Remake/Remodel, or the Triumph of Dumb-Dumbs

15 06 2009

Let’s talk about a science fiction series from lots of years back. A big, sweeping space opera tracing its lineage indirectly, yet unmistakeably back to Star Wars. A story of the crew of a massive battleship forced to flee their home, pursued across space by a relentless, emotionless enemy bent on their destruction. It is a tale of daring fighter pilots up against incredible odds, ekeing out improbable victories by the skin of their teeth. It is about the lives they lead between battles. It is, as much as I hate to admit it, often plagued by hefty helpings of cheese. And it is perhaps not what you think it is.

Let’s talk about what you think it is, or at least what I think you should think it is. I don’t know the exact details of how it came to be, but several years ago, the decision was made to remake an old semi-clunker known as Battlestar Galactica. It was probably inevitable – it seems like all that ever was is somehow finding its way around to being remade. Most of the time, these remakes are slipshod attempts to make a quick buck off of nostalgia. Usually they just coast on a few memorable catch-phrases from their source material, or they take the even more grating route seen in movie remakes like Starsky & Hutch and the current Land of the Lost outing, using the original premise as window-dressing for dumb-dumb comedy. All in all, these things tend to be lousy, and when the source material starts out kind of silly to begin with, there’s not much room for hope of something worthwhile.

And then there was Galactica. Somehow, Ron Moore and crew took an often silly original and turned it into a gripping, mature, relevant, and intelligent gem. It was precisely what I’ve always thought sci-fi is supposed to be. By positing an utterly fantastical situation, it got past our immediate defenses and plied us with smart, tricky treatments of the issues we face in our own lives. War, genocide, abortion, political corruption, electoral fraud, the relationship between religion and government – you name it, it was in there. It managed to present an unflinching, yet sympathetic view of an occupied people driven to guerilla warfare and suicide bombings even while our own soldiers were falling to the same tactics on real-world battlefields. What’s more, it presented these dilemmas as just that – dilemmas. While some things were presented as clear issues of right and wrong, most were shown as difficult, nuanced conundrums decided less by moral certainty than by the immediate needs of the moment or by simple, unvarnished emotion. Viewers would often find themselves agreeing with the application of a principle or policy that, in the real world, they would steadfastly oppose. And somewhere in there, if you were willing, it genuinely made you think.

So if not Galactica, what was I talking about back there in the first paragraph? And why all that stuff about Galactica if that wasn’t it?

Robotech.

For those who don’t know, Robotech was a cartoon series that began airing in the US in 1985. It was a peculiar beast, a Frankenstein’s monster of sorts, three completely separate and unrelated Japanese cartoons stitched together to form a single epic storyline (and to satisfy syndication requirements). It told the story of Earth’s accidental involvement in a complicated, long-running interstellar war. The three original series, Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada, were rewritten to become three chapters in the same overall story. Each chapter detailed the exploits of separate generations of humans and the aliens they battled for the safety of Earth. In 1985, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen.

For starters, all three of the original series, and by extension Robotech, fell squarely into what’s typically called the “real robot” genre of Japanese animation. Instead of featuring sentient robots with amazing super-powers, the robots that gave Robotech the first two and a half syllables of its name were human-piloted military vehicles. They didn’t talk, they didn’t have personalities – they were just tools, like a modern fighter plane or tank. As a result, not only did they immediately seem more real, they also didn’t hog the spotlight. The real stars of the show were the pilots, and as much time as they spent flying their fantastic machines in battle, they spent at least as much dealing with their lives and interpersonal relationships. That depiction of the life between battles was the thing that truly set Robotech apart. While the main characters were (mostly) military men and women fighting for the completely just cause of self-defense, they were scared and confused and at times deeply ambivalent about what they were doing. They fought because they had to, not because they wanted to, and when one of their friends died in combat (that’s right, a mid-80s cartoon where people, even major characters died and never came back), they felt it. Just as the robots seemed more real, so did the people.

Now, it just so happens that Robotech is slated for a Hollywood remake. Likely spurred on by the huge success of Michael Bay’s Transformers, work is underway on creating a big-screen adaptation. While initial news was promising, like the involvement of producers from The Dark Knight and a script being written by Lawrence Kasdan, things have kind of hit the skids of late. Writing duties have been given to Alfred Millar and Miles Gough (of Smallville fame), and while I don’t want to cast undue aspersions upon those two scribes, I will say that Smallville was rarely, if ever, subtle and nuanced.

Clearly I’m a Robotech fanboy. I make no claim otherwise, and I’m completely aware that it’s essentially impossible to remake anything without pissing off the fanboys. I’ve grown up over the last 24 years with a very clear idea of what Robotech means and what any new approach to it should look like. I’m going to try my best to put as much of that as possible aside as news dribbles out and when I finally sit in the darkened theater to see the thing. What gets me, though, and what threatens to knock all of that attempted goodwill into a cocked hat is the fact that there’s a chance here, just as there was with Galactica, to do it so very, very right. While the source material is occasionally lumpy (the dialogue is at times painfully hokey), the themes and ideas are unquestionably there. At a time when our country is struggling with two wars of at best… uhm, complicated provenance, here’s a chance to show a war of complete necessity that is still presented as painful, confusing, and difficult. Here’s a chance to show young people growing and changing as a result of the hardships of war, and how their perspectives and priorities change under the heavy burdens of responsibility and constant reminders of their mortality. It’s a chance to do sci-fi right. And hey, big transforming robots. Bonus.

I guess this is just a very long-winded way of saying two things – 1> I’m sick to death of stupid science fiction that misses the point entirely, as well as remakes that are either about making fun of the source material or just riding it for a quick nostalgia cash-in, and 2> please don’t screw up Robotech, folks. It is so much better, and it deserves so much better.

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