Thursday, February 08, 2007

DVD Review
Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles

I've always been a huge fan of Robotech, from it's initial airdate in 1985 (I can still tell you the first episode i'd ever seen) right up to the present. It's something that's stuck with me through reruns, old ratty VHS dubs made from my original Beta recordings, severely edited rental cassettes, and right on up to now with the two separate DVD releases (the original "Robotech legacy" editions and the 2003 Remastered versions). It's a testament to the imagination of Carl Macek and his team of writers, that they were able to take three entirely stand-alone animated series from Japan and retcon them into the multi-generational epic sci-fi space opera that so many people still revere today. The return of Robotech roughly five years ago came as a complete and utter shock to me. Doubly so when in 2004 Harmony Gold announced the third attempt at a new Robotech series, then titled "Shadow Force". I was skeptical that it would see the light of day. Updates were sporadic at best, and things didn't seem to be moving foreword until late 2005 or thereabouts when it reappeared, dubbed Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles. I remained hesitant, but it seemed to finally be happening, after 20 years, Robotech was back!

Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles finally landed on DVD this past week, and it was with a lot of excitement, and more than a little nervous anxiety, that I popped it into the player. Could this one possibly live up to the legacy of the old? Could it possibly please a loyal fan base bolstered by 20 years of nostalgia? Well, while it wasn't perfect, it certainly satisfied this viewer, and makes for a more than worthy successor to the legendary series.

The year is 2044, and the Earth has been taken from mankind by a parasitic alien race called The Invid. Earth's human forces are all but gone, with only small bands of rebel freedom fighters rising against the Invid oppressors. The Shadow Chronicles opens with the Robotech Expeditionary Force returning to Earth orbit and leading an offensive to destroy the Reflex Point, home hive of the Invid Regis. When the Invid willingly flee, taking the remaining supply of Protoculture, a powerful energy source upon which both the Invid as a race, and Robotechnology as a whole rely upon, the door is left open for mankind's forces to return to their home world. Unfortunately, Admiral Rick Hunter, commanding force and captain of the fleet's flagship, the SDF-3, failed to return, and a stray transmission from his ship shows the Admiral in some distress. Naturally, a rescue mission is mounted, led by Captain Vince Grant and his crew. The SDF-3 is found, only to be lost again, and a new enemy, hated and feared by even the powerful Invid, enters the fray. It's up to Captain Grant and the legendary Skull squadron to track down Admiral Hunter and his ship, retrieve the only known remaining protoculture matrix in existence, and remain one step ahead of a new and vicious enemy capable of using the REF's most potent weapons against them. Add Scott Bernard, leader of a rebel band on Earth during the Invid war, a rogue Invid princess, a beautiful android with a connection to the new foe, and, of course, some bad-ass transforming robots into the mix, and you get some great science fiction anime that does a wonderful job of living up to the original.

The Shadow Chronicles has two factors going for it: It's an all-new, original piece of work, which frees writers from the shackles of inventing a plot to shoehorn into already finished animation, and the fact that original series brainchild Carl Macek, and guys like Jack McKinney were able to paint such a huge picture on such a confining canvas. Harmony Gold hired writers who knew Robotech inside and out, die hard fanboys, and it shows through in the material, which oozes the same sort of charisma the original series did. It also draws on the same vocal talent for the most part, all as talented a bunch as you're going to find in English Anime, and features mecha and character designs familiar to fans of the old series (Cyclone cycles and Alpha fighters!). The first 30 minutes or so of the film takes place concurrently with the final episodes of the classic series, presenting the action from an alternate view. While it's great that it ties the story together so tightly, new viewers will probably be scratching their heads for the most part, and veterans will notice a few anachronisms or changes in continuity from the old shows (especially if they finished a run through of the "New Generation" chapter of the saga immediately before viewing The Shadow Chronicles - as i did). While jarring, the changes made are done for Character's sake, and are generally an improvement on the old series, and while not everything is easily explained away, the writers do a good job of not super ceding or outright contradicting the old material. Once we get out of the first act, with the Invid gone and the new enemy introduced, Shadow Chronicles really takes off. Several new characters are introduced, chief among them, Vince Grant, Marcus Rush, and Maia Sterling, and all are worthy of inclusion and show potential to become classic characters in the saga, which leads me to my biggest issue.

Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles essentially plays out like the pilot for a new series, it introduces a handful of characters, sets up an arc, and while it does have some feeling of closure, it leaves its largest threads, along with the development of these new characters, dangling in space. That's not to say that the characters aren't strongly established, they certainly are, but they don't develop a whole lot in the 90 or so minutes we spend with them. It's an unfair critique to make, as we really didn't get to know the old characters all that well in that short of a span either.
It also would have been nice to resolve one of the larger plot threads before the credits - maybe an extra half hour or so could have been used to bring Rick Hunter and the SDF-3 back into the fold. Should The Shadow Chronicles lead into a 20-30 episode series, or a few feature length DVD sequels, the potential is there for it to stand toe to toe with the classics, but as a self contained story, it's like having Empire Strikes Back without Return of the Jedi. Again, i'll re-iterate, these are strong characters, and what few of the old characters that do return, Scott Bernard, Ariel, and Louie Nichols chief among them, are handled excellently, but we just don't get enough time to really latch onto them. Fortunately, while it may come up a little short in the drama department, the action is intense and suitably epic. I'll also say that Rick Hunter was awesome, and just seeing the hero of the original Robotech generation in this thing (still voiced by Tony Oliver to boot!) was one of the finest moments in geek-dom.

The Shadow Chronicles scores points for the quality of the animation present. The production is pretty much entirely digital, resembling more recent forays into TV Anime like Full Metal Panic! or Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. With CG generated backgrounds and all CG robots alongside more traditional looking Cel drawn characters. The two don't always blend seamlessly, and the CG fighters seem a little bland in the texture department, but you forget about that 5 minutes in with the awesome direction of the space battles and the action. Stylistically, it's not too fancy, fluid, and the character designs all have a highly kinetic look to them. The new villains of the show are original and pretty chillingly rendered, and even though the CG occasionally drops to near "Reboot/Beast Wars" levels, the quality of the design and the direction of the action continues to perform admirably in distracting you from any flaws that may be present. It's ultimately a great looking, and very stylish show. The fact that the direct digital transfer on the disc is pristine, flawless, and looks marvelous on a HD display doesn't hurt none either.

Sound wise, The Shadow Chronicles excels. The voice actors are all top notch, the explosions and sound design are all well executed, and the 5.1 mix on the DVD shines like a diamond. I have to lay down some big kudos and congrats to Scott Glasgow on the awesome score he's composed for this one. The original Robotech theme makes an appearance, in fully orchestrated form, and it's a fantastic piece of work. Scott's themes for the show proper are also extremely well done, never bombastic or over the top, always complementary to the scenes without becoming overt or manipulative, and at the same time, wonderfully crafted and infectious. Scott, you've knocked it out of the park, vastly superior to the synth driven stock music that accompanied the old series, what it lacks in nostalgic charm, it makes up for in sheer skill of execution.

The DVD treatment of the show is top notch, the extras are a little sparse, but what's there is good. the big feature is a 45 minute featurette called,"Birth of a Sequel". It's actually quite extensive and honest, and features some wonderful interviews with some very enthusiastic people. It was neat to see Mark Hamill (who voices a few characters in the show) chiming in, and the frantic devotion of the crew to the series and the new project was something to warm the heart. Also included is the most recent trailer, marred somewhat by some rather dull voiceover that didn't need to be there, and a few funimation trailers.

Overall, Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles should be considered an overwhelming success. What easily could have been another Star Wars: Episode One, irreparably damaging a well-earned legacy? Or worse yet, could have been a colossal failure on par with the Matrix sequels, negating any fondness for what came before, was ultimately a true and honest continuation of what came before. Die hard fans may have a few nitpicks about continuity and a lack of opera-ness in their space opera, and newcomers will probably be pretty lost, at least for the first 25 minutes or so, but the majority of you, if you're like me, will find a wonderful return to an animated classic that shows the promise of a bright future indeed for Robotech. It's more than anyone could expect really, and my heart is with Harmony Gold, Frank Agrama and company certainly seem to be doing this out of love rather than money. I for one hope to see the saga continue with the same quality and care that's been shown here.

- The movie -
4 out of 5

- The DVD -
4 out of 5


Mitch said...

You got me all worked up and then dropped that "new viewer" comment. Aside from that disc I reviewed a couple years back, I haven't seen any of this since 1986. And I don't remember anything from the "Next Generation" or "Masters" segments.

SteveTP said...

There's a well implemented little text scroll that does a decent job of explaining what's going on, and one of the new characters has a minute or two of monologue that helps get new folks into the story, and on second viewing i'd say it does work pretty well - but i keep thinking back to how much info comes from the first series, and the extraneous material (The McKinney Novels, and Carl Macek's own writings in the "Art of Robotech and Robotech RPG books) that further fleshes out what went on in the old series - it would be completely impossible to bring viewers up to speed without rebooting or starting a totally fresh storyline with no connection to the old stuff. It's definitely worth checking out though.