There was a time, long, long ago, when I was a very big Robotech fan. Before I first watched Bubblegum Crisis and before I even knew what anime was, I started renting Robotech from my local video store after tracing a mysterious transforming fighter jet toy in my possession back to the series. I spent most of 5th and 6th grade obsessed with the series; if I wasn’t in school or drawing sprawling battles featuring the Robotech mecha, I had my nose buried in one of the twenty Robotech novels I had managed to accumulate through repeated trips to used book stores.
Although Robotech is usually credited as being a “gateway drug” into anime, it’s something that most fans gave up as they began to uncover the original three series that were turned into Robotech and became interested in other Japanimation titles. Despite this, even as I was watching later Macross sequels like Plus and 7, or exploring the depths of the 1980s OAV boom through the racks at my nearby video rental shop, I still remained a Robotech fan. This may have been due in part to the fact that unlike a large population of American anime fans, Carl Macek did not break into my house, rape my parents and bludgeon my sister to death with a VHS copy of Robotech II: The Sentinels.
It got so bad at one point that my 5th grade teacher called my parents to have a “chat” about my reading habits and how I absolutely refused to show interest in reading anything other than Jack McKinney’s Robotech novels. Soon after I began to supplement the novels with Palladium Books’ Robotech role-playing game series and the numerous Robotech comic books.
I’ve never had that chip on my shoulder about Robotech like a lot of fans do, and I’ve never held any ill-will towards Macek. The guy might be a hack, but editing some Japanese cartoons together to get shown on TV adrift in a sea of terrible 1980s American cartoons certainly isn’t deserving of the title of “Anime Antichrist” that so many pathetic fucks have bestowed upon him. Eventually my interest in Robotech stagnated into apathy, the comic books packed away in the attic and the Robotech soundtrack no longer permanently housed in my CD player.
To be honest, save for the Robotech: Battlecry video game I played through in my freshman year of college, Robotech just isn’t something I’ve put much thought into since middle school, even as I’ve been digging through the Japanese cartoons of my childhood like Bubblegum Crisis and Genocyber. The same apathy carried me through the much-debated and delayed release of Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles, Harmony Gold’s latest attempt to squeeze any remaining milk out of the flaccid teats of the comatose franchise, never having had any interest in watching the direct-to-DVD movie.
A Colony Drop staffer suggested I watch The Shadow Chronicles and review it for the site, if only because we haven’t posted a negative review in a while. That prompted me to finally watch it, for no other reason than that I was really trying to procrastinate on studying for a midterm. And here we are.
It’s worth noting that if you’ve heard anything about this American-written, Japanese-planned, Korean-animated cartoon featuring robot designs from a 1983 series called Genesis Climber MOSPEADA, it’s probably that this thing sucks. And yeah, it really does.
The Shadow Chronicles‘ hackneyed script dishes out a disjointed story that starts off during the closing scenes of the original Robotech TV series and proceeds through the events immediately thereafter. It’s so bad, in fact, a good way to make watching the film more enjoyable is to play Spot the Cliché. Seven minutes into the film a variation of the classic line “everything is going according to plan” gets busted out, and at the eleven-minute mark they use the old favorite, “so it has begun.”
The whole thing feels like it was written by people whose entire exposure to literature or film was schlocky science fiction stories, meaning all they could really do is bring out cliché after cliché and throw in some familiar characters and mecha. Eventually you realize you’re just watching something you’ve already seen before — sure, the characters are different and there’s some hilariously awful animation thrown on top of everything, but this is just the same garbage you’ve seen in crappy films over the last thirty years with a fancy 3D Robotech logo attached to it.
Pieces begin to fall into place once you find out about the tumultuous production history behind this thing. Years of delays and an American production staff who had no experience actually making cartoons (director Tommy Yune had no prior proper film credits to his name) meant that when you consider the extinction-level clusterfuck that went on behind the scenes, it’s actually kind of impressive they managed to end up with anything at all.
Not unexpectedly, the animation was farmed out to Korean production house DR Movie, whose past credits include “crap” like Macross Plus, Ghost in the Shell and the Cowboy Bebop movie. The difference is the American side of the production relied heavily on their Korean counterparts to do a lot more planning in addition to just their typical in-between work, and DR Movie’s inexperience in the more creative side of production really shows through.
The computer graphics are astoundingly bad, looking half assed and painfully out of date. Compounding this inescapable ugliness is direction that is completely uninteresting and often downright boring. The camera work during action scenes is static and lifeless, making for a lot of dull scenes where poorly textured 3D robots duke it out in battles that just aren’t fun to watch. Furthermore, it’s obvious that something fishy is going on with the explosions. I’m not sure if the Korean guy in charge of explosions was busy with a 24-hour Starcraft marathon or if the explosion animations were added in during post production back in the US, but they look absolutely terrible. Not only do they reek of off-the-shelf video software effects, throughout the battles there’s a consistent disconnect between the mecha and the explosions, which is instantly noticeable when watching and quite distracting.
The proper character animation fares little better, with facial animation on par with Late Night with Conan O’Brien and character designs that are quite honestly some of the ugliest fucking designs I have ever seen. Not only do they bear little-to-no resemblance to the original designs, but every single character features a rippling superhero physique or gigantic watermelon-sized tits. I’m not sure who designed these bizarrely proportioned spacefreaks, but there’s probably a good reason why I can’t find a character designer credit anywhere. Despite being mostly shit, Yune’s uninspired character illustrations aren’t nearly this bad, so I’m at a loss as to why they didn’t just use those. Perhaps they were too close to the original designs by the Japanese character designers, or perhaps it’s because Yune can’t actually draw characters from any angle other than a head-on view. (That’s not a joke—he really can’t.)
As if sitting through this terrible mess isn’t bad enough, you also have to reconcile with the fact that it was originally worse. That’s right, despite how balls-out sucktastic The Shadow Chronicles is, it’s actually a revised version, rewritten and rerecorded after the initial cut and script were deemed unacceptable. Lord knows how bad the original version must have been to make this release version look adequate, but I would like to see it since it must be mind-shatteringly terrible.
Regardless of your feelings about the original Robotech series, you’d have to be a righteous jerk not to appreciate the background music. Yeah, we all know Reba West’s Minmei songs sucked, but the orchestral themes by Ulpio Minucci were great and a vast improvement over the original SDF Macross score. Of course, rather than reuse these great songs for The Shadow Chronicles (and why not? They decided to cut corners in every other area) the music has been remixed, techno’d up and pretty much ruined. Great job on that one, guys.
The Shadow Chronicles isn’t much more than the bare husk of what we would otherwise deem a cartoon. With absolutely nothing remarkable about it, it manages to fail at nearly every thing it attempts to do. Woefully low budget, both monetarily and creatively, the entire production comes off as incredibly amateurish and inexperienced. And unlike some projects made by unknown guys with nothing to their past credit, there isn’t a single hint of potential throughout the agonizingly long 88-minute running time, so you can’t even try and compensate by saying that maybe their next production will be better. It won’t.
Thankfully, it looks like the announced sequel to The Shadow Chronicles is on hold while production of Tobey Maguire’s live-action Robotech enters pre-production.
In the end I can’t say I’m particularly surprised, disappointed or hurt after watching The Shadow Chronicles. There was a time when I loved Robotech very much, but that time is long gone. The only thought I’m left with is that if I could move on and let Robotech rest in peace, why the hell couldn’t they?