Robotech is one of those anime titles whose longevity and rabid fandom have made it iconic, but also a little intimidating to me to try to get into. A series can’t have lasted for over a quarter-century and inspired its legions of dedicated fans without having something going for it, but both of those things can also end up being barriers to entry. While I’m aware that there is a lot of history that came before the two movies of the Robotech 2-Movie Collection, I did want to seize on the chance to explore the territory and test how well the movies hold up for the Robotech novice. The verdict is positive enough that I’m seriously considering splurging for the recently released full series set, although I must also admit that at least part of the reason why is that the complete series set is currently almost 60% off on Amazon.com and I can’t resist a deal.
The briefest summary of Robotech is that it is a multi-generational science fiction saga chronicling humanity’s struggle against an assortment of alien races, using the powerful energy source Protoculture to power star cruisers and space-faring fighter jets that turn into giant robots. The series’ original 85-episode run was stitched together from three separate and unrelated anime series; Robotech was one of the last anime imports that was repurposed in such a wholesale manner. This new two movie set picks up where the third series left off, pitting humanity against the alien invaders called the Invid who have overrun and occupied the Earth, pushing most of the Robotech fighting forces into space.
The packaging of the Robotech 2-Movie Collection helpfully ensures that you know the newer movie, Love Live Alive, actually comes first in the Robotech chronology. Unfortunately, Love Live Alive seems like an absolutely terrible introduction to the Robotech franchise. Love Live Alive follows a group of human resistance fighters waging a guerilla war against the Invid while they wait for the return of the human fleet. However, the movie feels more like an abridged clip show than a proper movie, as though someone spliced together all the Earth segments from the original series with a little bit of new material. Too many characters get introduced too quickly and too shallowly, thoroughly undermining the emotional impact when many of their big plot twists come mere minutes later. We just don’t get enough time to become familiar with any of them for those twists to have any real meaning, while the whole movie has a herky-jerky, stop-and-go pacing that kills any sense of narrative momentum. I also can’t imagine that fans would welcome the “clip show” approach any more than regular fans welcome clip shows in their favorite TV series, unless Love Live Alive is culled out of unused material from the original anime series that hasn’t been seen in the US yet.
The shallow characterization is also of little help when the story has two main leads: Lance Belmont, a resistance fighter formerly a cross-dressing rock star (no, really) who narrates the movie in flashback, and Scott Bernard, the last surviving pilot from to the vanguard of the Earth invasion fleet tasked with destroying the major Invid hive at Reflex Point. The disjointed narrative also makes it nearly impossible for a newcomer to follow what’s going on, other than that people die tragically, and some of the Invid aren’t as bad as they seem while some of the humans are worse. The disjointed sense the movie conveys is not helped by the mix of animation, which occasionally drops out of the vintage 80’s anime look to extremely sleek, modern, CGI-enhanced material without warning. The modern animation can also render characters differently enough from the older material that it can take longer than it should to figure out who someone is. For a newcomer, Love Live Alive feels like you just walked into the middle of a conversation at a party between two old friends you don’t know. They can complete each other’s sentences, but doing so effectively freezes anybody new right out of the conversation.
The Shadow Chronicles is much more successful as a standalone film. While it definitely feels like you’re entering the middle of a story in progress, The Shadow Chronicles is still structured more like a traditional movie. Characters are given enough time and space to breathe and develop (even if none of them really show a tremendous amount of depth or growth by the end of the film’s 90-minute running time), and their quirks are more organically introduced and integrated into the story. While Love Live Alive views the last days of the Invid war from the Earth, The Shadow Chronicles begins in space as the human fleet masses for the invasion. Even though the movie juggles several major subplots in the same running time as Love Live Alive, it never feels as crowded or disjointed as Love Live Alive. Each subplot gets enough time to develop organically while fitting into the larger, unified whole.
The way The Shadow Chronicles manages to make both the personal, micro-scale subplots and the larger, macro-scale subplots part of an organic whole is probably its most impressive achievement. The stories of pilots Marcus Rush and Scott Bernard play out on a personal level, with both plots soon intertwining because Scott was once engaged to Marcus’ late sister, both thought lost when the fleet lost contact with Scott’s task force. Scott’s subplot also incorporates the Invid princess Ariel, who has turned against her own species and is attempting to broker a peace between the warring sides. On a larger level, Captain Vince Grant is sent away from the invasion fleet on a rescue mission to save the legendary Admiral Rick Hunter, stranded in space with material and information critical to the survival of the fleet. Gradually, all these plots intersect as the personal stories work their way into the larger invasion story, and the threat of the Invid is overshadowed by an even greater enemy. If there is a weakness to The Shadow Chronicles, it’s how it manages to build up two separate major conflicts, only to resolve them in slightly unsatisfying ways. The end of the Invid occupation is rather abrupt and handled in an almost cursory manner, and while the second major climactic confrontation at the end of the movie is handled better, it still feels like it ends a little too quickly and without quite enough resolution. While it’s clear that the story ends on a “To be continued…” note, the way that note plays out makes it feel like the movie doesn’t end as much as it just stops, although I suspect this may be par for the course for Robotech.
I also find it a little frustrating that some events in The Shadow Chronicles make much more sense if one knows about some plot twists seen in Love Live Alive, but Love Live Alive in turn makes more sense when it gets some badly needed context gained from The Shadow Chronicles. All this may just be another manifestation of my own unfamiliarity with all things Robotech, though. I sense that the cursory treatment that both movies give the the end of the Invid occupation is because that material was already well-covered by the original series, and might be somewhat redundant to the series’ loyal fanbase. A smaller example is how hotshot pilot Maia Sterling makes a reference to being “half-alien” in The Shadow Chronicles. The revelation and the way characters react to it make it feels more important than it is to the movie’s main stories, and it requires a trip to the Internet to learn why (and to learn that she’s actually a more important character than her role in The Shadow Chronicles would suggest).
The Robotech 2-Movie Collection gives each film its own DVD, packaged in a standard-width DVD case. Both movies look fine, though the more modern anamorphic widescreen Shadow Chronicles looks much, much better than the dated full-frame source material in Love Live Alive. Both films also get 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, though the more modern vintage of The Shadow Chronicles again makes it a more satisfying technical experience than the older Love Live Alive. Bonuses on Love Live Alive are limited to a set of forced trailers on disc insertion (annoyingly and inconsistently unskippable, as they are on many Lionsgate home video releases), a pre-production art gallery, and the Love Live Alive teaser. In contrast, the new single disc version of The Shadow Chronicles packs all the bonus content from the earlier 2-disc Special Edition DVD released by FUNimation in 2007. There doesn’t seem to have been any appreciable loss in quality between the releases, although I must admit I didn’t do a very thorough comparison between the two releases. The bonus content for The Shadow Chronicles is incredibly complete, though, including a feature-length commentary track by director Tommy Yune, scriptwriter Ford Riley, and composer Scott Glasgow; a brace of deleted and alternate scenes (with optional commentary by Tommy Yune); a set of animatics and production art galleries; a 40-minute “behind the scenes” featurette on the movie; additional behind-the-scenes material taken from conventions and podcasts; a music video; and a look at the aborted “Robotech 3000” project.
Two generations of American kids got their minds blown by imported Japanese cartoons with continuity, depth, and much more drama than we were accustomed to. I’m a child of the 70’s, so the anime title that blew away the childish domestic animation pap I had (latter day Hanna-Barbera and early-era Filmation) was Star Blazers. For the kids that came a decade after me, I can totally see how the childish domestic animation pap they had (late-era Filmation and the Sunbow/Hasbro titles) would be blown away by a show like Robotech. However, by now, science fiction and animation has levels of sophistication undreamt of three decades ago. Live-action shows like the rebooted Battlestar Galactica and animated series like Avatar the Last Airbender or Young Justice, can make something like Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles feel nearly as antiquated and simplistic as Robotech and Star Blazers made its contemporaries feel. Even so, there’s enough sophistication and depth in The Shadow Chronicles to make me think the Robotech series is worth investigating further. For those looking to explore the Robotech world, this new DVD set proves to be a solid, more contained entry point to the franchise than the massive series boxed set, even with the insular misfire of Love Live Alive.