Xenosaga Vol. 1

In recent months, there has been an ongoing debate on Roger Ebert's website concerning whether or not video games can ever be considered art and, thus, in the same league as film. Ebert has said "no" in the past, opining that there's too much interactivity for a game to be compared with cinema. Many people have taken him to task, citing great games like "The Longest Journey" that go beyond the standard shoot-'em-ups. What has yet to be determined, however, is if a film based on a video game can ever be truly fantastic. So far, the evidence is not all that impressive, and Xenosaga Vol. 1 only works to show the problems of converting games into viable films or television shows. Not having played the original PS2 game, I have to rely on outside reports that tell me that the original experience was so lined with cut-scenes and dramatic bits of plot that it was hardly a game at all. Maybe that's the case, but the cinematic qualities of the original didn't make it into this program. It comes close at times, and it's certainly not a terrible watch. However, it throws so much plot and so many characters at the audience in the course of a little less than two hours that I wasn't exhilirated but exhausted. And when only one character in the entire sea of humanity is interesting, trouble's a-brewing.

The story of Xenosaga is so complex on its surface that I may very well get some of the details wrong as I write them. Long story short: the good guys are humans who abandoned Earth around 4000 years before the start of the show. One of the good guys is Shion, a sweet, brilliant "girl with glasses" whose eyes are almost larger than her head. She is the heroine of our adventure, not primarily because she appears to be the most important person on board her starship but because she is the only major character who survives and because she is as cute as a button. The space fortress on which she works, the Woglinde, is attacked by the Gnosis, a race of beings who have the ability to appear in multiple dimensions at the same time, which is handy for both interstellar battles and dinner parties. The Gnosis want an artifact the Woglinde is carrying known as the Zohar, which is apparently the younger goldenrod cousin of the Monolith from 2001. Virtually unstoppable, the Gnosis destroy the crew of the Woglinde and take the Zohar...but as it turns out, it's only a replica, and many human factions want to get at the real one for whatever powers it holds.

In the meantime, Shion survives the onslaught because many robotic companions known as Realians give their lives in order for her to get off the ship. Her escape is made complete by KOS-MOS, a warrior princess cyborg weapon (or some such similar nonsense) that knows how to attack the Gnosis by also doing the multi-dimension trick. Eventually, KOS-MOS, Shion, and a couple of other stragglers make it onto a slag freighter that's come to the battlefield to make money off the materials left from the battle. KOS-MOS commandeers the vessel from the gang of lovable rogues who run the ship, introducing additional cast members to make up for the ones slaughtered in the first battle. But before the day is through, there'll be even more characters introduced, a couple more factions vying for power, and a cliffhanger ending that makes us question exactly who KOS-MOS is working for. (Except, of course, we do know who she's working for because the show spelled it out earlier in an otherwise unnecessary piece of exposition. Bummer on the mystery.)

Xenosaga Vol. 1 isn't a piece of bad science fiction so much as it is an ineptly executed one from a narrative and scriptwriting standpoint. It frittered away much of my natural goodwill towards it by being ridiculously focused on getting (I'm assuming here) every piece of plot from the game into the TV show. It's not a matter of not having all the pieces that might work together...the space battles look quite nice. The direction is steady and in some places brings out genuine dramatic tension. The soundtrack, while it could use a few more numbers with memorable melodies, is an enjoyable symphonic work. And though the character designs are a bit worse for wear -- in particular, having every female character with eyes the size of grapefruit -- none of these bits harms Xenosaga in and of itself.

What it comes down to, and what probably came out in my tongue-in-cheek description of the show, is that the program is totally event-driven. The audience knows nothing about Shion save that she's got super-extraordinary-futuristic glasses where she can press the nosebridge and have the lenses pop out like magic. (Surely they will have perfected Lazik surgery in 4000 years?) Yes, admittedly, cute and sweet can go a long way in endearing us to a character, but beyond that, there's nothing to Shion. And as far as the other characters, they are even more stereotypical, from the "kill-'em-all" warrior to the variations on the Han Solo theme on the freighter. They only exist to propel the story through more events. In a certain sense, I've seen few shows cover as much ground as Xenosaga Vol. 1 did in its 100 minutes. But so what if the Gnosis whale-beings take over the universe?  Why does it matter? If Shion falls for the goofy but protective crewman or the muscular pilot who tries to pick her up, will it make one difference to how I think about life?  No, it won't.

The people of Xenosaga aren't people at all but necessary components for a plot.  And that's no way to create a science-fiction epic. I don't remember lots about every battle in Robotech, but I do remember Rick and Lisa and Minmei. I'm not even a Gundam fan, but the heroic, foolish nobility of Char Aznable stays with me. There have been too many variations on the Harlock story to even know what's canon and what's not, but Captain Harlock will always be the coolest stoic in the universe. To be good science fiction, a story must get past all the gadgets and ships and laser beams and show us how this affects somebody's real life in a way we can relate. Otherwise, it's all in a galaxy far far away and it can stay there for all I care.

That isn't to say that Xenosaga Vol. 1, on its own terms, can't be entertaining. I've seen a lot worse shows, and I've probably even given some of them better grades than I should have. I'm a sucker for science fiction, and this provided some of the stuff I really enjoy. But I was reminded a whole lot of Super Atragon when I was watching Xenosaga. Both have good soundtracks that sound just like a sci-fi epic should. Both feature large explosions and an expanding number of characters.  And both failed to provide any real depth. What's more, I'm certain that it's not going to get any better. Nobody can tell this kind of story in 12 episodes with any hope of real meaning. It wasn't unpleasant, but somehow it all just feels...unnecessary.

Xenosaga Vol. 1 -- sci-fi violence -- C+