘Celestial Being The Movie Trailer’. The first is a brief look back at the TV series, designed by its own admission to induct new viewers in hopes they’ll go and see the movie. In actuality, it’s probably best for jogging the memory of those who haven’t watched the show for a while, and doesn’t have nearly as much effort as the similar Setsuna narrated clip show on the first season 2 volume.

The ‘Celestial Being’ trailer is a bit of fun with one of the main feature’s best comedic moments. I don’t want to spoil too much but after this I’m left wishing Sunrise would genuinely animate this as some kind of ‘straight to DVD’ release. It’s a perfect little parody of Gundam history and shows that the production team know how to have a laugh at their own expense.

The film itself is presented in a choice of 5.1 Japanese or English, with a further choice of 2.0 on the Blu-ray. By this point both casts have become comfortable with their roles, but I have to voice my preference for the original. The English cast have improved from when they began but there’s still the hurdle of them being in nearly every Gundam dub; there are also some bad line deliveries. Subtle moments that make even minor characters come off as human are just delivered dully and matter-of-factly by the English actors.

A Wakening of the Trailblazer is a fitting conclusion to the Gundam 00 story. Whilst there are a few elements that could have been better handled, I certainly didn’t come away from it feeling it was a mess or a bad conclusion. It tackles an element that has long been taboo in Gundam and does so in a way that makes it clear that this was always the intended destination for the 00 story. Good story telling leaves you with the feeling that you’ve been on a journey, and I definitely get that sensation here. With the new series Gundam AGE starting later this year, the bar has been set quite high. If you haven’t seen the TV series this really isn’t the place to start, but for those who have the film is an apt conclusion.

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