Reviewby Theron Martin, Aug 2nd 2011
TO Film: Elliptical Orbit & Symbiotic Planet
DVD/Blu-Ray Combo Pack
To spins two sci-fi tales from mankind's not-too-distant future.
In Elliptical Orbit, the year is 2068 and mankind has established both a sizable lunar colony and a mining operation on a planet in the Alpha Centauri system. A ship, the Flying Dutchman, arrives at a space station designed to supply the lunar colony while returning from a 15 year round-trip voyage to the mining operation. The Dutchman carries with it the most precious of cargo, a high-energy substance sufficient to provide energy needs for the entire Earth for a decade, and that makes it a prime target for terrorists disgruntled by their countries having lost a war and being deprived of necessary resources. Amidst the chaos created by the terrorists' actions, the captain of the Dutchman and the director of the space station must come to terms with the way their relationship has been affected by the lengthy travel times and the fact that the crew of the Dutchman only ages two years for every 15 that pass on Earth due to their near-light-speed travel.
In Symbiotic Planet, almost a century has passed and mankind is now colonizing other planets. On a planet where native lifeforms live symbiotic existences, humans are the ones unable to get along, as two sharply conflicting Earth factions have representative outposts. That doesn't stop Ion and Alena, who each come from one of the opposing factions, from trying to carry on a Romeo-and-Juliet type of relationship, however. When the conflict between the two colonies finally comes to a head in the wake of a mediator's arrival, the planet itself may have a lesson or two for all of the humans.
This 2009 OVA production consists of a pair of roughly 45 minute all-CG episodes based on the manga 2001 Nights. Though the two episodes seem to share the same time continuum, they have no narrative connection and are quite different thematically, with Symbiotic Planet pitching a straightforward “this sci fi element teaches us a lesson about working together” theme couched in a Shakespearean structure while Elliptical Orbit focuses instead on the iniquities created by a space program and the negative effect that space travel can have on relationships. They do, however, share a common problem: they show that Japanese studios which specialize in creating all-CG animation have yet to find a clue when it comes to crafting a story capable of doing the technical merits justice.
This is hardly a problem limited to To. Try naming a Japanese-produced, CG-animated title whose story is both truly inventive and has writing capable of stepping beyond sci fi clichés and producing something that would be special even without sterling technical merits. Difficult, isn't it? Most such titles do a respectable job of coming up with a neat environment and some snazzy gimmicks but seem obligated to use a limited number of themes which typically depend heavily on either militaristic behavior or people blatantly ignoring common sense or both. For instance, how many times have we seen such projects ultimately come down to a military leader getting disgusted with civilian governance and trying to take over during some crisis? That happens here in Symbiotic Planet. Elliptical Orbit actually takes place in space, so naturally a battle must commence outside the space station, and never mind how terrorists from a continent so desperate for resources that its citizens are starving to death can obtain the kind of equipment and access that they do, as that is just a detail that gets in the way of the storytelling.
Of the two, Elliptical Orbit has the better story. It treads down less completely familiar ground, does pack a surprise at the end, and deals frankly with the strain that long-distance space travel can put on family. Its concept of turning a space station into, essentially, one big rail gun used to shoot supplies to the Moon is an interesting one. The story fails during its less-than-credible action scenes, however, and never generates as much tension as it should since the action scenes are either quite predictably scripted or overwhelmingly improbable or both. (Do the producers really expect us to believe that a window designed to protect the station's occupants from the vacuum of space could be broken simply by trying to jump through it like one would an Earthbound house window?) By comparison, the only thing that Symbiotic Planet has going for it is a tremendously imaginative sci fi setting and an unusual twist on the standard “contamination by the local environment” gimmick. It suffers from even bigger logical gaps, like why so much military hardware would be present on such distant outposts when there is no alien threat in the setting, and depends on a plot twist which approaches deus Ex Machina to keep everyone from getting killed in the end. A bland and unconvincing romance does not help, either.
Both OVA episodes were animated by Oxybot, the same studio which produced 2007's Vexille, and were directed by Fumihiko Sori, who also directed Vexille and was a producer for the first Appleseed CG movie. That pedigree is quite apparent in the visuals used here, which have a very similar look and feel to both previous projects – both for better and for worse. The animation and artistry dazzle when depicting anything other than humans, with impressive attention to detail in all of the advanced technology on display and, in Symbiotic Planet, the alien creatures, too. The human characters suffer by comparison, however. Oh, the designs are well-realized and have both a 3D look and distinctive features (including, notably, a black character in Symbiotic Planet who actually looks right), but this effort only improves a bit on the problems its predecessors had with how the attempt to make human characters more lifelike paradoxically made them feel more artificial. The main issue is that the animators still have not mastered the art of simulating convincing body language, a factor which stands out more and more as character designs become more lifelike.
The soundtrack has no such difficulty. The same heavy techno piece fronts each episode, while “Aoitsuki,” a gentler, adult contemporary-styled song by moumoon, closes each episode out. In between is a synthesized, orchestrated soundtrack which produces a bold, rich sound in Elliptical Orbit and finds a nice balance between a softer touch and intensely dramatic sounds in Symbiotic Planet. The sound effect work is also great, although it would have been more impressive had it actually acknowledged that all of those ship sounds wouldn't be audible in space.
The Japanese dub is most notable for its prominent cast, as Akio Ohtsuka and Romi Park voice the lead roles in Elliptical Orbit and Jun Fukuyama and Aya Hirano serve the same function in Symbiotic Planet; curiously, though, Fukuyama and Hirano get the lead billing in the opener for both episodes. Their English counterparts are adequately well-cast and do well enough, although the actors for the Eurasian Alliance characters in Symbiotic Planet struggle with the Russian accent that they were assigned. Aside from being a little off on numbers in a couple of places (a strangely common problem in anime dubs), the English script does not vary enough from the original to be a problem.
Funimation has released To in one of its DVD/Blu-Ray combo packs, with a single slipcovered case containing the two DVDs (one for each episode) and one Blu-Ray disk. The visual quality upgrade between the DVD and Blu-Ray versions is more substantial than in any of Funimation's other Blu-Ray releases to date; one does not have to be a videophile to notice it immediately and pervasively, as the colors are distinctly brighter, the images distinctly sharper, and the artistry in general richer in the Blu-Ray version. The Blu-Rays also get TrueHD for their dub tracks, while the DVDs still sound fine but not quite as impressive in Dolby 5.1. Extras on both versions include a broad selection of promo videos and trailers and a pair of half hour long interviews, one for each episode. Each features scenes of director Sori alternating with scenes of the principle seiyuu in that episode. Amongst the most notable details to come out of those interviews are Sori's explanation that Elliptical Orbit was actually a side story in 2001 Nights, that the overall title for the anime version was carefully-chosen to reflect where mankind is headed, and Aya Hirano's claim that she once saw a UFO. (Given her recent reputation for flaky behavior in interviews in Japan, this is entirely normal for her.) The seiyuu parts are also notable for showing a stark contrast in the enthusiasm and comfort levels between the younger Hirano and Fukuyama and their older counterparts.
Overall, To makes for a decent sci fi viewing experience, one that is unlikely to waste one's time and yet also is not impressive enough to be worth going out of the way to see. It primarily shows that Japanese CG, though it may deal with more involved themes, still has a ways to go yet to be on the same level as the better American efforts.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Excellent design of sci fi equipment and settings, effective musical score, some surprises.
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