Planzet Review

It's truly impressive what can be achieved these days with 3-D CG animation and motion capture techniques. There would seem to be no end to possibilities that it opens up for the creation of an imaginative director who wants to take the strengths and spectacle of traditional anime stories and themes - particularly in the science-fiction field - and give them a kind of authenticity and realism that would be cost-prohibitive in a live-action feature. Why is it then that most animation features that venture into this area - and even those live-action features where the CG effects predominate - usually have no greater depth or character than the average video game? The answer, presumably, is that the director wants to show off the capability of the tools at his disposal and favours the spectacle they afford over actually having an interesting story to illustrate. But do a quality script and great spectacle necessarily have to be mutually exclusive? Is there some kind of law that states that in order to have 3-dimensional visuals, you need to drop one of the dimensions of the characterisation?

Such questions are raised by the fact that the terrific spectacle of Jun Awazu's CG animated Planzet is, inevitably, all to little avail when you have a story that is so run of the mill and lacking in anything like originality. You could probably guess how this one works out from the basic science-fiction premise (War of the Worlds, Independence Day) of an alien invasion of such overwhelming power that it subjugates Earth in no time at all, leaving only a small vestige of humanity surviving who are somehow eventually able to overcome the might of the superior alien technology through human bravery, ingenuity and a bit of luck. It's not an original idea, but it can be done well. There's no reason why it can't at least be a tense situation full of thrilling action sequences, and at the same time have some kind of depth of characterisation and perhaps even a moral to be drawn from it on the tenacity of mankind to survive and progress in the face of adversity.

In Planzet, there are indications that such is the premise, the alien invasion coming in 2047, just as the International Mars Development Organisation celebrates the completion of the first Mars colony, 'Esperanza'. Earth might be in a bit of a mess, but humanity is looking to new horizons, expecting to send out the first wave of 500,000 migrants to Mars when an unknown satellite appears, dubbed Februus, which unleashes a devastating attack on all the major cities of the planet. Six years later, a small group of pilots in Japan's Fuji Base aim plan to throw everything they have into a last-gasp attack against the alien forces, known as FOS, using a Converged Energy Assault Cannon in their Plan-Zet offensive (the film is fond of Important Sounding Names and acronyms). But what do they hope to achieve when nuclear attacks have so far failed to make any impact on the alien invaders?

The Fuji Base however hopes that the D-Cannon's Mars colonisation technology will succeed where everything else has so far failed. They have however only a fifteen minute window to get the weapon into place, needing to lowering the shields that currently offer minimal protection to what remains of civilization on Earth in order to build up for that one shot last chance for humanity. It seems however like rather a lot rests on only a few people, since the entire Fuji base seems to be occupied by only three pilots - only one of whom has a limited back story (Hiroshi needs to prove himself having let down his father, needs to look after his younger sister), while the others are defined by little more than 'rookie', and 'drunk Captain'. Oh, and there's the hard-headed boss. Presumably everyone else has been working in behind the scenes on the science of the "ultimate weapon", but you never see them, nor can you understand why, since they rely on only three pilots using super expensive high-powered mecha suits, that someone didn't think to check that the suits had working weaponry with sufficient ammo that would be up to the task. Maybe that was the duty of drunk Captain Tazaki.

Well, unconscionably careless as they've been about such important matters at such an early stage in the unfolding of the plan, at least this all that just adds to the excitement and the tension, doesn't it? Well, no, not really - all it really shows is a familiarity of the mechanics of plot devices that are well-worn from countless Hollywood action movies and, indeed, from manga and anime series, thrown in because it's the done thing rather than from any sense that they arise out of the situation. Yep, there's even the obligatory countdown to self-destruction of base, but rather than one that seems to stretch the boundaries of time, this one seems to leap past huge chunks of minutes. This seems to sum up the whole spirit of Planzet, using shortcuts in the characterisation, taking it as read that you know these characters, don't need the plot spelt out to you and who cares what motivation aliens might have for an invasion.

On the plus side, Planzet does actually look fantastic. The CG 3-D motion capture technology is evidently an acquired taste, but the designs are excellent, the whole gritty battleship grey colour schemes of post-apocalyptic Earth look terrific and movements are as fluid and natural as they can be. Evidently, the CG technology is most effective in the battle scenes which are clearly storyboarded and laid-out - no shaky-cam footage here and no confusion - with good figure representation and strong mecha designs, particularly in the alien ship technology. The relatively short running time of 51 minutes is a good thing and a bad thing. It means there's not a second wasted, but given more time to play with we might have some credible character development. As it is, everything happens within a compressed time frame, lurching from one well-rehearsed scene to the next with stock characters delivering noble expressions of self-sacrifice on the road to redemption through to the ludicrous finale. You've seen it all before in other words, and you've probably seen it done better. Yeah, even in Battle Los Angeles.

Planzet is released by Manga Entertainment on DVD only. The release is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2. It's been produced by the French studio Kazé for release in a number of territories (France, UK, Italy and the Netherlands), so you have to select your language before the main menu. In the English version, the options available allow you to view the film in the original Japanese with English subtitles, or in the English dub. These options can only be changed from the main menu, and can't be switched from your DVD-player remote.

Presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen, the image quality is excellent. Rather than having a smooth artificial CG appearance, the image looks like it has been intentionally 'degraded' in colour and grain to have a softer, darker, grittier feel, with even a retro-flicker in the opening flashback scenes. It will undoubtedly appear sharper in a HD release (there is a USA Blu-ray version), which might also improve the shadow detail in the darker interior scenes, but the softer feel of Standard Definition can be seen as working to the advantage of making the film seem more film-like and less computer generated. The Standard Definition release means that there is PAL speed-up applied - the short 53 minutes running time reduced further to 51 here - but the transfer is well done, leaving no evident artefacts or motion issues.

The original Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 track is the better fit for the mouth movements, the animation evidently being drawn to match pre-recorded dialogue, and the quality of the track itself is fine. The English Dolby Digital 5.1 dub is an acceptable alternative, with good voice-acting, but it obviously doesn't lip-sync quite as well.

There are no extra features on the English language version, but you may well find trailers for other titles on the other language options.

Sadly - as so often seems to be the case - Planzet is another example of great technology being put to the service of a mediocre and unoriginal script that places greater importance on showing off the visuals than in creating any sense of character development. On its own terms, Planzet is a fine if rather straightforward sci-fi alien invasion action movie with good-looking gameplay visuals, but even there it's visually hackneyed and has no particular style of its own to add to the genre. Undoubtedly, you've seen this all before. The Kazé/Manga Entertainment production looks fine on DVD, but with no extras and only a 51-minute feature, this is a thin package for an insubstantial film.

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