Legendary Studios’ Gundam film will fail, for one simple reason only:
…If it follows the original Universal Century storyline of the original 1979 series.
Debuting in April 1979, Mobile Suit Gundam is now the premier mecha anime franchise, having revolutionized the genre for generations to come with its then-groundbreaking portrayal of giant robots in the context of a realistic war, with its sub-themes of prejudice, betrayal, love and revenge within a time of military conflict. It eradicated the simplicity of standard hero/villain dynamics and super-heroism in the mecha anime that preceded it for years. As a long-time fan of the franchise, I know two things to be true for Western Gundam fans.
The first thing is that we felt an obnoxious re-emergence of interest in the series thanks to massive nods to the iconic robot behemoth in the giant-mecha/kaiju popcorn sequel Pacific Rim Uprising, and the film adaptation of Ernest Clines’s pop culture love letter Ready Player One (which originally featured Ultraman in place of the Gundam that appeared in the film version).
The second thing is this: Since the announcement that Legendary Studios and Sunrise (the anime studio responsible for Gundam) were teaming to create a live-action Gundam film, franchise fans have been split between having optimistic anticipation (of insight into the future) for a Hollywood-sized science-fiction epic, and realistic expectations for yet another failed American product based on an anime. The latter is likely due to the previous efforts of a much-loathed live-action film called G-Saviour. Though non-canon to the original storyline, it was meant to serve as a part of the franchise’s “Big bang” 20th anniversary, which also saw the release of the first-ever American dubs of Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory, and the original Gundam movie trilogy. Sadly, it was the weakest component of the celebratory quartet.
G-Saviour wasn’t a total catastrophe, and an optimist could certainly see the heart put into the film. With a bigger budget and the right collaborative team behind a new project, a second live-action Gundam film could pick up were Saviour left off and produce something truly grand. And although most fans are hoping that this newly-announced live-action entry will adapt the original Gundam movie trilogy from the early 80’s (which itself is an adaptation of the 1979 television series), it simply isn’t viable.
Retelling the story to the extent that it deserves for a real-life feature likely won’t draw the crowd that it deserves, either. From Char’s hidden ambitions down to the look of his mask, to the ethnicity and heritage of certain characters like Gundam pilot Amuro Ray and Guncannon pilot Kai Shiden, I feel a two-hour space opera would not be able to ride off the wave of the “second coming” of Gundam’s popularity in the states properly.
Take the franchise’s most popular entry in America, 1995’s Gundam Wing, for instance. As an alternate-universe installment—one that takes place in the After Colony calendar, instead of the Universal Century—its Cartoon Network debut in the summer of 2000 generated a brand new legion of fresh faces that founded the Gundam fanbase in the United States today. Though heavily inspired by the original series in many of its aspects, Wing existed onto itself, opening and closing an entire saga in a 49 episode television series, and one film sequel, that the Universal Century took three television series, three compilation films, and one film sequel to open and close. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but usually only hardcore fans are committed to following the various wars, new or returning characters, and the ultra-significant events of the early UC, especially as more and more side-stories stretch and complicate the era by 1) leaning perhaps a little too far into the mystical side of Gundam and its deep subcontext over the existence of its psychic and deeply empathic “Newtypes”, and by 2) introducing new Gundam mobile suits nobody ever knew existed, but now have to somehow actively fit into the canon.
Gundam Wing had no problem being the first Gundam series introduced to stateside anime fans who are now life-long fans of the franchise. The only way a live-action Gundam film is going to succeed is if it takes its cues from the American success of Wing by starting from scratch and introducing a brand new story and conflict, instead of adapting the beautiful but complex web consisting of the original Universal Century series from the 70’s and 80’s. That is not to say this live-action film needs to adapt Wing specifically. No, this new movie desperately calls for its own story, its own conflict, and quite possibly, its own never-before-seen mobile suits.
I consider myself a “hardcore” Gundam fan. Like most of us, I understand the lore a little too much. My first and second cars were named after Lucrezia Noin and the Strike Noir Gundam, respectively. It’s a bit sad. Point is, nobody wants to see a live-action Amuro Ray light up his Gundam and get to work more than I do. I want to see space colonies nuke the planet, I wanna see Lalah and Char’s complicated relationship, and most of all, I wanna see some mouthy teenagers get slapped around by Bright Noah. But in my heart of hearts, I also know it simply wouldn’t work unless they made way too many radical changes to appease Western ideas and ideals. And to a hardcore fan like me, for better or for worse, any change is probably too radical.
I don’t exactly see Christopher Nolan falling into the director’s seat of this film. But even with the recent announcement that Bryan K. Vaughn—creator or Y: The Last Man and Marvel’s Runaways–will be penning the script, it still needs a precise director and a mind-blowing cast.
A live-action Gundam movie can work. But will it?
I don’t think so. Please change my mind.