Review: Aldnoah.Zero

 

Hey, look at our totally awesome show that has all these famous names attached to it; it’s really not terrible at all! Yeah, I’m coming out of the gate swinging. This show was announced with Gen Urobuchi’s name (of Fate/Zero and Madoka Magicka fame) slapped in big letters right on top, and that it featured Kalafina and Hiroyuki Sawano (the composer from Attack on Titan), and so on and so on. So I, like a lot of people, thought, “hey, these big names working on a cool-sounding, emotional story involving mechas. This seems like a good show.”

Ooooooooohhhh man.

(Note: In my searches, most reviews of this show I’ve seen only talk about the first 12 episodes of the two-cour series. They took a six month break between airing episode 12 and episode 13, so I feel I’m in the minority by actually sharing my thoughts on the entire 24 episodes.

Also, fair warning: this is a long review.)

An Introduction

This show’s premise is one of those things that makes a lot of sense, but is really hard to put into words. I’ll try though:

So in an alternate universe, the Apollo 17 mission discovered some ancient Martian technology on the Moon that allowed people to travel to and colonize Mars. Some of these first colonists created an empire on Mars: the Vers Empire. Ever since this empire was created, the humans on the two planets have drifted further and further apart. This led up to a giant interplanetary war in 1999, where Vers tried to take over the Earth. They really only succeeded in blowing up half the moon though (in an event called “Heaven’s Fall”), leaving random Martian spaceships among all the space debris. Since then, there’s been an uneasy peace, although some in the Vers Empire secretly still want to show Earth what-for.

It’s now 2014, 15 years later. The show starts off with Princess Asseylum of the Vers Empire arriving in Japan to try to negotiate a more solid peace between the two planets. But, as she’s being escorted in a limousine, a missile suddenly appears and “KA-BLAM!”; no more Asseylum. So, naturally, the Martians, upset by this sudden regicide, declare war against Earth. Martian ships and mechas rain from the sky, and suddenly Earth’s fight for survival begins!

Here, I’ll introduce one of our main characters. Inaho, one of those cold and calculating types, finds himself in the front lines when one of Vers’s first waves of attack appear in Japan: a giant, superpowered mecha. Through pure cunning, he manages to find a way to best it. Soon afterwards, Inaho, his high school friends, and a few others, arrive on a ship alongside some other “refugees”, trying to make their way to a global army headquarters to figure out where to go from there. And on this ship is someone that looks suspiciously Asseylum-like…

The other main character we have is Slaine. An Earth-born human that ends up on Mars after a crash landing, he became one of Asseylum’s closest friends, teaching her about the wonders of Earth. At the same time, the rest of the Martians treat him terribly, calling him names, pushing him around, whacking him with canes, and even worse. After the explosion and second Vers-Earth war began, Slaine enters the fray to find those responsible for Asseylum’s death.

The Plot and Characters

The fascinating thing about this story is just how much potential there is here, right from the get go. The first few episodes not only set up this really fascinating premise, but you also have: a main character (Inaho) that uses plausible science to back up the cool action stuff he does, a view into the complex political world of a war nation, a character (Slaine) dealing with and growing from his terrible treatment as a minority, and overall, we have this underdog story where everything’s on the line. There’s even a supporting character who’s a recovering alcoholic with PTSD, having been in the army during the Heaven’s Fall war 15 years prior, which is pretty cool.

The sad thing is, though, that these beginning few episodes (and a couple other cool points in the first half) are about as good as this show ever gets. As the story moves on, things become more contrived, unbelievable, and clichéd.

Inaho is completely emotionless, from the very start to the very end. His older sister seems to imply there is some reason for it, but if there is, we never see it (or at least, it isn’t made clear). I can understand a relatively silent character; they can be pretty cool. However, Inaho is darn-near robotic with his actions, forgoing absolutely everything for the sake of him kicking some Martian butt. (Why he gets himself so involved with this war, we also don’t really know. My guess is he just kind of went with the flow.) In fact, in the second half, one of his body parts gets replaced with some cybernetic technology. We’re supposed to feel sympathy and sorrow for him about that, but it did nothing. I couldn’t make myself care more about his situation than he does, which is not at all.

As well, Inaho, this empathy-lacking high school kid, ends up becoming “humanity’s only hope”, as Earth’s forces kept getting pushed more and more into a corner. He became the only one on Earth’s side that ever got to do anything cool, or he orchestrated it for others to look cool. It came to a point where I began rooting for the other Earth characters whenever a battle happened, hoping that they’d get to show off a bit on their own without Inaho being the only one worth the attention. The show relied too much upon Inaho when he wasn’t even a character we could relate with. He had no internal conflict that got us to really connect with him and sympathize with him, leaving him this cold shell.

Of course, there’s the flip side of the coin: the Vers Empire side.

Throughout each episode, Aldnoah.Zero splits up its time between Inaho and Earth’s forces, and Slaine and the politics of the top Martian generals. For the first half of the show, I actually enjoyed watching Earth’s side more as the adventures and drama of the characters upon the ship were actually rather riveting and fascinating. The Mars side was cool to watch too, with us witnessing all the scheming and treachery of the Vers Empire’s top leaders, and also seeing Slaine trying to reach his Asseylum-related goals, but it wasn’t quite as attention-grabbing.

The second half, the side I enjoyed completely switched. Earth’s side became almost cringe-inducingly hard to watch, with the Our-Only-Hope-Inaho-Fest turned up to 11. Luckily, the show seemed to focus more on Slaine’s side for the second half; Slaine, through a series of well-timed events, got himself into power as one of the counts/generals of the Vers Empire, and used his influence to rally the Martian side to continue the war against Earth. Slaine, with his newfound power, had begun to grow mad, and built up this corrupted system around him, even more so than the Vers generals he had overthrown. It was fascinating to see how far things could build up before the inevitable point where they’d all come crashing down around him.

However, I can’t really say the ending to the show was all that satisfying. I won’t even hint at what happened (partly because, frankly, it left me confused, and I can’t be bothered to attempt rationalizing it right now), but I had wished for something a bit more epic and grandiose than what we got. Of course, there was this big space battle beforehand between Inaho/Earth and Slaine/Vers that the show tried to build up, but it wasn’t much more than what we’ve already seen throughout most of this second half by this point. The end of episode 12 (the end of the first half) was more dramatic and tense than the actual end of the series was.

The secondary characters on Earth’s side were relatively flat, with small exceptions here and there when some did receive some development. For the most part though, they stuck to their tropes and one-line gags, disappointingly so. The character with PTSD, by far, had the most development, but the conclusion to his side plot seemed a bit rushed to me. On the Martian side, though, there were some interesting characters. The show tried to develop some of the Martian counts and a few of the others we see… although a number of them receive as much development as the Earthlings, but hey, at least there’s something. On both sides though, even if there wasn’t the most development, a number of the supporting characters were certainly memorable in their own right, which is a plus.

Worldbuilding in this show also wasn’t particularly great. I wish we got to see more of the impact this Heaven’s Fall war left behind (all the main Earth characters look at some meteor or something in the first episode as their bus rolls by it, but we never see it), beyond the PTSD character. There was a hearty attempt on the Martian side to build how the Vers empire worked and to a decent extent, it’s definitely well appreciated. At the same time, though, we really never got a good look at what Mars itself actually was like (the most we ever see of that world is the inside of the royal palace).

All in all, though, the show’s story felt poorly done. They had this excellent start, and built it fairly nicely in the beginning (probably because of Gen Urobuchi’s help), but someone dropped the ball somewhere after that. Aldnoah.Zero started off as “great” and “attention-grabbing”, and it became barely tolerable at the end. I can’t feel anything but disappointed, because it could’ve given us something so much better than what we got. But yet, no matter how crummy the plot got, the show still treated itself super-seriously, sometimes to the point where it was a bit overboard and pretentious.

The Atmosphere

The production value of the show is where things really shine with this show. While the story had a one-way ticket to Suck-burg, at least the train ride was a very pretty one.

Aldnoah.Zero’s background work looks really cool, especially the designs (inside and out) of the giant Martian spaceships. I can’t say it’s the best art work I’ve ever seen, but gosh darn it, that doesn’t stop me from appreciating how cool some of these places looked. If there was anywhere needing improvement, I would say the ship(s) that the Earth side usually resided upon – they looked drab and boring.

A dynamic color scheme, with the darkest of darks and the lightest of lights, was used throughout (although more on the dark side), which I don’t think hindered its presentation, but it didn’t make it better either.

The character designs are also really good. They’re clean and smooth, and each character stands out enough and looks unique in their own right. If I were to complain, it’d be Asseylum’s design, but otherwise, I like it. I was especially intrigued by the visible difference between the Earthlings and Martians. There is the usage of CG with the mechas, but it’s not the worst I’ve ever seen (although that’s not really saying something, because I’ve seen some pretty bad stuff). I wouldn’t know if it’d qualify as the best CG ever, but I found it to not be too much of a distraction. Either way, the mecha designs, at least on the Martian side, look rather good.

The music for the show is also really great. Like I said, they had the music composer from Attack on Titan on this show, and it sounds great. The music here is so memorable and unique, I’ve actually considered buying a copy of the soundtrack. However, I even have a complaint here: the show replays so many of the tracks that the feeling of the great-sounding tracks start to lessen. It’s disappointing, because I do really like the music. The opening and ending songs also sound really cool for this series, although the ending animations tend to not be too flashy.

I haven’t seen this show dubbed. Watching it subbed, the voices of Inaho and Slaine sometimes sounded a bit too close to one another, but it generally wasn’t too much of an issue. I really enjoyed the voice of Eddelrittuo a lot.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

If you looked up “wasted potential” in the dictionary, you’d find an image of Aldnoah.Zero there. (You’d also see a picture of my face, but that’s a different thing altogether.) This show had such a great start, with so many things going right, but it just couldn’t stay at its high. Even if I’ve heard praise for the show after the end of the first half, there was absolutely nothing by the end of the second half. While the show looks cool and sounds awesome, the story falling on its own face keeps Aldnoah.Zero from being anything good.

Let’s get down to it: I don’t recommend this show to really anyone. This show sounds and looks cool, yes, but unfortunately, that’s only a façade. If you were to watch all 24 episodes, I’m confident you’d see where my issues with this appear. We’d all appreciate an emotional mecha story, but Aldnoah.Zero isn’t where to look.

Rating: Bad
Recommendation: Don’t Watch
+++ great premise, awesome music, Slaine
— story goes way downhill, awesome music gets replayed too much, Inaho… just Inaho

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