I first heard about Robotech: The Movie in the process of searching out information on Robotech as a whole right after I first went on-line. It was clear enough why I hadn't heard about it before: it had been test-screened in Texas in 1986, then pulled from the theatres, apparently released on video only outside North America. It had since become infamous among anime fans, although I could wonder how many of them had even seen it for themselves. I was willing to wonder if the controversy around Robotech in general, a controvery that might in itself have been puffed up through external factors, had taken a victim.
In any case, the best description I had to go on was a short essay written by someone who had been in the right place to actually see Robotech: The Movie during its test screenings, although that wasn't the only reason he was notable in fandom. Years later, I bought the official re-release of the anime OVA that had been the core of the Movie, Megazone 23... and then, some time after that, I happened on a chance to see Robotech: The Movie itself. Dark curiosity drove me onwards.
Robotech: The Movie begins with an "opening crawl," read by the narrator of the series. As I'd expected, the crawl used vague euphemisms for some of the most distinctive elements of the first part of Robotech, "The Macross Saga": loopholes in licensing agreements had kept them from being openly used on movie screens. Even more intriguingly, the movie never used the term "Protoculture," the MacGuffin of the series but frequently elevated to strange heights in part because the mysterious elements of three separate anime series had been conflated under one name. After that, though, the narrator wasn't used again, which was a bit of a surprise to me: the narrator has been accused of breaking in to explain things anyone can just see on the screen. (A more charitable opinion I've seen expressed is that he amounts to a "Greek chorus.") I had heard that Robotech: The Movie, in its final form, had been made by cutting together Megazone 23, a new ending to the OVA commissioned by the people who had made the Movie, and footage from Southern Cross, the second anime series shown as part of Robotech. This last addition, in the best explanations I've seen of it, was at the behest of the studio executives who had planned to distribute Robotech: The Movie, bored with the "slice of life" scenes of Megazone and intent on seeing more stuff blow up.
Much had been said about how the series and the OVA visibly didn't mesh on the screen; in a computer encoding of a well-worn videotape, that feeling may have been somewhat diminished for me but it was still there. It was a bit amusing in any case to think of Southern Cross as a well-used "footage mine." Scenes from it were spliced into the later episodes of The Macross Saga to start setting up the next conflict (and managed in the process to make its trio of central villians "telepathic," because they were made to toss fragments of backstory at each other without moving their lips), and then more scenes from it were spliced together with flashbacks to create an eighty-fifth episode that would round out the weekly syndication schedule and link the first and second storylines a little more closely (and managed to introduce machinery that didn't show up again until rather later). Stuff did blow up in the interpolated scenes, all scenes that would recur in different contexts later in the series, but most of the characters had been sanded away in the process.
I was a bit more surprised, though, to realise that the scenes left from Megazone 23 had been rearranged from their original order. This somehow seemed to blunt the narrative impact of the protagonist stumbling upon a pretty large motorcycle that can transform into a robot: instead of seeing the breakout of wonder of its first transformation as military forces close into capture him, it's glimpsed as one of his friends tries to make a movie featuring the machine.
Too, with a knowledge of what Megazone 23 was to begin with, I began to remember old accusations about Robotech as a whole. I think that more of the themes of the original anime series carry through to it than some people are willing to admit, and it's those common themes more than anything that help to hold the series together in my opinion. Megazone 23, though, isn't just about an invasion from space opposed using transforming robots, where "idol singers," disbelieving and suspicious commanders, and the possibility of the opposing sides coming to understand each other all play a role. It has music and transforming robots, but it's really about someone convinced he's living in Tokyo in the "good year" of 1985 stumbling into a ruthless military attempt to break out of an artificial city inside a spaceship watched over by a idol singer-simulating supercomputer that brainwashes people to keep them convinced it's always been 1985. (It seems a little complicated, and I could think on the attempts of some to draw parallels between Megazone 23 and The Matrix and think that controlling the pure virtual reality of the Matrix isn't nearly as involved.) The end result is that we get people driving big cars, intending to fly an ordinary-looking jet, and using a movie camera that uses film reels in what's supposed to be "2027," an antique 2027 where something beyond furious action seems missing that also gets intercut with the science-fiction uniforms of Southern Cross. The scene where the protagonist actually gets outside the spaceship is passed off as stumbling into a "space simulation chamber."
It may just be that I'm "in the know" at last. After a full ten years of being aware of Robotech only as Robotech, I reached the point where I can accept that characters have names like "Rick Hunter" or "Dana Sterling" in one reality and "Hikaru Ichijo" or "Jeanne Francaix" in another. With Robotech: The Movie, it's a little more difficult for me to attach the relentlessly North American names everyone gets to characters I first really knew as Japanese. As well, perhaps, some of the female voices sound a bit older to me than the characters are supposed to be, and some people just sound very familiar, having been voiced by people playing roles in the original series. A combination of musical pieces from the original series's soundtrack and somehow cheaper, more heavily synthesised pieces may fit together about as well as the two series jammed into the Movie do.
However, I didn't find the dialogue quite as "incoherent" as some people have accused it of being. (There was, to be sure, one odd moment where voiceovers try to imply that someone's just been captured to advance the plot, another moment where the protagonist talking to himself to explain the action seemed a little more obtrusive than even I usually find it in Robotech, and one moment where there's no dialogue, just an exchange of glances, which is enough like anime to me to not seem quite like Robotech at all...) I could understand that the movie had been pulled from distribution not because of some mythic total lack of quality, but just because of what I'd heard before, because of a lack of promotion in the test markets and the fiasco of parents assuming that anything "animated" had to be inoffensive (although only brief fragments remain of the really extreme stuff from Megazone 23...) The new ending, a simple matter of gritted teeth and determination following up defeat with victory which might perhaps have seemed lacking in Megazone 23's context, was interesting enough to see, although it did seem not quite as high-quality as the OVA's animation. My ability to call animation "off-model" may perhaps be more finely tuned than is good for me.
I suppose that in the end, Robotech: The Movie was just a curiosity for me, an fragment from a world that might have been. Still, even a curiosity can be interesting to see when you weren't expecting to ever experience it for yourself. Too, perhaps, I just may be telling myself that it's lowered the bar a little further for "Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles..."