Jul 10 2014

Knights of Sidonia is Another Win for Netflix

Published by at 11:00 am under Reviews,Television

sidonia

Netflix original programming is quickly becoming a premiere go-to source for quality television. HBO may have a hefty head start as the reigning champion, but it may not be very long before the diversity of programming the DVD rental/streaming service starts to eclipse even their titanic credentials.

In a couple years, we’ve already received the charged political drama of House of Cards, the irresistible Orange is the New Black, the horror-themed Hemlock Grove, the return of fan-favorite comedy Arrested Development and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and a lot more including an ambitious upcoming collaboration with Marvel Comics to bring several of their characters to the small screen.

Surely this bounty of awesome entertainment is missing something, though. Perhaps high-concept science fiction or (dare I suggest) anime? Don’t worry, friends. Netflix has geeks covered on both counts. Knights of Sidonia became available for our viewing pleasure last weekend as their latest serving of original programming and it did not disappoint.

Science fiction means a lot of things to a lot of people. To some, anything that takes place in space or has aliens or robots in it is sci-fi. To some, the genre is defined by high-concept social commentary, and to others it’s all about the science and future possibilities of technological advances. My favorites are the ones that can combine all of these different aspects into a single cohesive story with great characters and amazing visuals.  This is one of those.

sidonia1

One of the things that has consistently impressed me with Netflix’s choices in programming is that they seem to gravitate to shows that take the high road and don’t talk down to their audience. They deal in philosophical themes and the nature of human psychology and often don’t bother explaining everything, instead trusting the audience to be smart enough to figure it out for themselves.

Knights of Sidonia is not George Lucas or J.J. Abrams’ brand of sci-fi, nor Christopher Nolan’s. Its attention to detail actually resembles the classic literary works of the genre more than anything else, with a Japanese mecha twist and elements borrowed from some of the classics of television and cinema to make something different in tone from any of them.

The plot is somewhat of a mix between Attack on Titan and Battlestar Galactica. Earth was physically destroyed by transmorphological (apparently, I just made that word up) cosmic organisms known as Gauna –which resemble John Carpenter’s The Thing in capabilities and come in a variety of sizes- and mankind’s survivors are on the run in a spaceship, Sidonia, that was built into a chunk of what was left of the planet. As far as we know, the residents of Sidonia represent the last vestige of humanity in the universe, and the Gauna are still coming for them.

sidonia2

Criss Angel needs to just stop.

Enter our hero, Nagate Tanakaze.  He’s a thief living in Sidonia’s “underground” region, where his grandfather raised him and secretly trained him to fly defensive mecha units, Gardes, using simulations. You already see where this is going. He gets caught stealing food, but ends up as the top gun once they see his unparalleled potential as a combat pilot. Nothing new there.

What is new and interesting is the science that’s injected seamlessly into the narrative. Sidonia has helped solve the problem of food rationing with genetic engineering. People can now gain their primary nutrition from light through photosynthesis and only have to eat a single meal a week to remain healthy, for example. And the ship itself represents a rare utilitarian build. It’s not going to win any aesthetic awards against Galactica or the Yamato, but it was built for the exact function it’s used for, as a shelter for humanity.

When Sidonia changes course, the populace have to use hooks affixed to their belts to connect themselves to railings provided for the occasion or risk being hurled to their death from the sudden change in movement. And when Garde units fly together, they connect in a ring formation and accelerate together until they break off to engage the enemy as a unit, economically conserving fuel in transit. Most sci-fi series don’t want to be bothered with the problems that simple physics presents for the kind of space travel they like to portray so it’s really refreshing to see a show tackle these kinds of things.

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These and a lot of other aspects of the series are not explained to the viewer in any detail. It’s left up to you to keep up, and a great many things are left a mystery by the end of this first season. This is the exact definition of “hard” science fiction. It expects you to keep up and be patient. But don’t worry, when things get rockin’, they really get rockin’.

The animation is absolutely top notch. Say whatever else you want to say, but this is a damn good-looking show. The Gauna are suitably intimidating and horrific, the Gardes look cool, the combat sequences are fast and furious, and the vastness and serenity of outer space is fully represented too. The season finale is possible the most epic thing I’ve ever seen on the small screen. I literally felt like I should be watching it in a theater. The sound, fury, and frantic visuals were almost overwhelming, even on the small screen.

And the characters; an interesting bunch to say the least. While the tone of show veers away from comedy, there is a lot of drama and tension between the military, government, and social aspects to keep it interesting. There’s are side stories including bear lady cook (what’s that all about?), immortals, ant-war secessionist protesters, a self-aware humanoid generated from a Gauna, a group of female clones, a jealous entitled overachiever, even a bisexual love quadrangle to name a few intriguing character points. And the show is never afraid to show the human cost of the conflict, even in victory.

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This is just from the evasive maneuvering.

If I had to sum Tanakaze’s story up in one sentence to put Knights of Sidonia’s tone in perspective, I’d say most of season one feels like a very small story set in a massive universe begging to be explored further. The mid-show pauses show us tantalizing bits of concept art titled “100 sites of Sidonia” that put into context how much we aren’t seeing just following the major characters around. There are so many questions raised and so much backstory left to be filled  in the twelve episodes we’ve got to chew on so far that all I want is more, more, more.

To sum up a few more points worth pointing at, the opening song instantly became one of my favorites (and no, it’s not the awesome Muse song), a classic “stranded” episode brought back good memories of Macross (but with more urine filtering), and Netflix even went through the trouble of dubbing the show in English for us. This last part is particularly helpful because they haven’t yet mastered the art of prioritized subtitling. When a character is talking, the subs will often skip the dialogue in favor of translating background text instead, which is a major pain that sometimes comes with watching anime on Netflix. I prefer the Japanese voice actors, but it might be worth saving yourself the headache and giving the English audio track a go.

Knights of Sidonia might be a little slow in revealing itself to the viewer, but in my opinion patient viewers will be rewarded with a level of science fiction storytelling we very seldom see in visual mediums these days. I won’t say this is the new Evangelion or Ghost in the Shell, but I will say it’s a worthy successor to that legacy of conceptual sci-fi anime and that I’ll be counting the days until I can stream season 2.

Here, have a quickie action scene.

 





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10 responses so far

  • MattChi

    I remember discussed this Anime in the comments (for maybe Madoka Magica?), in the past few weeks. It stopped airing in Japan literally 2-3 weeks ago, so it’s incredible for NetFlix to have not only picked it up already, but to have done the English dubbing as well (and in record time!).

    I really love the way NetFlix is trending with releases like this and gives me high hopes for the future.

    I do wonder how this can be called a NetFlix original when NetFlix was definitely not the original sponsor/producer and it was released in Japan before NetFlix had it. Maybe they earned this title from being the first to dub it in English, or maybe they have exclusive US broadcasting rights? Anyone have an opinion on the technicalities of being a netflix original?

    • Indy Z

      Yeah, this looks like something I’ll check out for sure. And definitely not something I would have ever looked at twice without a rec – so nice work!

  • robinvik1 .

    “The animation is absolutely top notch. ”
    Not at all. The characters face and bodies moves in a way that doesn’t seem natural at all. It’s significantly worse than the other animes I’ve seen.

  • BigRonTx

    dont do much anime but this i watched in 3 days!
    season two come quick! im hungry for more :P

  • http://www.nogunarmy.com/ monstrinho

    it’s a bit cliched. I’ve seen this storyline many times before. Last bastion of mankind being assailed by a series of monsters in single file (they never just gang up and overwhelm the heroes.) The only hope an unwilling, socially awkward warrior/pilot with a talents that only come out under stress and with a mysterious past. Sounds like Evangelion, Attack on Titan and Rahxephon and Robotech to name 4 off the top of my head.

    That said, i have enjoyed it for what it is and i look forward to more.

    • robinvik1 .

      Does Attack on Titan really fit that description? The enemies constantly gang up and overwhelm the heroes, and the heroes are not unwilling or socially awkward.

      • http://www.nogunarmy.com/ monstrinho

        well i’m painting with broad strokes here. i like all of these anime but i think they have a lot in common. And the giants do come in waves that are just about manageable by the beleaguered heroes on their ridiculous (and ridiculously awesome) steampunk spiderman gear.

        • robinvik1 .

          POSSIBLE SPOILER
          I think Attack on Titan is like GoT in that it doesn’t really follow the standard story line. You say they come in waves, but is there even one instant where a number of Titans is defeated without them being cut of from reinforcements by the terrain (like the walls or the forest)?

          I don’t now how the Titans would mount a better attack than they did. I guess the colossal could have appeared within the walls, but then he risk getting spawnkilled.

    • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

      I like to say that there aren’t really any tired concepts, just tired executions of those concepts. And this one has some pretty sweet execution. I mentioned Macross (aka Robotech) in my review because they literally redid an episode from it (except they were stranded in a broken-down mecha instead of a cargo hold), but they did it so well that I wouldn’t dare complain. I really loved the concept that their only defense is the exact same thing that is drawing the enemies to them too. Don’t think I’ve seen that before.

  • Optimistic

    I feel like they are trying to give the animation a 3D effect which isn’t normal for anime. Which in turn is making us feel uncomfortable. It’s like getting a new phone or switching from an android to an iPhone. But once we get use to it we won’t mind it at all and actually really focus on the storyline that’s being played out before us.

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