“Mobile Suit Gundam 00: A wakening of the Trailblazer” A Stunning, Audacious Finale
Mobile Suit Gundam 00: A wakening of the Trailblazer is the first and last sequel to a television series that arguably didn’t need one. To be sure, it ended in a manner that left fans with questions to speculate over, but it also concluded the story built up over the series’ fifty episodes. Lead protagonist Setsuna F. Seiei changed from a youthful fanatic to a chastened and much wiser young man whose exposure to GN particles eventually developed him into humanity’s first purebred true “Innovator,” an evolved human with enhanced intuition and telepathic abilities that allow one to sense and understand the thoughts and feelings of others. The series’ plot resolved with its villains defeated and a better tomorrow on the way for a world clearly shown to have learned from its egregious errors. As a sequel, then, the challenge that A wakening of the Trailblazer faces is not to continue what came before but to deliver a credible and entertaining new chapter for this ambitious saga. Despite some weaknesses, the film manages to accomplish this task, and it does so while offering a breathtaking spectacle of an adventure in the process.
The year is 2314 AD. Two years have passed since the defeat of Ribbons Almark, the dissolution of the corrupted peacekeeping force A-Laws, and the reformation of the Earth Sphere Federation Government. Since then the new regime has faithfully pursued a policy of reconciliation and steady disarmament while humanity’s expansion into space proceeds, with the Government also benefiting from the captured quantum supercomputer Veda. Hidden from view amidst all this is the group most responsible for the downfall of A-Laws, the secret organization Celestial Being and its Gundam Meisters. Whereas in the past they openly conducted armed interventions against any and all conflict, they now carry out covert operations against small disturbances to help keep the peace without disrupting it. Celestial Being is also developing the successor to Setsuna F. Seiei’s 00 Raiser machine, the 00 Quanta, whose experimental “Quantum System” has the potential to push his Innovator abilities to their limit and end conflict by uniting people’s consciousness within its area of effect. With the mistakes and scars of the past slowly but surely being fixed and healed, a hard-won era of tranquility appears to be at hand.
Unfortunately, an unforeseen crisis looms. When a space vessel sent to Jupiter over a century ago mysteriously leaves its orbit and heads on a path straight for Earth with no signs of life aboard, the Federation military destroys it. But much debris makes it to Earth instead of burning up in the atmosphere as expected, and days later disturbances manifest all over the globe near places where the debris fell. Machines of many different types go haywire and operate on their own, while humans turn up severely injured with their bodies partially converted to metal. With Veda’s help the Federation soon realizes what it’s dealing with and deduces that humanity is dealing with what it terms as “ELS” (Extraterrestrial Living-metal Shapeshifters), so named since they are metallic lifeforms that can take any shape and bond with man and machine alike with deadly consequences. The threat on Earth is barely contained before the destroyed ship proves but a harbinger of doom, as a massive army of ELS emerges from Jupiter and makes its way toward Earth. All efforts to communicate fail, merely resulting in further attacks upon the humans. In the face of this unprecedented threat, Celestial Being reassembles in force to aid mankind in its darkest hour. The result of the raging conflict could hinge on the actions of Setsuna and the completion of the 00 Quanta, but nothing is certain and time is fast running out.
Even by the standards of its unorthodox predecessor, this film treads in uncharted and even dangerous territory for a Gundam story. A hallmark of the franchise has long been a plot-driven focus on conflicting ideologies, a dim view of war in any form, and the subject of how humanity might change and stay the same after immigration to a new frontier in outer space. The great conflict against extraterrestrials that defines A wakening of the Trailblazer, however, does anything but emulate traditional Gundam storytelling. There are no enemy rivals or leaders for the star characters to debate in the heat of battle; the ELS have no spoken dialogue; no complex issues or motives are involved. Even so, the plot is not diminished by this. By eschewing familiar tropes the film instead opts to depict the ultimate challenge to the very foundation of hope that the ending of the second season embraced, namely its championing of peace and progress through a deep-rooted commitment to mutual understanding. In season two Innovation was touted as the ultimate advancement and the movie shows that a significant portion of humanity is becoming capable of it. Yet the first encounters with the ELS show that the expanded consciousness that comes with innovation leaves people vulnerable, with their minds being painfully assaulted by messages that they find incomprehensible. The 00 Quanta may or may not make the difference for this problem, but humanity nonetheless must fight and sacrifice just to win the chance to attempt a dialogue with the ELS one more time. Speaking to the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun about his intent for this last iteration of the mythos, director Seiji Mizushima (Fullmetal Alchemist) remarked that “…I wanted to have humans clash with a completely irreconcilable and frightening opponent, yet try to communicate with it.” Just so; this is a tale wherein mankind is compelled to struggle and adapt and grow or die trying, ready or not.
In this context, the wisdom of presenting the ELS as genuine and unfamiliar aliens cannot be overstated. The concept of humanoid aliens is a conceit that plenty of science fiction indulges in for the sake of presenting a story that an audience can most easily relate to. But between the vastness of the universe and countless possibilities for the development of life, it is admittedly more realistic to take the road less traveled and consider the possibility of intelligent aliens as beings that we as people would be lucky to even fathom at all. Most importantly, perhaps, the second season also depicted a clear divide between normal people and a group of villainous metahumans led by Ribbons Almark that thought in a fundamentally different way compared to the rest of us. Had A wakening of the Trailblazer simply presented us with something akin to the Zentradi from The Superdimension Fortress Macross, it would have been an exercise in mundane redundancy.
The story is generally well-paced; the categorization of A wakening of the Trailblazer as an action movie should not mislead anyone to believe that it’s simply one long parade of eye candy. The first act of the film mostly dedicates itself to introducing the cast, setting the stage for the rest of the film, and steadily but concisely exposing the terrifying mystery of the ELS. The story also manages some much needed comic relief at appropriate moments thanks to a saucy and flirtatious astrophysicist (yes, really!) and the welcome return of the lovably goofy pilot Patrick Corlasawar. When the time comes for the action the movie is relentless; there is so much going on that the battle scenes fly by even though plenty of time and attention is given to them. The climax of the film, a final battle that pits the totality of the Earth Sphere Federation forces against the main forces, is simply astonishing in its scale. The postscript after the credits complements the final moments of the film to deliver a concise conclusion to the Gundam 00 saga, one that is not to be confused with a rushed ending. When the sub headline is “A wakening of the Trailblazer”, a full account of the blazed trail is not to be expected. The film understands its goal, fulfills it, and contents itself to offer the audience just enough to understand exactly what the preceding two hours of suspense and struggle were all for.
This is not a film without flaws, as there are some characterization and writing problems that do hamper the narrative. The film introduces a major new character named Descartes Shaman, a Federation pilot of the mighty mobile armor Gadelaza and a man recognized to have become a true Innovator just like Setsuna. We learn that in the preceding two years he was treated more like an asset than an individual before finally being treated with respect, causing him to become justifiably embittered and cynical in contrast to the forward-thinking Setsuna. Here we have the foundation of a fascinating character arc, not to mention great potential for sparks to fly between two characters that are similar and yet so different. But since Descartes and Setsuna hardly speak to each other, the matter feels like a missed opportunity.
On another front Setsuna starts the film acting distant and, we are told, lately feeling alienated from his allies and friends now that he has become so different from them. This is fine—it makes some sense and thankfully our hero seems to get better. The trouble lies with the character that does the most to reach out to him during this time, Feldt Grace. Though attentive fans should recall how she treats Celestial Being like a family and the sweet gesture given from her to Setsuna near the end of the second season, here the film seems to suggest that her feelings have now crossed the border from concern to affection. While Feldt comes to terms with this in a satisfying way, the issue is also one-sided to the point that one could be forgiven for believing that Setsuna is entirely oblivious to it the entire time. If the goal here was to show instead of tell, the viewer is unfortunately being asked to look through opaque glass.
On the positive side most secondary characters return and many have their own small but substantive place in the narrative, although fans with particular favorites may find themselves wishing that more time had been reserved for them. A select few are admittedly stuck with only a handful of lines, a fact that is egregious in the particular case of a character that achieves an important accomplishment during the climax. The best supporting character to make a return by far is Graham Aker, a changed man that now fortunately resembles the charismatic and passionate fighter that he was in the first season of the TV series. Leading his own squadron into the thick of battle, the intrepid ace performs at a level equal to any of the Gundam Meisters. Meanwhile, all four Gundam Meisters get their time to shine here; Lockon Stratos, Alleujah Haptism and Tieria Erde all have to step up in a big way to assist Setsuna and help humanity hold the line against the ELS. The balance on display here is a significant departure from the way Setsuna and his machine were Celestial Being’s trump card in the second season, and given the nature of the threat here the change is both sensible and welcome.
This movie benefits immensely from a truly glorious presentation; here Gundam 00 has made a flawless transition from a first-rate TV project to a theatrical product that should age very gracefully in the long run. From the new Gundams and mobile suits to the characters themselves to the landscapes on Earth to the awe-inspiring views from outer space, everything and everyone is brought to life with detailed and lush art and animation; even the alien ELS are done well enough to look like they belong. Meanwhile the top selling point for this movie is without a doubt its exhilarating action scenes, all of which are an obvious labor of love and directed with the utmost skill. They are further helped along by the characteristic excellence of returning musical composer Kenji Kawai (Eden of the East, Fate/Stay Night, Ghost in the Shell), whose work includes both new and reimagined tracks that are good enough to elevate key moments and help them feel sufficiently epic to the viewer.
However, what makes A wakening of the Trailblazer such a riveting experience is something much more than technical achievement. Even the Gundams of Celestial Being must constantly go all out just to survive, and at times need saving just as there are moments where they come in the nick of time to save others. The ELS are relentless and numerous to the point that every encounter with them turns into a losing battle, even as man-made mecha are displaying dazzling maneuvers and unleashing mass destruction upon their foes. Thanks to that a real element of tension and desperation is inspired along with excitement, which perfectly complements the uncertainty of the battle against an enigmatic force that is not and possibly cannot be understood. The end result of all this is a thrilling and important last adventure, a film far stronger than the sum of its few flaws that is not to be missed by any fan that followed the television series. If there’s anything regrettable about this bold experiment, it’s that nothing like it is liable to come along again for quite some time.