Reviewby Theron Martin, Oct 19th 2012
In 2003 a comet strike on Venus set up circumstances that made colonization and terraforming feasible, so colonists begin landing in 2012. Flash forward to 2089 and Venus is now dominated by two nations: Io on the northern continent and Aphrodia on the southern. When Io launches a surprise attack on Aphrodia's capital city, the Killer Commandos monocycle biking team and Susan “Sue” Sommers, a young reporter from Earth looking for a big scoop, get caught in the middle. Discontented with both the Io occupying forces and Aphrodia's quick capitulation and compliance, Commando stud Hiro runs afoul of both. His team getting their hands on some armaments leads to a daring, reckless plan to strike back against the tanks of the occupying Io forces, which brings them to the attention of the much better-equipped, better-trained, and better-organized Io military elements who refused to surrender and instead went rogue. With varying degrees of enthusiasm the surviving Commandos join with the rebel forces to take back a city that may not have been the greatest place to live but was still their home, with reporter Sue in tow all the way.
The movie also known as The Venus Wars was made in 1989 by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, who also created the original manga and is otherwise probably best-known to American fans as the director of Crusher Joe and the character designer for most of the early Gundam titles. Most Americans who were anime fans during the 1990s probably ran across it at some point, as it was a staple in convention viewing rooms, its initial 1993 VHS and laser disc releases by Central Park Media made it among the earliest anime titles to be widely-available in video rental stores, and it played multiple times on Sci Fi Channel's anime programming blocks later in the decade. It was even prominent enough to be among the first wave of American anime releases to make the jump to DVD in 1998. Its last CPM/Manga Entertainment release dates to 2003, so Discotek's license rescue earlier this year, and subsequent release via distributor Eastern Star, is putting the movie back into print in America for the first time in close to a decade. And that's definitely a Good Thing, because while it is hardly a landmark movie in anime history, it is still an important piece of nostalgia for long-time anime fans and still has merits worthy of attention by current anime audiences.
This is also the best that the movie has ever looked, so this release may be worthy of interest even from those who have the original VHS, laser disc, and/or DVD versions. This remastered version is made from a new telecine print and presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen for the first time (as opposed to the letterboxed version originally released by CPM and based on a stretched source), so the picture and colors are as clear and sharp as they are ever likely to get. While this new release contains no Extras, it does include the original CPM dub, whose cast is probably most notable for including Peter Marinker of Patlabor dub fame as the villainous General Donner. (By comparison, the Japanese dub is most notable for a boy band star making his first and only anime voice acting appearance in the starring role of Hiro.) Unfortunately it is not one of the better English dubs to come out of the early '90s, as its handful of solid performances are dragged down by weak acting efforts in other roles, mechanical resonance issues which cause some roles to sound like they were recorded in an echo chamber, and an English script which substantially rewrites certain scenes.
The actual story does not bother to engage in much world-building beyond the (now-dated) premise-establishing prologue, instead allowing the visuals to do most of the work on that front. Characters are not developed to any significant degree, either, but this is an action-driven rather than character-driven story so not much can be expected. We only get the basics: Hiro is a talented young man discontented with the government over the various ways he feels it has failed him and his family, Sue is an ambitious reporter who falls in love with one of the other bikers while angling for a scoop, Will is the thoughtful and mature biker who dumps his girlfriend in favor of Sue, and that's about it. Almost everyone else is a one-note character who is merely filling a purpose. The plot is also a simple and straightforward tale about a bunch of young punks who find themselves unhappy with the oppression of the invaders (and the authorities who collaborate with them) and start fighting back. The handful of dramatic developments and plot twists that the movie has are all generic fare, and the neither of the two romances is ever explored to any significant degree.
What the movie does have is action, and it has that in spades. Tanks and skyships shoot up buildings and each other, bikers duel in a violent Rollerball-style contest, police robots and vehicles pursue Hiro in an elaborate chase through labyrinthine city streets, and Hiro gets into fisticuffs with a police officer, and that's just for starters. Later dramatic action sequences include an assault by the bikers on a massive enemy tank that eventually winds up involving a fuel tanker and a massive construction crane, a race through a canyon using military assault cycles which practically could have been a model for the pod race in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and multiple military cycle-on-tank battles which involve all manner of things getting blown up, including a fierce climactic battle on a spaceship launch ramp. Many of these remain thrilling and memorable even by more recent technical standards, and the movie has plenty enough of that kind of fare crammed into its 102 minutes to easily justify watching it for that alone.
Probably the most memorable aspect of the movie is its vehicle designs, especially the signature racing monocycles used by the bike teams and, to a lesser extent, the combat bikes used by the military later in the movie. Tank, dune buggy, and police vehicle designs are more reminiscent of other series and movies from the time period, but the rebel command vehicle is more impressive and the massive airships are the bizarre kind of impractically bulky designs that can only be seen in anime. Weaponry also gets loving renditions. By comparison, most of the character designs are fairly drab beyond Sue, whose short blond hair and sexy-but-not-revealing get-up would make her stand out in any anime. Even Hiro is unremarkable beyond bearing a vague resemblance to Akira's Kaneda.
The gritty urban settings where much of the series takes place are resplendent with all sorts of little details, giving much of the setting a junky, cluttered, worn-down look that suits the nature of the material, while the rocky scenes and red-tinged skies also get loving attention. The oddest visual aspect is a sequence late in the movie where a military mission being carried out in a desert area features characters and vehicles being animated over real shots of desert terrain as seen through a grainy camera. It is such a weirdly incongruous visual effect that one has to wonder what Yasuhiko was aiming for there. While the animation is not on the level of the best movies from the same era, it is still quite good and does successfully deliver some thrilling action sequences.
Also uneven to the point of occasional incongruity is the soundtrack. Sometimes it does a great job of subtly enhancing the intensity and mood of the scene, but on too many other occasions it resorts to generic late '80s rock beats. The ending theme and insert songs likewise fail to impress and have the ring of the time period that the movie was made in, and not in a good way.
Venus Wars has the earthier feel commonly seen in anime movies and high-end OVAs made in the era before digital animation and CG effects became commonplace, but if that doesn't bother you then it is well worth a look. It is not a great story, but its action elements, inventive mechanical designs, and quality print are plenty enough to justify the relatively cheap price.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : C+
+ Mechanical designs, elaborate action scenes, best-looking release to date.
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