"If we get out of this alive, my wife is gonna kill me."
"Looking forward to it, sir." -- Vince Grant and Scott Bernard share a moment
Ah, Robotech. For a large chunk of the Gen-X populace of America, Robotech was the first introduction to this thing called "anime". Nothing else like it had been seen on American kidvid before, and it's only been recently (like, in the last two years) that anything like it has appeared on the airwaves as fare appropriate for youngsters.
Robotech featured an epic storyline spanning three generations, hefty doses of romance and angst, and a hell of a lot of death and destruction (including the killing off of several main characters on screen). In short, it blew our little pubescent minds and left an indelible mark on our pop-culture consciousness.
Robotech, of course, wasn't a totally original production. Carl Macek took three otherwise unrelated anime series from Japan and rewrote all three to tie them together. This left Robotech's producer Harmony Gold in kind of a quandary: as Robotech became popular among kids, then a cult hit among the young adults with disposable income that those kids grew into, how were they to cash in on its continuing success? Any continuation of the story would have to be done via all-new animation, a much more expensive endeavor than simply redubbing existing footage.
Their first attempt at a Robotech sequel, The Sentinels, was a failure after just three episodes were produced. A subsequent attempt, the all-CGI Robotech 3000, never even got off the ground. But luckily for Harmony Gold, their third attempt has finally been released: Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles.
This movie picks up right at the climax of the original Robotech series, with the Earth Expeditionary Forces returning to Earth in 2044 to boot off the Invid who have been occupying it. When the Invid suddenly up and leave the planet, the Earth forces are jubilant. But as it turns out, their problems are just beginning, as their former allies, the machine-like Haydonites, turn on the humans and start a new war.
Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles suffers from obvious pilot-itis. The original Robotech series ended on something of a cliffhanger, with Admiral Hunter and the SDF-3 disappearing right on the eve of victory over the Invid; instead of resolving that cliffhanger in a self-contained movie, Shadow Chronicles still leaves the SDF-3's fate a mystery, and instead focuses on the beginning of the war with the Haydonites.
It also ends somewhat inconclusively, with the Earth Forces winning a battle against the Haydonites, but with the conflict far from over. It's a direct sequel to seventy-some-odd episodes of television animation, which also means if you've never seen the original Robotech, Shadow Chronicles will leave you confused as hell, since it assumes you know the backstory and barely bothers to explain any of the new plot twists and developments.
Aside from that, Shadow Chronicles holds up fairly well as both a story and as a sequel to Robotech. While the vast majority of the original characters are either given short shrift or aren't mentioned at all, we do get to follow Scott Bernard, hero of the last third of the original series, and his Invid girlfriend Ariel as they open the Earth Forces' eyes to the new threat.
We are also introduced to a raft of new characters, all with some connection to familiar faces from the original series: hotshot pilot Marcus Rush, the brother of Scott's dead fiancee; android Janice Em, created by the scientist who rebuilt the original SDF-1; Vince Grant, brother of one of the SDF-1's bridge crew; and Skull Squadron leader Maia Sterling, daughter of Max and Miriya from the first part of Robotech and sister of Dana from the second part.
Unfortunately, there are too many characters and too much plot for any of them to really be developed. Marcus comes off best, as we watch him go from happy-go-lucky hotshot pilot who thinks his sister and her fiance are dead, to mixed joy and sorrow when he learns that Scott survived but his sister didn't, to anger at Scott for hooking up with a member of the same alien species that killed his sister, to a burgeoning respect for Ariel when she risks herself to save him. Scott also comes off rather well, but most of that is leftover characterization from the original series.
The other new characters are mostly ciphers, from the blank androidness of Janice Em to the generic hot-chick-pilot Maia. Vince Grant is rather awesome in his Samuel L. Jackson take-charge way, but we never learn anything about him as a person.
The animation in Shadow Chronicles is another weakness. Harmony Gold was apparently working under a bit of a budget crunch here, and it shows. The ships and mecha are all done with CGI models, and while they look great, they move a little stiffly and artificially. Still, the combat scenes are kinetic and interesting, although the whole effect is more "videogame cut scene" and not "epic anime movie". The character animation is done in traditional 2D, but that also comes off rather stiff, with far too many scenes where the only thing that moves is a character's mouth.
The character models themselves are decidedly mixed. Although they sport a nice new-wave anime look similar to that used in the recent Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex series, every single female character sports a huge impressive rack that one can only imagine was the result of secret breast augmentation capabilities in the Shadow Technology given to the humans by the Haydonites.
There is some good news, though; the soundtrack is quality stuff. With a score performed by the Prague Philharmonic, a few callbacks to the original Robotech theme, and even a couple of Minmei songs for good measure, Shadow Chronicles sure sounds like Robotech.
The voice acting is a bit uneven, but the presence of pretty much every original Robotech actor here, most even reprising their roles, helps make up for that. As the cover of the DVD hypes, we also get Mark Hamill and Chase Masterson (from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), although Mark's character gets blown up after about two lines. Chase, however, does a pretty good job as the cutesy mechanical android Janice.
Fans of the original series should definitely check out Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles. Yeah, it's got some rather unfortunate flaws, but it feels and sounds like old-school Robotech, and it's a pretty fun way to spend a couple hours. What more do you want for twenty bucks?