The Mobile Suit Gundam Films: The Best, The Worst, and What's Worth Watchingby Lauren Orsini,
Spanning 38 years of giant robot battle action and space opera drama, the Gundam franchise has remained hugely popular. It is also, to put it simply, huge. Between TV series, OVAs, and movies, hundreds of hours of anime bearing the Gundam name has been produced. It's a lot to take in, and a canon that has certainly taken me more than a decade to consume!
While there's a ton of Gundam content to discuss, compare, and rank (check out my complete guide to the Mobile Suit Gundam TV series!) today I want to focus on just the movies. I've watched Gundam movies I've adored and Gundam movies I won't be watching a second time, and I'm here to tell you about them all.
I don't think there's any reason to watch Gundam movies in order, either by in-universe time or release date. Rather, I think it's worth watching the ones that are generally good standalone movies, and worth skipping the ones that aren't. From my absolute favorites to least, here's a primer to the complete Gundam movies.
The Top Tier
Mobile Suit Gundam 0079
Three movies: Mobile Suit Gundam I, Soldiers of Sorrow, and Encounters in Space.
A couple of years after the TV show that started it all, Sunrise released a complete compilation that compresses the 43-episode show into about six hours of footage. This would become a trend for Gundam releases—first comes the TV show, then comes a trilogy (or quad) of compilation movies. Though many followed in its footsteps, I think this trilogy is the most successful compilation in Gundam history. A lot of attention was devoted to ensure great pacing and trimming the fat of a TV show that sometimes dragged. Now that there's a Blu-Ray release, this is not only the most interesting and concise, but beautiful way to watch the First Gundam.
Introduced in Mobile Suit Gundam 0079, Char “The Red Comet” Aznable became Gundam's most iconic antagonist. His story culminates in a movie all his own—125 minutes of action, character development, and an intense look at the man behind the mask—most recently released on an impeccable Blu-Ray transfer. Now, much has been said about this movie's capricious teen protagonist, Quess, who is frustrating at the best of times. She is certainly not relatable, but she's interested in the two characters fans care about—Amuro and Char—which keeps the movie's focus where it should be. This movie will be hard to understand without prior Gundam knowledge, but it's the wrap-up Gundam's Universal Century timeline deserves.
Mobile Suit Gundam 08th MS Team: Miller's Report
Another stand-out compilation film. When it comes to story, the Mobile Suit Gundam 08th MS Team OVA series almost bites off more than it can chew. Miller's Report, which takes place during episodes seven and eight, provides some much-needed context and a compelling new character. When protagonist Shiro Amada absconds with his Gundam for a brief romantic getaway with an enemy pilot, titular Alice Miller is tasked with determining whether he's a spy. Miller's no-nonsense attitude combined with Shiro's idealism is a fantastic new contrast. New content blends seamlessly with old for a welcome addition to 08th MS Team's story.
It's time to face the facts: Mobile Suit Gundam Wing probably isn't as good as you remember. Its companion movie, however, is probably much better. Cut from Gundam Wing's OVAs into one hour-and-thirty-minute movie, Endless Waltz is a fast-paced take on the Wing universe with better action, more focus on the characters, and fantastic mobile suit makeovers. The difference between, for example, Gundam Wing and Wing Zero is like night and day, and that's because Hajime Katoki took over mecha design. His mecha are so iconic that Bandai Hobby has an entire line of models he's redone, called “Version Ka.” While Gundam Wing drags, the movie is carefully edited, jumping from scene to scene with a story about Treize Khushrenada's last scion, a classic Gundam story that will remind Universal Century fans of Mineva Zabi.
This is the best way to watch one of the latest installments in the Gundam canon. This 2016 film takes place during the One Year War that the Gundam storyline first introduced in 1979, and the old mecha it depicts benefit heavily from modern production values. A dramatic wartime tale that's definitely not for kids is illustrated with starkly stylized drawings and accompanied by the upbeat tempo of jazz music for one of the most bold, energetic, and emotionally dark Gundam stories there is. The movie's pacing is as rhythmic as the jazz that is its trademark. It's the latest retelling of Gundam's central war story, only all grown up and ready to take some risks.
The “Maybe” Tier
This compilation movie compresses Mobile Suit Gundam 0083’s 13-episode anime OVA into a 120-minute movie that makes me wonder why they bothered. Thirteen episodes isn't very much, so I think it's better to just watch the original show. When it's boiled down to just a movie, the story spends most of its time focusing on the love triangle between protagonist Kou, enemy pilot Gato, and crack Gundam programmer Nina Purpleton. The characters surrounding them get left out of the picture, which is a shame because the ensemble cast adds a lot of color to the show. It's not a bad movie but I don't think it's worth the small amount of time you save.
Mobile Suit Gundam 00: Awakening of the Trailblazer
Gundam 00's entire plot revolved around the teachings of a mythical figure, Aeolia Schenberg, who aspired to eliminate war in the case that humanity makes contact with aliens someday. In the movie that followed the series, that case came about quickly! Despite its obvious problems with pacing and storytelling, this movie is perhaps worth a watch for the sole fact that it dared to ask a question no other Gundam show has: “What if Gundam, but with aliens?” One can't deny that this movie took some risks with its premise and the 00 canon. Even though many of them didn't pay off, I admire this movie's unusual worldbuilding and innovative action scenes.
Mobile Suit Gundam Seed: Special Edition
Three movies: The Empty Battlefield, The Far-Away Dawn, and The Rumbling Sky.
This three-movie compilation compresses the 50-episode Gundam Seed anime into 270 minutes, and for that reason alone it isn't very good. Unlike Mobile Suit Gundam 0079, which was just getting its footing and therefore had a ton of filler content, SEED was a fast-paced contemporary anime from the start, and compressing it into movies cuts out a lot of the background and context. That said, there are reasons you might want to get SEED out of the way—for example, if you wanted to watch its sequel, Gundam Seed Destiny, as soon as possible for some reason—and the movies do an adequate job of retelling the most important facets of the plot at a fraction of the length.
Turn A Gundam
Two movies: Earth Light and Moon Butterfly
Even though Turn A Gundam was 50 episodes long, its compilation film set is just a duo. That means so long to anything that's not essential to the plot—like the "Laura's cow" story, or characters like Will Game and Corrin Nander. Many of my very favorite scenes did not make the cut. On the other hand, the quickened pace makes for an especially action-packed jaunt through the Turn A universe, perfect for a speedy catch-up. If you're looking for a new way to watch a great series, it's a good second go-around, but perhaps not the best way to introduce your newbie friends to Turn A: after all, they'll be missing some of its most charming moments.
Originally, Yoshiyuki Tomino (the father of Gundam, and director of many of its shows) imagined Gundam F91 as a 52-episode series, with a winding story to match. But thanks to production issues, the project was reduced to a two-hour movie. Fortunately, the movie only covers the first 13 episodes worth of content, which means this perplexing storyline and rash of plot holes could have been a lot worse. Visually, it's a treat with gorgeous mobile suit and character design, plus animation ahead of its time. But story-wise, it's a confusing mess. Combined with a soundtrack that all but plagiarizes The Empire Strikes Back, it's a weird footnote in the Gundam universe: nice to look at perhaps, but not a must-see.
The Bottom Tier
Mobile Suit Gundam Zeta
Three movies: Heir to the Stars, Lovers, and Love is the Pulse of the Stars.
Don't get me wrong: Gundam Zeta is an incredible story, taking the fascinating world that Tomino invented for 0079 and delving far deeper. But the movies are simply the worst way to watch it. By reducing characters’ motives and development, it removes the details that make Zeta great—without the trials he's been through, movie Kamille just seems whiny. The movie also replaces old animation with new, which sounds like a good idea until you're switching from a clip of ‘80s animation, then ‘00s, then ‘80s again and getting the expected whiplash. Worse yet, the movies change the entire ending of Zeta to a happy-go-lucky conclusion that doesn't fit with the Gundam canon. That means that if you watch Char's Counterattack, ZZ Gundam, or anything that takes place afterward in the Universal Century timeline, it won't follow the movie's plot, only the show's. It's not even a better retelling, so it's simply not worth confusing yourself.
Mobile Suit Gundam Seed Destiny: Special Edition
Four movies: The Broken World, Respective Swords, The Hellfire Of Destiny, and The Cost of Freedom.
Mobile Suit Gundam Seed Destiny isn't a good TV show to begin with, so turning it into four feature-length films is pure torture. Unlike the TV series, the movies are told through the perspective of antagonist Athrun Zala, which shifts our point of view toward the enemy side's point of view, reminding us just how difficult the show's protagonists are to root for. The worst offender is Shin Asuka, with twice the talent of Athrun and Kira and none of the charm. There are four movies instead of the usual three because of about 20 added scenes per film—and each one highlights the vapidity of these unlikeable characters more than the last.
It's not just me who trying to forget that G-Savior ever happened—Sunrise feels the same way. This is the only Gundam movie not to include “Gundam” in its name or advertising, and the only Gundam film to be officially de-canonized as an “alternate Universal Century” story. The only live-action Gundam show, it was filmed in Canada and stars a bunch of people you've never heard of (and who probably don't include this film on their resumes). The typical Earth Federation “good guys” are replaced with an organization called CONSENT, and the Zeon “bad guys” are replaced with nothing any less on the nose than the actual Illuminati, no kidding. The least it could do is be “so bad it's good,” but frankly, it's not even that.
What's Not Available Yet
There are two films I didn't feel comfortable ranking because not only have I not seen them, but I can't (legally) see them. If these Gundam movies are available in your region, feel free to rank!
Gundam 00 Special Edition
Three movies: Celestial Being, End of the World, and Return of the World.
A three-part compilation, it was billed as an “OVA special” but fits the same mold as the movies I've already listed that compress Gundam TV shows into feature-length films. Each film includes about 10 to 20 new scenes not shown in the TV anime.
Gundam AGE: Memory of Eden
Gundam AGE is a TV series told in three parts, each part focusing on one generation of characters. Memory of Eden is a compilation of only the second out of three generations shown in the TV series. This film includes never-before-seen footage, but some of it diverges from the TV show's canon, such as changes to some characters’ motives. For both of these reasons, this movie is probably not meant to be a substitute for watching the second part of the show.
All together, that's 14 movies (or series of movies) in the Gundam canon so far. Since this successful franchise is still endlessly churning out content—a Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans voice actor just recently hinted at an upcoming movie, for example—there's no way this list will stay up-to-date for long. But if you're hoping to stay on top of the best that Gundam has to offer, I hope you'll consider my recommendations.
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