I'm generally a forgiving sort when it comes to missed opportunities when it comes to sci-fi. I really enjoyed the latest Star Wars films and the continuations of the Matrix saga...so sue me. But one thing is clear to me: flashy visuals by themselves do not constitute great cinema or even great TV. The convoluted spirituality of Reloaded and Revolutions interested me, and by golly, I was entranced during Episode III not by the battles or the saber duels but by the story of Anakin's descent. And this, my friends, is why I have to report that Macross Zero is a failure. It is beautiful, make no doubt, and the dogfights are absolutely glorious. But with a mediocre story, minimal characterization, and plot holes the size of a Zentraedi fortress, Macross Zero just doesn't deliver.
As the show starts, we're told that the war between the Unification and Anti-Unification forces actually raged for several years after the fateful crash of the Macross. Each side has suffered heavy losses, and they're willing to put young and inexperienced pilots into battle as the war slogs on. As the conflict rages, Shin is shot down over a small, untouched island called Maya. The inhabitants are aware of the outside world; all of their men have left for parts unknown (and they picked up Japanese somewhere). However, they choose to live in a simplistic fashion as the generations before them have done. Behind their society is a grand tale of ancient birdmen, flying fish, and the prediction of a terrible evil that will strike if they let civilization encroach upon them.
Shin becomes friends with Sara and her younger sister Mao as he learns more about them. However, his comrades are on the lookout for him, and they realize that Maya may be the missing link between humanity and the aliens who lost the Macross years ago. Roy Fokker, Shin's commanding officer, wants to help his girlfriend Aries discover the secrets of Maya, but there's another problem: the Anti-Unification forces are also desperate to unlock the enigmas of the island. And when you have that much strife in one place, one thing is certain: there're gonna be a whole lotta mecha fights and a whole lotta tragedy before we're done.
Admittedly, if you are a digital video junkie, then Macross Zero is a lock. The Valkyrie fighters look magnificent, and the battle sequences are just this side of heaven. The integration of CGI and traditional-style animation has never looked more believable. And if you've been missing the missile barrages that made Macross famous, they're here in abundance. You'll have a visually gorgeous trip if you take it.
On the other hand, the music in Macross Zero is surprisingly lacking. The whole franchise has been known for its soundtracks, but Macross Zero tends towards the bland. Yes, music does play a part in the story, as it seems every title in the series must, but there's no great pop songs nor even a memorable BGM tune. This is, unfortunately, just the start of the disappointment.
I admit that it's been a long time since I was taken aback by the misery that is Macross 7. So long, in fact, that I expected Macross Zero to be a thoroughly quality title. It's clear that the visuals were spared no expense, and if you read the fanboy reactions on the Internet, you'll see fawning appreciation for them. But in every other important category, Macross Zero is skimpy. The plot is a whole bunch of hooey based around a story that sounds just like every other faux-Japanese legend invented for anime. And what's worse, the plot has nothing to do with anything a Macross fan might find remotely interesting. I mean, for crying out loud, during the timeline of this show, the Macross is being refitted for launch. A huge-scale global war is going on. There's a huge amount of material to be mined. What we did not need was a plot linked to the original show's weakest link.
When I heard that the show was going to have an original cast member in the form of Roy Fokker, I was excited. Roy is, after all, a legendary character, the one that all the Robotech geeks on the playground wanted to be. And we have one piece that's even more interesting -- a girlfriend who is not Claudia from the bridge of the Macross. But talk about disenchantment! Yes, he's here; yes, he gets a few nice scenes. But on the whole, it's a glorified cameo. The truth is, the character role Roy fills could have been virtually any anonymous guy. He was brought back to entice the faithful, but he's so unimportant that I'm almost sorry they brought him back.
Meanwhile, Macross stories almost always have relational angles, and Macross Zero is no exception. Problem is, the timeline is so compressed that we can't really believe that our characters would act the way they do. This is true both of the primary romance as well as the Roy/Aries relationship. And the funny thing is, the episodes usually only have a few minutes of action and twenty-five minutes of relational growth. But these folks are stick personalities with not a sliver of development sticking to their ribs. They are utterly generic.
Want more examples of problems in the show? How about materially important events (like kidnappings!) happening in-between episodes? How about overzealous enemies who attack small islands with nuclear weapons? Or how about a war that is supposedly raging globally that never seems to have more than ten combatants at any given time? On and on the list goes. By the time the ending rolled around, I was actually nodding off. With all of the explosions heading into a huge climax, I should have been excited. But since I didn't care a rip for any of these characters, I finally stopped caring altogether. And the ending is both abrupt and tragic, designed to pull heartstrings but not giving enough room for the impact to breathe, which makes it all much less powerful than it should have been.
I can't say I hated Macross Zero because its action sequences are a sight to behold. I'm probably giving it a better ranking than I should because they're that good. I won't recommend the title per se, but mechaheads will probably fast-forward through the junk and see the plentiful eye candy. I have to admit that if this were edited into a more coherent hour and a half film with a lot less padding than the five OVAs now have, it might be great. But this is probably the last Macross related title I'll see without having a plethora of people telling me it's worth watching. After seeing the glorious first disc of ADV Films' 5.1 dub of the original series recently, I know for certain that beautiful graphics are fleeting, but smart plotting and intelligent storytelling last. Macross Zero, unfortunately, only falls in the "fleeting" category.
Macross Zero -- violence, brief nudity -- C