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6 Sep 2011 / mttlg

Gundam 00: A Wakening of the Trailblazer Review

Yes, that’s the actual title, though I’m sure they meant Awakening of the Trailblazer.  For a franchise that can’t sort out whether the name of the main bad guy in the TV show is Ribbons or Reborns (among other names with multiple official translations), it’s actually remarkably close to something intelligible.  Is it too much to ask for Bandai to spring for an English language consultant or two?

So here we have it, the big finish, a movie about “the dialogues to come” that have been hinted at with the subtlety of, well, pretty much everything on this show.  Seriously, the writers don’t know the meaning of the word.  Do they have an equivalent term in Japanese?  So yeah, aliens.  Finally, this is where the plot kicks in, right?  Not so fast.

First, we get a fake-out retelling of the final battles of each of the two seasons of the TV show mashed into one overly anime-fied abomination.  No worries though, it’s just a “based on a true story” afternoon matinee movie (made two years after the events depicted) about Celestial Being, the evil terrorist organization that righteously saved the world from the more evil A-Laws.  The propaganda machine that backed the A-Laws in the TV show is alive and well, but under new management.

Enter Saji Crossroad.  After being a central character (if not THE central character) in the TV show, the fake movie adds insult to injury by leaving him out completely.  At least the actual movie wouldn’t be so inconsiderate.  Oh wait, it would.  Aside from screaming “Louise!  Louise!” a couple of times and going off to work in space so the action could quickly cut to him doing something boring (“See?  We didn’t forget about him!”), Saji has no role in this movie.  The same is true for many other characters from the TV show who have cameos and little more.  Actually, the same is true for just about every character in this movie.  Nobody is really given anything to do.

So what has everyone been up to in the two years since shiny green stuff saved the world (and some human-types helped, I guess)?  Let’s see…  The perpetually peace-preaching princess (and assassination magnet) Marina is still having people try to kill her, only to be rescued by the Gundam Hotshots (yeah, pacifism works just fine when the guys with the biggest guns are protecting you).  Fearless freedom fighter Klaus is now a powerless politician who gets to sit around watching morons bicker.  Engineering genius Billy has gotten over his fling with an alcoholic on-again, off-again leader of Celestial Being and is now a confident military scientist.  Until a horny redhead lab assistant turns him into a weak-kneed teenager who half-heartedly spurns her advances before reluctantly agreeing to get busy with her when the end of the world is near.  These aren’t summaries, these are the entire character arcs for these guys.

But hey, who needs old supporting characters when we have cool new characters?  Well, one at least.  But he’s a hip insubordinate loner soldier who is special because he’s the military’s first Innovator, the new type of human being who totally isn’t a Newtype.  This guy turns out to be so significant that I can’t even remember his name.  Suffice it to say, his mix of advanced powers, individual authority, and cool sarcastic indifference toward his status as a test subject would give a writer plenty to work with.  If only this movie had writers…  Instead, they have a bunch of hacks who saw the challenge of finding something to do with this guy and used him as a mindless super-weapon to be disposed of before anything interesting happens.  What was the point?

Yeah, well, who needs human characters when we have aliens.  That’s right, the aliens that the genius who predicted every damn thing that has happened up to this point thought would be coming in 200 years got here a bit early.  Must have forgotten to account for Daylight Savings Time or something.  But they’re here now, so let’s get down to business.  These aliens aren’t your garden variety alien invaders, they are living metal shapeshifters who act only on instinct, take over machines and structures, and are pretty damn indestructible.  Sounds pretty badass.

But it isn’t.  No, these aliens aren’t really bad, they’re just trying to understand.  By hunting down people with quantum brainwaves (because quantum brainwaves enable understanding), fusing with their bodies, and “understanding” them to a slow, agonizing death.  Understand?

If you don’t understand, just repeat the word ‘understand’ a few dozen times and you’ll have the second half of the movie (throw in some stuff blowing up if it gets too boring).  See?  Understanding is better than war.  War never accomplishes anything, we need to understand each other to realize lasting peace.  And if you didn’t get the point after every character with more than two lines says the same thing, the moral of the story is plastered on the screen in plain text.  Yes, the people behind this movie think you are a fucking moron who needs the lesson spelled out for you multiple times in the simplest terms possible.  This movie insults the intelligence of anyone who watches it.

So where did things go so horribly wrong?  In a word, writing, or a lack thereof.  Nothing of any significance happens over the course of the movie (aside from Billy getting laid of course).  There’s fighting, more fighting, despair, hopelessness, and then deus ex Setsuna to save the day.  And scene.

Deus ex machina has a bad enough rep as it is (and deservedly so), but this movie takes it to a new low by never leaving the final cop-out in doubt.  From the moment Setsuna’s shiny new Gundam is introduced, it is painfully obvious that it and only it will save the day with its awesome power of understanding.  Nothing else accomplishes anything except to buy time for Mr. Peace, Love, and Understanding to blast his way into the giant alien sphere in the movie’s most overtly sexual metaphor and fix everything with his magic Gundam.

Don’t get me wrong, the 00 Quan[T] has some cool moves and I’m looking forward to building the model kits.  Using it as the quick fix at the end just doesn’t sit right because it drains the importance from everything else in the movie.  And in that sense, the problem runs deeper than a super-weapon saving the day at the last possible moment; things start going awry when the aliens are set up from the start to be so overwhelmingly powerful that nothing else has a chance at stopping them.

This takes us back to the beginning, when there was still hope that the movie would take some interesting turns.  Setsuna, our hero (who seems as uncomfortable in that role as it feels watching him forced into the role by the “creative” team behind this franchise), is back in autistic mode after the events of the TV series (much to the chagrin of the girl who is constantly throwing herself at him).  He seems to be able to sense importance in things but can’t explain why (at least this much is in character).  When the mysterious ship from a failed Jupiter exploration mission that provided Ribbons with the basis for his evil scheme in the TV series (and never had its backstory explored, because that would require effort) is suddenly being propelled toward Earth, Setsuna knows that there is something important here and requests any information on the ship.  And then the ship gets blown up.  And the request for information is largely forgotten except for a couple pictures of the crew, which were only there to explain the Doctor Who (“The Impossible Astronaut”) style appearance of a Ribbons-type in a spacesuit (which in turn was only there to freak out Setsuna, because that’s just good fun).  And then the whole thing is forgotten.

You see, that’s the frustrating part about this show – there are so many bits and pieces with the potential to create a compelling story, but rather than explore any of them, the movie just drops them and cuts to the action.  Instead of developing a deeper link between the aliens and the Jupiter ship or the predictions of a long-dead genius, we get driverless vehicles trying to kill people.  Despite being largely indestructible (though presumably heat can cause permanent localized damage) and infinitely reconfigurable and reproducible, their threat is diminished completely when the action needs to take place elsewhere.  So when we get to the space battles, the bits of metal on Earth cease to be a threat.

But wait, if scientists are able to study these aliens, couldn’t they come up with a way to fight back?  No, we can’t have that (instead, Billy gets laid).  Mankind is just as defenseless against this stuff at the end of the movie as it is at the start – no progress is made, even on the understanding front (that’s reserved for Setsuna F. Seiyi’s Magic Gundam, which sadly does not make a cool acronym like TASER).  Even more troubling, the discussions on this subject reveal a hope that this menace could help the effort to build bigger weapons.  For all of the supposed progress made by mankind over the last decade or so, nothing has really changed.  There’s a big disconnect between the macro and micro views here, with the path toward peace and love paved with an insatiable desire to kill and destroy.

This flies in the face of the post-credits flash forward, which shows a utopian future where people don’t fight anymore because they understand each other.  It’s a worthless scene though, just wishful thinking presented without any meaningful explanation.  Maybe it’s just my background in science talking, but jumping straight from hypothesis to conclusion without anything to back it up isn’t the way to prove a point.  I’m giving the movie a lot of latitude because it is just fiction after all, but this scene still stands out as a desperate attempt at validation of the central theme in the laziest way possible.  I’m not buying it.

And finally, the last scene worth noting is a flashback where we, at long last, get to see the architect of this future back when he wasn’t just a corpsicle.  This was a long overdue look into the work that set in motion the events of two television seasons and one movie.  There was so much potential here, so it was a crushing disappointment when all we got was a quick shot of a guy on an island with a bunch of computer displays in front of him and a rant about, what else, understanding.

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