Time Life Presents: Universal Century “Greatest Hits”!
Possible Spoilers Ahead!
The longevity of the Gundam franchise is owed in part to its flexibility with its brand. Some days, it can make a brand new series and universe for newcomers to jump in on, like how the West was introduced to Gundam through “Gundam Wing” on Toonami or the recent “Iron Blooded Orphans” series. Other times it continues to add onto the main branch of the franchise and the universe that started it all: The Universal Century, which started with the original “Mobile Suit Gundam” in 1979. Now that story continues with the recent Western release of “Mobile Suit Gundam Narrative”.
Gundam as a whole actually hasn’t had a ton of original feature films that weren’t compilations of previously aired material (or comedic stuff like SD). There was “Char’s Counterattack” in 1988, which effectively ended the story of the first protagonist and his rival, then “F91” in 1991, which was initially meant to be a series before being crammed into a cluttered mess of a movie (which is actually what I feared Narrative would turn out to be), the live action “G-Saviour” movie in 2002, which most people would rather have not happened, the sequel movie to the “Gundam 00” series in 2010, which received pretty mixed reception, and now “Narrative” in 2018 with more on the way as part of their “UC NexT 0100” project to chronicle new or newly adapted stories from the next in-universe century of the Universal Century. What I get from this is that, when Gundam wants to do a movie, it’s meant to be a big event, or at least a big risk.
Though before I can really start to talk about the film itself, I first need to talk about…
See, “Narrative”, while being a complete story on its own, is also somewhat of a sequel to the 2010-14 series of OVAs, “Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn”, which itself was essentially a culmination of the main installments of the UC Timeline…which, altogether, amount to about 140 24-minute episodes of shows (some of which have not aged well) and about 8.5 hours of movies. For longtime super-fans of this content like me, it’s no trouble going into this and feeling rewarded for having this prior knowledge so I can spot references to previously established characters, groups, and mechs that feel like all of that time watching has paid off. But for others jumping into this for the first time, it might be just a confusing mess that looks very pretty but is speaking a totally different language (even when it’s dubbed in English).
Now, that’s not to say that “Narrative” was advertising itself as a totally accessible story for newcomers anyway, and the bare bones of a new plot is there enough that it is likely possible to follow along with the gist of things without doing research. But I guess what I’m saying is, as someone who wants to be able to share what I love about Gundam with other people who aren’t acquainted with it, requiring doing so much homework to have a base level entry into this one film is something I can only see as a detriment. And I say that as being someone who is exactly the type of person it is marketed to.
Now then, getting that out of the way…
One year after the events of “Unicorn”, the Earth and Space Colonies surrounding it are at relative ease, but remnants of a long lost experiment come together to find a rogue Mobile Suit, the last of the Unicorn Gundam line, that was made with the purpose of finding “Newtypes” (AKA humans who had were theorized to have evolved to higher beings once the species started living in space), piloted by one of the former subjects of that experiment. That pilot’s friends reunite with members of the government to track her down along with members of the government while also being pursued by a secret group carrying the last vestiges of an enemy faction, leading to old rivalries flaring up once again as each person involved tries to search for the meaning of life and death, the future of mankind, and whether or not they were all destined to arrive at this point.
And that is, at least, a more accurate summary of the plot of this movie than Fathom Events gave us, because all that had was basically a recap of the climax of Unicorn and a small mention of the RX-03 Phenex. But, basically, once you strip away the relation to other UC stories, this is a story about broken and reforming relationships, as well how far some will go to make up for their mistakes. This is mainly reflected in the three main characters, Jona, Michele, and Rita, but also somewhat in the factions around them (especially with who turns out to be the antagonist) as they search for the Phenex and its possibilities as the answer to the whether Newtypes exist and what that means for the future.
That’s all fascinating stuff…assuming you haven’t watched that much of UC Gundam stories, which this movie is banking on you to know so well that you can write a dissertation on it. It’s still all interesting to think about despite that, but it also feels like it’s belaboring the point a bit on ideas put forth in “Gundam Unicorn” (and at least a few other shows across different universes), namely that no one knows what exactly Newtypes are, but we should be open to the possibility of them and what they could hold for us as a species as we eventually head into space…which is starting to look more and more what we might have to do in the real world anyway, but that’s beside the point. The point being that, while Narrative seems to act like it is the zenith of these themes, it’s really just playing covers of the UC’s Greatest Hits. Federation vs. Zeon! Teenage angst and hormones creating miracles! Naked telepathy with dead people! Gundam vs Sinanju, and then Gundam vs Neo Zeong (which has to get its legs shot off first because that’s like tradition)! And many, many, more! Order now!
They’re not bad covers, mind you, and they mostly work on their own within its story instead of being obvious and gratuitous fan-service (though that is certainly in there to a degree), but it’s not going to beat the original track. And even the original characters and plot are things I’ve seen in Gundam, other mecha shows, and even other completely unrelated anime, but done far better than here. Which basically makes the film itself into an admittedly fun time, but ultimately disposable.
The Miracle Children:
Jona, Michele, and Rita make up the core cast of the film, with Rita being the rogue pilot in control of the Phenex, Michele as the plot driver who brings things together to make up for a mysterious past sin, and Jona as the obligatory protagonist dude who fulfills obligatory protagonist requirements such as having a repressed tragic past, being the center of a love triangle between his childhood friends, and being somehow The Chosen One because of this so he can be the one who gets the most superpowers for the big final battle. It sort of feels like each of them just fill slots in a mecha anime Mad Lib instead of actual fleshed out characters, so I don’t get the feeling people will be too upset if we never see them again.
Though most disappointing out of all this is how the initial mystery of why Rita is using the Phenex or why Michele is after it seem to twist themselves unnaturally to link back to him. I mean, he did grow up with the two of them in the Newtype experiment, as seen in flashbacks throughout the movie, but you that doesn’t necessarily mean the plot has to (as I understand it upon watching it for the first time) have this whole thing turn out to be some supposedly pre-destined event meant solely to put this guy in the most powerful Mobile Suit in order to defeat a literal Char Clone reject. Surely, Rita has her own personal reasons and goals for becoming one with the Phenex, right? Or that stuff Michele mentioned about wanting to find the end to death for her father’s sake? I mean, that felt cheesy on its own, but at least it wasn’t “I want the guy I like to be with the girl grew up with but only feel jealousy for because I don’t deserve him” like it turned out to be.
It’s already not a good look when Rita is portrayed throughout the film as not quite a person with motivations and goals, but this pure and almost angelic being who is so above-human that it is meant to be a major reveal that she used to have working eyes. She’s built up as the one amongst the three that could be closest to a true Newtype, but then that seems to get tossed aside for Jona. We already have so few female Gundam/Mobile Suit pilots who don’t either turn evil and/or die, but the least you could do is have the one who is technically already dead have more drive then making her old crush feel special right after he loses his only other old friend.
The rest of the cast feel like they also fill in checks on the list of token Gundam character types. We’ve got the grizzled veteran pilots who snark about the surrealness of Newtype tech around there plain ol Mobile Suits, the morally bankrupt politicians who scheme and plot to maintain their grip on the status quo, and even returning characters from “Gundam Unicorn” who have completed their arcs to pass the torch onto these new characters. Although while I can’t find many characters like him, Michele’s man-servant gets a special mention for his single scene of telling Jona that, despite everything, Michele has actually put the whole operation together just because she loves him. Wingman of the year right there.
But the main stand out among these would have to be the aforementioned Char Clone reject, Zoltan Akkanen, who fulfills the coveted role of “crazy bad guy desperate to live up to the reputation of a previous, more popular bad guy”. He gets to be the instigator of the biggest mech fights of the movie, which are all gorgeously animated with a thumper of a main theme song, but like the rest of the cast, he seems more like copy of better things before him. That may be appropriate, given his nature, but even if there is a meta-theme around that, it’s not a substitute for compelling story on its own.
Much like Star Trek came from Gene Roddenberry’s hopes that mankind would come together in peace to explore space, the Gundam franchise spawned from the dream of Yoshiyuki Tomino that we would also become something more than human once we reached that frontier. That dream continues to be explored even as he’s stepped away from the franchise and I hope future films can learn add something new to that idea as this “NexT 0100” project continues.
Despite my critiques, I did have a good time with “Narrative” overall, but it feels both too insular and too derivative for me to feel like it’s the next big step this franchise needs. As a fan, I’m more than excited to see “Hathaway’s Flash” when that comes out, just as I was eager to see this. But the next Gundam story, whether it be in the UC, Post-Colony, After War, Anno Domini, or something else altogether, needs to be more open to newer potential fans. Not necessarily like Build Divers (as many may suggest I’m implying), but something else. Like Newtypes, we might have no way of predicting what that might be until we see it, but I’m certainly looking forward to finding out.