Thursday, March 12, 2009

anime I hated: Robotech The Sentinels

Robotech II: The Sentinels is terrible.

The success of the syndicated anime TV series Robotech in the mid 80s meant there was a built-in audience of fans eager to see "the saga" continue, and in 1988 it looked like this was about to happen, with the videocassette release of  Robotech II: The Sentinels.  For a few moments, as fans placed the tape into their VCRs and pressed "play" and waited for the show to begin, it seemed as if all their wishes had come true. Then the video itself started and those hopes came crashing down. Because, as I said, Robotech II: The Sentinels is terrible.

Rather than being edited together, rewritten, and assembled from disparate elements, as the original Robotech series was, The Sentinels was concieved and commissioned from the get-go by Harmony Gold.  Yet due to production problems and various financing crises, The Sentinels we eventually wound up getting was, yes, edited together and rewritten.  As it happens, the original plan to create a 65 episode television series ran into problems when the Plaza Accords revalued the Japanese yen, taking what had at one time been cheaply produced Japanese animation and turning it into more expensively produced Japanese animation. The price tag on The Sentinels ballooned and sponsor Matchbox pulled out, leaving Harmony Gold with a mere three episodes of usable footage. This, along with material from the original Robotech television series, is what we get in our Sentinels. 

The characters, old and new, are distressingly ugly, with a disturbing proportion being old men with terrible hair who are given way too much screen time. Many scenes are merely the backs of  heads or helmeted characters, saving the trouble of animating mouths. As a bonus the audience does get to see the mysterious alien enemies The Invid, who are giant slugs who talk to giant brains. There is a very long scene solely composed of a giant slug talking to a giant brain.

Now, I watched and enjoyed the original Robotech TV series, and I can assure you that this show was not a success because it featured scenes of giant slugs talking to giant brains; it was a success because it featured transforming robot fighter planes, well-animated action scenes, and cute girl singers. Robotech II: The Sentinels has none of this. All the returning characters are uglier and have stupider hair, and the new characters are also ugly and have stupid hair. Popular Robotech singing star Minmay sings once - as part of a duet!! - and we mostly see the backs of their heads. There are dismaying amounts of wrinkled old guys with amazing hairpieces who grind out huge chunks of expository dialog in fake accents. There are two - count 'em, 2 - scenes with transforming robot fighter planes, both of which are training missions. There's a confusing subplot involving a planet on the other side of the galaxy, which may or may not be the home of the Robotech Masters, which is being invaded by the Invid and/or overrun by robot dogs. Again, not something audiences were clamoring for. 

In fact, the story is this: Rick and Lisa and the remaining characters from the Macross part of Robotech go to a space station, where they walk around in terrible new uniforms and talk. Talk talk talk. Rick and Lisa get married. Apparently they are going to launch the SDF3 and go to the homeworld of the Robotech Masters, whoever they are, and ask them why they did what they did whenever they did it. Meanwhile on that self-same Robotech Masters homeworld, old guys in robes (the thrilling Robotech Masters themselves) watch robot dogs prowl a futuristic ruined city. This alien city was destroyed by the alien Invid - different aliens, mind you -  in what would have been the first episode of a Sentinels TV series.  However, being the only interesting thing happening in the three existing episodes, the Invid attack was placed at the climax of Robotech II: The Sentinels, resulting in many scenes of boring bald old robe-wearing Robotech Masters staring at video screens of a ruined planet that, according to the new edit, hasn't actually been ruined yet.

After what seems like an eternity of scenes of hairy nobodies staring at computer screens, the robot dogs overrun the capital city and the hairy nobodies escape into a shelter, where they stare at computer screens some more. Oh, and a giant slug talks to a giant brain.

Robotech II: The Sentinels definitely feels like a failed pilot for a TV series; there are even blackouts for commercial breaks. I don't blame Robotech creator Carl Macek for trying to continue his one successful franchise, sure, fine, whatever. But why Streamline would re-release it years later is anybody's guess. I usually try not to emphasize my mistakes.  

Robotech is a franchise that spawned novels, comic books, games,  a large toy line, and a fandom that continues to this day.  What it hasn't spawned is a satisfying sequel. Not that people won't stop trying. Hollywood continues to option Robotech for feature films, Harmony Gold monopolizes the Macross brand in North America, and the hope of more sequels always springs eternal. My hope is that it won't be another Sentinels. 

-D. Merrill

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