Mobile Suit Gundam: Thunderbolt – December Sky Review

Title: Mobile Suit Gundam: Thunderbolt – December Sky
Length: 1 x 69 minute movie
Genre: Action, sci-fi
Year of release: 2016

Since the original 1979 Mobile Suit Gundam anime, the franchise has divulged throughout alternate timelines and explored its own ‘Universal Century’ timeline thoroughly. And, seemingly every time it does, the conflict gets murkier and murkier. Long gone are the black-and-white battles against the space fascist Zeons; their infantry have consistently gotten more and more sympathetic, the victorious Federation have gotten less and less noble and the stories have gotten grittier and grittier in the process. December Sky represents the sum total of that ideology, no matter how shallow its attempts at getting there are.

It isn’t immediately clear what the conflict of December Sky is, because it’s more interested with evocatively filmed giant robot on robot action. December Sky is absolutely the kind of film that can get away with it, too, because it might just be hiding some of the best animation in the medium right now. The machines grind to the tune of the catchy jazz and pop soundtrack with no expense spared – fluid anime motion has never looked so good, frankly. When the explosions start, and we see glimmers of the darkness of this war, December Sky carries sheer awe, meshing brilliantly with the style and slick dialogue.

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When the story telling retroactively begins – and it is, almost always, retroactive, using witty retorts and gut-wrenching flashbacks to litter developments – we learn that this is a simple battle between the Right and the Left sides. On the Right are the Federation, a ragtag group of Federation soldiers whose sole strategy is to throw bodies at a problem while letting their ace pilot, Io, dispatch the ‘baddies’. On the Left are the Zeon force, who barely qualify as such as they are entirely comprised of amputees and other soldiers who can no longer fight without prosthetics and specialised equipment (supplied by an on-board scientist). What are the two fighting over? It’s kind of vague, I’ll be honest, though that also feeds into the show’s message of the futility of war.

The real draw of December Sky then, other than the jaw-dropping visuals of course, is the murky shades it paints in. Who are the good guys? Who has the most plot armour? Up until the final few moments of December Sky’s bland but excitingly filmed conflict, it’s unsure who is going to win. That is really worth something, and a feat few films or series can attain.

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But it just feels like it’s all a bit too little (and late, but we’ve been over that). It took me until I’d seen Daryl’s backstory halfway through the movie that I realised he was a protagonist with a name and not just ‘the bad guy with the afro’. On the other side, nobody but Io really earns more than a name; the Feddie captain is a bit useless and feels guilt over her strategies but is having a tryst, and there’s little else to her character, and the rest of the corps’ are even less detailed. Flashbacks are used sparingly and effectively to build the major two characters without taking time out of the ‘good stuff’, but it just isn’t enough to make the movie feel fulfilling. December Sky really needs an hour or so more, and a chronological backtrack to start storytelling nearer the beginning, rather than the vague afterthought its storytelling feels like.

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