At 85 episodes, the 1985 ‘Robotech’ television series has been acknowledged by many American anime fans as their first foray into the genre and its subculture. Cramming together three separate Japanese series (‘Super Dimension Fortress Macross,’ ‘Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross,’ and ‘Genesis Climber Mospeada’) into a single, sweeping story, ‘Robotech’ told the tale of Earth’s discovery of extraterrestrial technology and their subsequent battles with three invading alien forces. By the time it had drawn to a close, it had introduced countless characters, dozens of complex storylines, and a generous helping of drama. Needless to say, the series’ 2006 sequel, a film called ‘The Shadow Chronicles,’ had to deal with the expectations of fans, the task of wrapping up dozens of loose ends, and a mere 88 minutes to expound upon a beloved anime epic.
As the film opens, the stubborn Invid -- an alien species that invaded Earth to seize control of a power source called Protoculture -- are still in control of the planet. In its desperation, the Robotech Expeditionary Force (REF) decides to use newly acquired weapons equipped with Shadow technology to purge the Invid from the planet. However, when Regess, the Invid queen, recognizes that the humans have been supplied and misled by an evil star-faring race called the Haydonites, she destroys their devastating missiles and orders a massive retreat. The surviving human forces are evacuated to a central space station, but have to contend with the loss of their Protoculture supply, the revelation that they now face a deadlier enemy, and the realization that their entire Shadow armament is an easily exploited weakness.
To Harmony Gold USA and directors Tommy Yune and Dong-Wook Lee’s credit, ‘The Shadow Chronicles’ actually has a cohesive, climactic story that functions as a clever continuation of the original series and works well as a standalone feature film. The sheer volume of characters and subplots may be daunting to newcomers, but by the end of the first act, inductees should be on fairly equal footing with old fans of the show. In fact, nearly everything about the film is self-contained and doesn’t rely too heavily on previous developments in ‘Robotech’ lore. More importantly, the main characters are relatable and appealing, leaving little doubt that the series still has a future. Aside from some heavy-handed dialogue and clichéd archetypes here and there (as well as some rather egregious disregard for the series' established character continuity that will annoy diehards to no end), I didn’t have any trouble getting acquainted with humanity’s last warriors and hoping they came out on top. Likewise, the new alien threat feels like a natural extension of the 'Robotech' mythos rather than a contrived deus ex machina.
Unfortunately, what could have been a compelling narrative is continually disrupted by some of the worst character and mecha animation I’ve seen in recent years. Movement is inexplicably stocky and, at times, so unnatural that I felt as if I should be writing someone an angry e-mail, action is stilted and clunky rather than swift, and character faces sometimes look like they belong to wooden marionettes. Watch the characters when they talk -- mouths randomly droop and extend, eyes appear flat and lifeless, and hand movement is stiff and comical. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not implying that the original ‘Robotech’ series boasted amazing animation or noteworthy expressiveness, but I do think its characters at least exuded genuine heart and soul.
Perhaps I’m demanding too much from ‘The Shadow Chronicles,’ but I expect a lot more from a modern production that relies on CG animation. As it stands, ‘The Shadow Chronicles’ offers newcomers a gripping standalone story, series fans a well-written continuation of the original ‘Robotech’ series, and anyone and everyone a decent tale of intergalactic war. Alas, no matter who you are, you’ll need to turn a blind eye to the film’s mind-numbingly dreadful animation to enjoy any of it. Personally, I’m just hoping Harmony Gold USA’s next ‘Robotech’ film looks a lot better.
Aside from the film’s stocky animation and amateur-hour production values, ‘Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles’ is presented with a solid, technically proficient 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that is, without a doubt, FUNimation’s best Blu-ray effort to date. Unlike their high-def releases of the ‘Dragon Ball Z’ flicks and the first season of ‘Afro Samurai,’ ‘The Shadow Chronicles’ doesn’t suffer from intrusive noise, errant softness, or any other debilitating issues.
Directly encoded from its source, the color palette is rich, vibrant, and engaging -- in fact, primaries have a satisfying pop while the transfer’s contrast leveling offers clean whites and inky blacks. Detail is impressive as well, offering fans sharp line-art, well-defined textures, and a definitive clarity that easily outclasses the 2007 standard DVD in every way. Of course, like most animated productions, ‘The Shadow Chronicles’ must contend with regular bouts of banding and some minor aliasing (particularly around mouths and eyes). While these issues certainly aren’t intrusive enough to ruin the experience, they are a bit distracting in spite of the otherwise reliable technical presentation. Ultimately, ‘The Shadow Chronicles’ unnatural animation may not win the film a lot of acclaim, but FUNimation should be commended for finally delivering a high-quality BD transfer.
’Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles’ features a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track that, despite the film’s sometimes haphazard sound design, manages to be quite engaging. LFE support is weighty and robust, the rear speakers are filled with movement and chaotic ambience, and dialogue is crisp and reliably anchored to the center channel (albeit to a fault). Heavy machinery and weapon discharges sound particularly strong, while the film’s score relies on every channel to increase its presence in the soundscape. Better still, the soundfield is immersive and absorbing -- I doubt anyone will call it realistic, but it’s relatively convincing when chaos erupts on the screen.
If I have any complaint, it’s that the sound designers didn’t establish proper prioritization in the busiest scenes. Dialogue is often muffled in the insanity, the music occasionally dominates the soundscape, and blasts of volume are used in place of proper directionality to enhance explosions and other aggressive sound effects. Even so, most of my problems can be traced back to the original mix rather than the technical proficiency of this lossless track. As it stands, ‘The Shadow Chronicles’ TrueHD audio sounds better than the standard Dolby Digital track on the DVD and should please fans looking for an upgrade.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles’ includes the same surprisingly generous supplemental package that appeared on the 2007 2-disc DVD release. Sadly, the content is presented in standard definition, isn’t exactly exciting, and tends to get a little repetitive. Still, it’s tough to complain since anime releases rarely earn lengthy special features.
If you can manage to get past the poorly-produced, at-times laughable animation, ‘Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles’ delivers a solid story that will appeal to newcomers and series fans alike. More to the point, FUNimation finally seems to have put together a solid Blu-ray release. It features a technically proficient video transfer, an aggressive TrueHD lossless audio track, and a robust supplemental package. Still, considering the questionable production values of the animation, you should really rent this one before you give it any serious consideration.