Mobile Suit Gundam: Movie Box Set

Gundam is the most popular science-fiction series in Japan, period. Arguments can be made that other series are better written and more beautifully animated, and I would certainly agree with them. However, with well over 300 TV episodes within the franchise, several movies, various novels and manga, as well as OVA series, there is no doubt that the Gundam line sells. Back in the late 70s, however, it started with a small little series called, simply, Mobile Suit Gundam. That show was, in fact, considered a failure on its first run, much like the original Star Trek series. However, the television show was re-edited into three feature length films with extensive additional and replacement animation. When these hit the big screen, the future of Gundam was no longer in question.

Unlike some other science fiction series, the three Mobile Suit Gundam movies should only been seen together, and in America the three are only packaged as a box set. As such, this review will deal with the triad together. It's certainly the definitive way to get into the Gundam universe, though the material is occasionally dated. The films are worth picking up, despite each one having significant flaws, to truly understand this cultural phenomenon.

We learn as the first film opens that we are in the year Universal Century 0079, where there are hundreds of orbital colonies surrounding Earth known as Sides. One of these colonies, Side 3, has declared its independence from the Earth Federation and has started a civil war. The Zabi family sets up a despotic regime to control what's become known as the Zeon Principality. In the first few months of the war, literally half the populations on both sides are destroyed in a decimation of forces. Those left are forced to fight with only meager resources and essentially untrained personnel.

We meet Amuro Ray, a young civilian on Side 7, who is forced into battle as the Zeon attack. He joins up with the survivors of the assault at White Base, a Federation ship that's docked. He and the others, with only a few trained officers and Ensign Bright Noah commanding, take on a ragtag race to Earth, constantly pursued by the Zeon's legendary warrior Char Aznable. As the story continues, the Federation is amazed at White Base's ability to survive countless skirmishes with the Zeon forces and uses them as a decoy to divert the Zeon's attention from their battle plans. As war rages all around, Amuro and Char become rivals in a conflict that has few truly evil players but massive carnage. They start to become aware of the evolutionary potential they have as space-born humans, as they develop pre-cognition and telepathy. They and others like them, known as Newtypes, may have the solution to the conflict, but can their latent abilities stop the confrontation that threatens the whole of humanity?

My brief description can hardly do justice to the storyline that sprawls over 7 hours during the course of these films. It may sound simple on the surface, but the power plays and struggles between the dozens of characters presented become a jumble at times. It lays a complex groundwork that should spawn interest for some in watching the television version of the series, recently released in the US (but unfortunately only in English).

The first film (titled simply Mobile Suit Gundam) is the most narratively coherent of the three, and it takes a reasonable amount of time to get us comfortable with the characters. This part of the story is really concerned with Char's chase of White Base as it heads for Earth, and because it stays on track most of the way, it creates a draw into the other two movies that keeps us going when those films get a little too drawn out. There are a few problems with this one, though, and they aren't insignificant. It is most clear here that the players in White Base barely can tie their shoes, let alone take on the Zeon forces. It seems unbelievable that the Federation forces would be willing to let this battleship with its prototype Gundam be sacrificed because of the ineptitude of its crew. Nevertheless, by the end it's clear that these raw recruits have become more seasoned, so perhaps it's a moot point. Second, the film introduces three children who show up at various occasions under the mothering wing of Amuro's friend Frau Bow. They are obnoxious and unnecessary, and their appearance on the bridge and in other places of peril really smacks the tone away sometimes. Finally, for those who like pretty animation, the first film will disappoint you. Only a small amount of footage was replaced from the television series, and so the explosions and such look cheesy. However, it's still the best plotted of the set.

The middle film, Soldiers of Sorrow, has the difficult task of expanding the scope of the storyline to include the whole of the Zeon and Federation armies while still staying interested in the happenings on White Base. It succeeds in doing so, but at the cost of audience attention, particularly because the actual plot becomes hard to follow. Due to events in the first film that I won't reveal for spoilers' sake, Char doesn't show up until virtually the last reel, and that's really a shame. The second film is essentially a "red shirt" film--characters are introduced only to be killed off, and minor characters from the first film get the axe as well. There are lots of battle sequences, but not a lot of heart or character development. The children get more screen time and wind up in a credibility stretching sequence where they become the leads for a time. The animation here is better than the first film, thankfully, and the old and new styles blend here extremely well. The film is a mix of half new animation and half stuff from the TV version, and somehow they manage not to conflict. If you have a problem getting through this series, you'll probably find this movie to be the catalyst of that dilemma.

Thankfully, Encounters in Space, the final film, is quite a bit better. Things come to a head here with both sides ready to come together and duke out their differences in a final, fiery conflict. Char is back in full swing here, and the Amuro/Char conflict comes back into alignment here in detail. We get to see the two of them meet face to face, and the results are uniquely surprising and unexpected. Meanwhile, the animation here has a few rough spots, but it's because over 70% of the footage is new, and that footage for once looks beautifully film-caliber. Some of the scenes look brilliant because of the new material--but it's very apparent when old footage comes into play, particularly in the battle sequences that look downright ugly by comparison. I really wish they could have simply created all new footage for this film, because it would have helped immensely. Although the battles get a little wearisome, the ending is excellent and emotionally moving, not because of a death but a certain bit of destruction (which again I won't reveal for spoilers' sake.) Though still harder to follow than the first film, the last hour settles in wonderfully. (And the kids make a brief cameo, but are pleasantly absent from the rest of the proceedings.)

All three films suffer from the problem of character development, which was excised from the films in large part due to the scope of the story being compressed into 7 hours of screen time. You won't find much of it. You will find, however, massive space battles, intrigue, suspense, and a slant on warfare that realizes that the combatants on both sides are flawed yet heroic. If you've ever been interested in the Gundam universe but weren't sure where to start, here's a good opportunity.

Mobile Suit Gundam: Movie Box Set -- violence, extremely brief nudity -- B+