Gundam: Mobile Suit Gundam
A triple strength dose of pure gundam. Apparently these three movies are built using the story, and some of the animation, from the original 43 episode TV series...which helps explain why each movie is well over 2 hours in length!
And as you can guess there's quite a lot of story elements possible in that amount of material. And this is Gundam, which has taken large casts and tangled plots to new extremes. The important part is that, in the far future, mankind has expanded into space with a vengeance. The earth is now circled by huge colonies and millions of people live outside of earth. Sadly mankinds potential for division and conflict, not to mention lust for power and revenge, remain seemingly unchanged. In addition tensions start to grow between those on the planet and those who have been brought up in space. On this basis a group of colonies declare independance from earth, naming themselves the zeon principality, a situation that quickly leads to a state of war. And when one side live in floating metal cylinders, and the other side can have immense colonies dropped from orbit, the war is brutal.
The immense losses force both sides to an armistice, but there's is no doubt on either side that the war will be renewed. Our story begins on a non zeon colony where final tests have been made on the federation's (the earth forces) new mecha and space war-ship. This new mecha, the gundam, is a huge advance and the zeon ace who learns of it, Char Aznable, intends to see it destroyed. As battle rages over these prototypes various civilians find themselves involved in the battle, as the loss of trained soldiers and technicians has reached a critical level. One young boy in particular, Amuro Ray, actually finds himself in control of the Gundam. And through some talent and much luck these people are able to escape from the Zeon forces.
Unfortunately for them the Zeon, and espcially Char, are extremely interested in these new weapons. Partly because the Zeon's believe themselves inherently superior, and these people represent a threat to that belief. For their part the federation is unsure what to do with these amateurs who don't fit into the existing military lines. The answer seems to be to use them as a decoy. Leaving them as a single unit in hostile space to divert enemy forces. It's heartless, but the federation itself is desperately short of people and materials. In other words this ship, the "White Base" and it's exotic crew find themselves at the center of some of the most violent battles in this all too violent war.
In the background there's lots of other minor plots, with many of these being intended to show the horrors of war. There's also some larger sub-plots. One of these concerns the internal politics of the Zeon principality. Since they are ruled in a dictatorial fashion the leaders of this side have immense personal power. However the tensions between them, or other forces on the zeon side, can be quite brutal. The other major plot is the evolution of the "newtypes". The zeon revolution was based, although not without some corruption, on the belief that mankind would adapt and grow to meet the challenges of space. It seems he was right, however the question of how this "new race" will fit into the broader picture still remains.
One of the most interesting things is how strong the `gundam style' was from even this early period. Huge stories covering lots of little incidents in a brutal global war. The gundam sense of `scale' and complexity is well represented here in what must have been very ambitious for a TV series. This also means that, while the animation and production is dated, if you can cope with gundam in general you'll probably find it quite comfortable to watch.
It also has the typical weaknesses of a lot of gundam material. The first being that you really have to love scenes of high tech battle. Admittedly it is helped by having lots of mecha battles, which are more interesting than starships, but it can still get a touch tedious. There's an astounding amount of mecha chopping each other into bits, huge energy beams and exploding warships. At it's heart this is a war movie, and if that doesn't interest you then this material will probably be tough going. Whereas if you love mecha, and lots of the Gundam web-sites suggest there are many people who do, you'll be thrilled.
The politics, character interaction and stories exploring the human aspects of war do make it substantially more complex. There's even time for a bit of romance (although romantic partners make great tragic deaths) and comedy to be mixed in. But personally I see these more as `spice' than the main course. This is because, by and large, the huge cast and combat focus mean that a lot of the character stuff feels quite simplistic. Events will come from nowhere, a character will suddenly go all angsty, distraught or just plain nuts, and then everything will be resolved in some way. Even the lead, who gets a lot of time, seemed prone to very sudden bursts of character in between long stretches of being a gundam pilot. Taken together this lack of subtlety, the abrupt way in which it is handled and the extreme results often seem less than believable and even irritating. It's fairly melodramatic.
In addition the "war" and "politics" elements start to be over-shadowed by the newtype sub-plot. And i'm uncertain whether this is a good thing. Effectively the whole newtype sub-plot is an excuse for us to only be interested in the "hero" pilots. One Char or Amuro being equal to hundreds of normal cannon fodder, oops, I mean pilots. Layered on top of this is some downright new-age spiritual bunkum about the emergence of a new race and the meetings of minds through nascent psychic powers. In many ways it turns a war story into a tale of hero's and magic, which, well, sort of sucks.
All things considered it is suprising how watchable this material still is. The large cast means there's probably some characters who interest you. The endless battles with new opponents and new mecha means there's always something happening. And while it's not deep the consideration of the human element in a brutal war does give it some depth and meaning. Add in a reasonable sense of pace, some firm direction and memorable scenes and it turns out to have aged well.
The animation is, unsuprisingly, dated and may look quite strange to those who only know the latest and greatest. It's ambitious, but the detail is often too much for the animation, the movement less than smooth and the special effects more indicated than really depicted. Likewise the design for much of the technology, apart from the mecha, looks really strange. Bulbous and improbable air-craft being the worst example, although weapons like "space machine-guns" also raise an eye-brow. Balancing this is the fact that clearly a lot of thought and design work has gone into this material, and it is animated well enough that after a while you rarely notice. In other words the animation is still sufficient for the story to drag you in, although the first half hour may be tough. The voices are good, even for quite minor characters. The music is unimpressive, with some material (including song breaks) that has dated faster than the animation and will likely find few fans.