Netflix dropped an original anime series on us on July 4th – and I guess original means “was broadcast in Japan in April” now – but they’re distributing it worldwide so it’s new to us. Animated with cel-shaded computer graphics and released in its entirely with a full English dub, I decided to jump in this weekend with some good old fashioned binge watching, dub and all, just like Netflix wants us to do.
Let’s just say I should have been a bit more skeptical about this one based off Netflix’s take on “originality”.
The story goes that humanity was forced off Earth by giant tentacle monsters 1000 years ago and now everyone lives on spaceships. Our protagonist is some milquetoast yet technically skilled orphan who lived in the bowels of the Sidonia until he was caught stealing rice. But since he’s the chosen one he’s been thrown into the spear-chucking space robot pilot program.
There. I’ve effectively spared you from having to watch the couple of episodes which contain infodump after infodump, all delivered in the same bland, blasé, matter-of-fact tone that you might expect an elementary school teacher to use to explain algebra to first graders. A lot of time is spent telling, not showing, the ignorant protagonist about the ship while walking around boring, gray hallways. As the series goes on this only gets worse with backstory being filled in as high school lectures, and heavy-handed foreshadowing takes away even the slightest shred of unpredictability.
Even the characters are boring. Accident-prone protagonist Nagate has no distinguishing characteristics, yet still follows the anime rule of being fought over by multiple, interchangable love interests. No one ever really stands out, save two exceptions. The first is Izana, who isn't male or female but a new gender that morphs into whatever gender their chosen partner can procreate with. And that’s there for totally artistic, gender-binary exploring, non-wank-material story needs, I’m sure.
The other character, who thankfully has no romantic inclinations toward Nagate, is Lala. Lala is a talking bear who wears a maid outfit and has a robot hand. So points for originality there.
Now this is the future so there’s all sorts of weird technology, but it’s all passive and boring stuff that didn’t take any time to design or render. You want to see how they build robots? Too bad. Instead you get photosynthesizing humans (which means lots of naked women), copious amounts of clones (so they didn’t have to make new models) and only allusions to the admittedly ominously named “organic converter reactor”.
Now let’s address the elephant in the room: the computer animation. I don’t know what it is about shows that use this method, but so far I’ve observed that the framerate on them is appalingly low, leading to jerky, jumpy motions. It’s sort of become accepted that CG is used to render objects with hard lines -- like cars and mecha – to save time and money. And that produces mixed results that sometimes break your suspension of disbelief but hey, at least it’s on model!
But when the whole show is animated in this way (such as in last year’s ARPEGGIO OF BLUE STEEL), the human/organic characters are mannequin-like. It feels more like bad stop-motion than it does traditional animation; a series of stiffly posed keyframes in sequence with nothing inbetweened. And sure, having no inbetweening saves you money, but guess what? Then you don’t have inbetweening. And without inbetweening action scenes become more incomprehensible than those in Michael Bay’s TRANSFORMERS movies.
The laziness doesn’t just stop at the animation; it’s in a lot of the designs as well. I’ve already mentioned the bevvy of clones that run around, saving money on modeling, but there are also several characters who wear masks so that faces don’t need to be animated. And let’s not forget about the army of mass-produced robots the pilots fly, which can only be differentiated by their numeric designations. And then there's the egregious overlap between episodes. Sometimes whole acts seem like they came from the episode before! Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V.
At its heart, KNIGHTS OF SIDONIA is an old-school, analog, nuts-and-bolts sci-fi story. Emphasis is placed on the technical specs of the world and situations like how to survive in space at the expense of story. It does bare a tertiary resemblance to the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA reboot in the tone, but lacks any of the gravitas and character that show possessed. This is a show that exists to sell models and figurines, not to tell an engaging story.
Hopefully Netflix will think twice about putting it’s “original series” brand on a show like this again. They’ve got critically acclaimed shows like ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK and HOUSE OF CARDS, but if they put out more stinkers like SIDONIA I’m going to have to start questioning their sense of taste.
About the Author
Matt Murphy is a freelance nerd who has contributed to many nerd websites. You can reach him by going to where the light meets the shadow, by sending out zeta-brainwaves or by following him on Twitter @Murphix.