23 May 2010

Space Marines in Japan? (Halo Legends)

Once upon a time, there was a little game called Marathon. It was a first-person shooter available for the Apple Macintosh, of all things. I absolutely adored it, mostly because Vectorman on the Genesis can only entertain for so long and I'd played through Myst about three times. By the time Marathon 2 came out, though, I was beginning to get a little weary of the FPS to the point that I stopped playing them until Maken X came out for Dreamcast. I was, however, intrigued when Bungie first started showing off stuff from Halo, but when they announced that Halo was going to be an XBox/PC exclusive, I was one of those arrogant little jerks who cried, "Traitor!" and swore off all things Bungie for the next several years. So, I never gave Halo a chance, even after I bought a PC in 2005. In fact, what drew me to Red vs. Blue was that it poked fun at the game (and I couldn't tell you for the life of me why I bought the Halo Graphic Novel). I didn't actually play Halo until about 2008, when a friend gave me his old XBox so I could show Fable to my roommate. As it turned out, I couldn't really get into the first game, but I loved Halo 2, albeit I've still never really gotten back my taste for first-person shooters. On the whole, though, I'm only a Halo fan in a vicarious manner. The "canon proper" as it might be called (what's in the games) is virtually inconsequential to me, but its ancillary items of lore (Red Vs. Blue, the comics, art books, marketing websites) I find myself hopelessly drawn to, almost to the point of compulsive hoarding. That's not to say all these items are good; if anything, I actually feel kind of bad for Halo fans that they have to settle for such mediocre merchandise. I've got drafts of a review for some of the Halo comics in the works, namely the original Graphic Novel anthology and Uprising by Bendis and Maleev, but for now I'm going to be focusing on the recent DVD release Halo Legends. I was initially reluctant to pick it up because I was first going to rent it from Red Box, but found out that Warner Bros. was boycotting Red Box because, according to them, overly-convenience rental options like Red Box are hurting their DVD sales.

Granted, I was going to probably buy it anyway, but if there's one thing I truly hate, it's being played. Of course, it's not fair to take out my frustrations on a movie because the studio backing it is run by howler monkeys with brain damage (seriously, that's like blaming Hertz for GM's current financial state), so I relented, but I'd still really love to see the proof Time Warner can offer proving that rentals hurt sales. Anyway...

Legends completes a kind of unofficial trilogy of Warner-produced anthologies of animated shorts based on major franchises. It began with The Animatrix back in 2003 and Batman: Gotham Knight in 2008. They're worth checking out, but ultimately suffer the same basic problem that all anthologies do, which is the simple fact that "you can't please everyone all the time."

In other words, there are some shorts you're going to love:
Beyond (Animatrix)
Working Through Pain (Batman: Gotham Knight)

others, you'll think are rather good:
Detective Story (Matrix)
World Record (Matrix)
Field Test (Batman)
Have I Got A Story for You (Batman)

and others, well, you'll hate:
Matriculated (Ani)

Origins I Batman: Gotham Knight never really had an "origin" piece (unless you count Working Through Pain) because that part of his story is not only well-known, but infinitely interpretable. That is, his origin has been told and re-told so many times that putting forth that kind of exposition would be pointless. For The Matrix, however, the backstory was only vaguely hinted at in the first film, so there were still quite a few gaps to fill in, hence Second Renaissance. For Halo, the backstory is fully fleshed-out, but not actually that well-known to people who haven't played through the games. Over 100 hours of gameplay, across 3 main titles and a handful of spin-offs get condensed into two pithy chapters. Helmed by the same crew that put together Second Renaissance for The Animatrix, fans of that little collection will feel a distinct sensation of deja vu, right down to the fact that the story is being told by an intelligent computer program. In this case, it's the ever-lovely Cortana who fills us in on the epic mystery of the Forerunners and the events that led them to the construction of the Halo ringworlds. The visual style is patterned after the story "Second Sunrise Over New Mombasa" from the Halo Graphic Novel, illustrated by the iconic sci-fi artist Moebius. In my draft of the review of the Halo Graphic Novel, I make the statement that the only people I feel more sorry for in terms of product quality than Halo fans are Moebius fans. I mean, everyone keeps going on and on about what a great artist Jean Giraud is, but when I look over his work, there's a lot to be disappointment to be found (the manga Icaro and the game Samurai 20XX, for starters). These two shorts I find almost beyond criticism; they're equally competent in their premise, direction, and execution. They ultimately serve more as primers than standalone pieces meant to be appreciated on the same level as the subsequent stories in the anthology. That said, this is ultimately the stronger of the two (by a small margin, both earn serious kudos with me for prominently featuring the wonderful aforementioned Cortana) with its striking art style.

Origins II Copy and Paste previous, minus all that stuff about Moebius. The art direction takes a turn for the less stylized and goes for a more realistic style and focuses on the progression of humanity in the Halo Universe instead of focusing on the Forerunners and their battle with the parasitic Flood. Did I mention I've got a major geek-crush on Cortana ?

Homecoming I'm not going to rank these shorts or anything like that, but while this one may not be my favorite, it's practically a close second. Sadly, this one doesn't seem to get the appreciation it deserves, mostly because a lot of the hardcore Halo fans have deemed it the metaphorical "Castration" of the Halo franchise, as evidenced by their summary of the piece as "the lame-ass one with the f***ing teddy bears." The reality is that the teddy bear is featured only once or twice and is hardly central to the plot, as you might be otherwise led to believe. Furthermore, the bear stands as a great counterpoint to the surprisingly dark and ominous tone that underpins the whole work. The story centers around the Spartan super-soldier program's more dubious protocols, chiefly the kidnapping of six year-old children from their homes who are then hastily replaced with "flash clones," duplicates in every way like their natural-born counterparts, save for a weaker constitution and ultimately shorter lifespan (hence answering the question, "why don't they just send the clones into battle?").

The Duel As much as I'm an odd one out (no pun intended) amongst Halo fans for not avidly following the games as much as the comics and various videos, I seem equally alienated by fans of Halo Legends because I seem to dislike all the shorts on this collection that others absolutely adore. Many reviews have cited this as being the strongest piece, mostly for its unusual art style and unique approach to the inner workings of an alien society. The art direction claims to be based on that of Japanese inkwash paintings, though I'd seriously contest that it looks more like gouache or wet-on-wet acrylic or at least watercolor more than sumi-e. At least, it doesn't look like any inkwash paintings I've ever seen. On the whole, there's not much to say about this one apart from that it's a Japanese animation studio reinterpreting an American science fiction franchise as a Japanese legend, and it works about as well as you might imagine.

Odd One Out just as Odd One Out goes off on a tangent from proper Halo continuity, I'm going to go on a tangent to talk about Dragonball for a bit, to help clear up any confusion regarding my stance on all things Toriyama. The fact is, he's got a solid design philosophy and I do like his work. Back in teh day, I even followed DBZ, but I'm not going to pretend every second was pure gold. DBZ had a lot of issues as a television series, namely in the pacing and length departments. Officially, Toriyama is not involved with Halo Legends, but Daisuke Nishio is, and between him and Katsuyoshi Nakatsuru, it's the next best thing. Nishio is a known pacifist and has very strong feelings against guns (yet strangely has no problem with people beating the tar out of each other), so space marines might not seem like a great subject for him to tackle, so he doesn't. Instead of focusing on the UNSC's war with the Covenant, his story centers on a small family of orphans descended from the survivors of a ship crash. For an off-canon story meant to explore the bounds of just what will and won't fly in the Halo universe, it's strangely respectful to the franchise. If there's ever a second volume of Halo Legends, I'd really like Frank O'Connor (project supervisor and the man with the final word on all that has to do with Halo) to go forth with his idea to expand on the daily life and history of this family that has managed to fight off everything from bird-headed space pirates to a genetically-enhanced Brute.

The Babysitter this story centers around the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, stars of the recent Halo 3: ODST game for the XBox 360 and the Helljumper comic by Peter David and Eric Nguyen. The ODST game has gotten quite a bit of buzz from both ends of the spectrum, though with most of the criticism centering on the game's release and marketing than the content itself. Along with Homecoming, this is the most visually straightforward with traditional, hand-drawn 2D animation only barely supplemented by CGI, mostly for the vehicles and a few of the backgrounds. The story revolves around a young Helljumper named O'Brien, who's just been demoted to "back-up" on a sniper mission. The task of pulling the trigger is given to a Spartan, who ends up saving his bacon at least twice on the mission, much to his chagrin. It's a bit predictable, but overall one of the strongest chapters in the collection.

The Prototype or, as I like to call it and to crib a phrase from The Simpsons, Battling Seizure Robots. There are two very important words to bear in mind before you go watching this: Muzzle Flash. There are honestly times when I had to look away because I thought I was going to be sick, and I'm not even epileptic. Strobe lights notwithstanding, this really is the weakest short of the bunch, not as much for what it is or even what it lacks as much as what it fails to do, which is let its own premise breathe. The dialogue is simple and straightforward (as is the premise), but repeated ad nauseum, pounding the premise into our heads, as though we'll lose sight of the theme amidst all the gunfire, explosions, and flickering computer displays. This could have been a brilliant one, maybe even my favorite, but it just fails on so many levels.

The Package I really cannot understand why they couldn't get Steve Downes in to voice Master Chief in this or Odd One Out. It doesn't help matters that the voice-over work in this piece is the weakest by leaps and bounds. It's as if no one in the cast (or the ADR director, for that matter) could make up their minds as to whether these characters should be portrayed as cold, calculating marines or as real, relatable people and then phoned the whole thing in at the last minute. As for the animation style (and the short, in general), I'm totally on the fence about it. I neither love it nor totally despise it. If I hate anything about it, I hate what it represents. It's got what I hate most about CGI in spades: the overdone fluidity and weightlessness of movements and objects. It's got what nearly everyone hates about modern action films in equal spades: shaky camera work and staccato editing. In short, imagine if George Lucas let Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay handle the opening sequence to Revenge of the Sith.
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