Anime Review – Mass Effect: Paragon Lost (2012)
Mass Effect: Paragon Lost attempts to expand the Mass Effect universe away from its traditional video game roots this time into the realm of Japanese animation. A co-production between American company Funimation and master anime studio Production I.G., Mass Effect: Paragon Lost is a prequel of sorts to Bioware’s Mass Effect 3 by showcasing how a particular incident involving a character named James Vega came to have significant repercussions that ended up scaring him for the foreseeable future. Fans of the series will however, be undoubtedly scratching their collective heads merely because James Vega is regarded as one of the least liked and utilized characters within the trilogy although to be fair this is probably due to his visual appearance more so than his actual personality.
To be blunt, James Vega’s character design in Mass Effect 3 probably rubbed many fans the wrong way for appearing to be yet another generic space marine with an enormous muscular frame replete with a broad neck so large that you could land a spaceship on it. It also didn’t help that long time Internet whipping boy Freddie Prinze Jr. provided the voice for Vega leading some to quickly discard any notion of ever bringing him on missions during the game. However, those that looked past his generic visage discovered that this muscle-head actually had a distinct personality and a rather neat backstory that revealed surprising depth. At the same time Mr. Prinze Jr. acquitted himself well joining the already stellar voice acting class with a worthy performance that brought the character to life.
Mass Effect: Paragon Lost begins many years before the climactic events of Mass Effect 3, specifically showing how James Vega displays leadership acumen in leading his team of Alliance Marines during a botched insertion mission to fight off rogue Krogan mercenaries that are laying siege to a human colony. His bravery and quick thinking manages to not only save most of his squad but also establishes him as the colony’s savior and hero, a fact that actually does not sit well with him as he voices his opinion that he was only doing his duty. At the same time, his squad needles him mercilessly since his act of selflessness appears to mirror his hero, good old Command Shepard (whose gender is never revealed), as well as to goad him on in his less than fruitful advances towards Treeya, an Asari scientist whom he is attracted to.
A couple of uneventful years pass as Vega and his squad set up shop protecting the colony when all of a sudden they are called to investigate a nearby signal that seems to be blocking their communications. On arrival they discover an alien beacon and not long after a massive space vessel that is later identified as being belonging to a race called the Collectors flies over them and subsequently lays siege to the colony through a swarm of insect like bugs that paralyze anyone unlucky enough to be stung. Without any chance of outside assistance from the Alliance it is up to Vega and his team to attempt to rescue the colonists while at the same time discovering who these mysterious aliens truly are and their goal.
Mass Effect: Paragon Lost is ultimately a decent attempt at weaving a prototypical Mass Effect narrative replete with a ton of moral decision making into the anime format that while watchable is hobbled by two huge factors the first being an obviously lean budget that results in less than stellar animation and the second being that fans of the game will already know the overall plot. Being a prequel those who have played Mass Effect 3 and have spent time conversing with Vega will understand the basic framework of what happens in Paragon Lost right down to the gut-wrenching last five minutes. This removes much of the intended intrigue and places more emphasis on character interaction which unfortunately is not handled with aplomb.
Vega’s squad is comprised of genre stereotypes from the overly macho female soldier who can kick ass to her perverted compatriot who attempts to feel her backside at every opportunity. Throw in your cowardly pilot, your long range sniper and your geeky computer hacker and you have a situation that screams scriptwriting laziness 101. It also doesn’t help that Vega’s potential love interest, Treeya, starts out as frozen as an icicle to the thought of the pairing as she judges him as nothing more than your thuggish marine whose only recourse is to follow the Hulk and smash things whenever he sees them. To be fair the relationship does organically grow into mutual understanding and a deeper sense that romance could potentially blossom yet it also doesn’t excuse the fact that this is a subplot that has been utilized since the dawn of time.
Generic support characters aside the movie does well as a showcase for Vega himself especially when it keeps forcing him to make hard decisions. Fans of the game will undoubtedly be pleased with what Vega has to go through as many of his command choices are not cut and dry especially the aforementioned final judgment he has to render. What transpires in the entire movie really leads up to just the last moral decision Vega has to make and it presents a wonderfully tortuous moment which fans can certainly relate to. Nevertheless, as a note to the filmmakers, while the actual decision is powerful the reliance on an extended coda which attempts to drag out the aftermath of Vega’s choice feels much too mechanical and instead of amplifying the emotion feels weak and overblown. This is a moment for subtlety not launching into faux-emo outpouring of grief that ventures to show a key scene over and over again where it is unnecessary.
Thankfully, although the overall plot is no secret to fans, the movie has its fair share of quality action setpieces with narrative reveals and surprises that tie in nicely with the rather skeletal summation that Vega provides Commander Shepard in the game. By essentially filling in all the holes in Vega’s truncated recounting of the events the movie is given sufficient leeway to add to the overall Mass Effect universe. At the very least gamers will come away from the movie with a much better appreciation of Vega and the giant chip on his shoulder. They’ll also get some insight into what seem to be minor plot points as to why Vega constantly needles female Commander Shepard to “get it on” yet never really commits.
While the story redeems itself in the end by actually giving depth to Vega’s character the same cannot be said for the stilted animation. Production I.G. has done better work and though the animation is not awful it is certainly low-grade, a fact made all the more obvious in certain shots where the low budget roots really stick out like a sore thumb. There is one early shot which really amplifies this which is also present in the trailer where the camera starts high looking down on a bunch of marines and then slowly pushes in towards them. In a live-action film this is as generic and easy a shot as any to pull off but here in Paragon Lost the results are ghastly as the background computer generated 3D is fluid as a baby’s backside yet the 2D animated characters are as jerky as a backfiring car. The result is a shot that feels totally jarring and discombobulated and does nothing but call attention to itself for all the wrong reasons. It would have been a much better idea to not bother with the complicated shot and leave it as a static 2D composition and spend the money elsewhere.
This is not to say that the animation is unwatchable but that those expecting Disney level fluidity or even equal quality to other Production I.G. series like Ghost in the Shell should be warned that Paragon Lost is nowhere close. Eventually, the style does grow on you but it could have been much more. Frankly, part of the issue stems from the fact that the film is an odd fusion of both Western and Eastern styles and I’m talking both visually and narratively. On one hand the basic design of the Mass Effect universe as created by Bioware has to shine through here and for the most part the film stays true to form from the look of the marine armor to the general architecture of the colony and landscapes.
The characters themselves though come off as an awkward blend of both Western and Japanese art styles with some characters like the young spritely girl, April, looking like a prototypical anime “kawaii” design replete with accentuated large eyes and a propensity to giggle every other second. On the other hand, good old James Vega has an already established look and his muscular ape-like frame from the game translates into an equally muscular ape-like anime figure which is initially jarring. The rest of the team lean more to the anime style so when they are seen in juxtaposition to Bioware created vehicles like the Mako (yes it is here in all its “glory”) or the alien Collector ship some might feel a strange visual disconnect.
At the same time the movie features some truly bizarre scene transitions which are too vague, abrupt or just plain awkward especially during the third act. I have no idea why this is so yet the end result is grating to watch as the natural ebb and flow of the narrative is rudely interrupted by a structural problem that is almost inexcusable. Perhaps the production was under severe time constraints which reduced the amount of proper planning but even then these are rookie mistakes that clearly could have been ironed out long before an animator even began to create the individual cells.
Nit-pickers, of which Mass Effect has more than a few, will unfortunately, have a field day with Paragon Lost as there are many incongruous shots and obvious continuity errors in the film that conflict with the gaming universe. While none of them really detracts from the overall story that the film is attempting to weave it does call into question how much control Bioware had over the final product. Shots that should have been cool to see such as Alliance ships recovering the remains of the Reaper Sovereign after its defeat at the Citadel don’t inspire merely because the lore is all wrong. In the game Sovereign explodes into thousands of pieces after a protracted battle with the Alliance while here in Paragon Lost it looks virtually intact.
As another example, there’s a shot of the Citadel seemingly orbiting Earth near the end of Paragon Lost which makes literally no sense as it only reaches this point near the end of Mass Effect 3 yet the movie’s plot takes place long before the game ever begins. Trying to reconcile the scene taking place after the game is an exercise in futility as one of the characters present should be dead if this were so making one conclude that this is yet another continuity error or artistic embellishment that should have been caught long before it was ever animated.
It is moments like this that I am reminded of my love of Star Trek as I have always realized the difficulty in keeping lore and canon mistakes to a minimum. In short, it is a losing proposition as the universe is far too large to keep errors like this from cropping up considering Star Trek is found in multiple mediums all of them penned by different writers. Mass Effect certainly does not have the reach or scope of all things Trek but it has in recent years expanded from its console gaming roots to encompass comics, books and even games on mobile devices such as the iPhone or Android. As it grows the probability of these kinds of continuity errors will expand yet Bioware should have at least looked at the script and production art/storyboards long ago to ensure errors like this are kept out of the final product. To be blunt, mistakes like this just add fuel to the fire of Internet trolls who attempt to make the argument that the company is lazy or out of touch with the fanbase.
In the final analysis Mass Effect: Paragon Lost has to be looked at with two points of view — one from the position of a longtime fan and the other from a Mass Effect novice. Although the animation is barely above TV standards the movie does its best to introduce the universe and its lore while attempting to craft a narrative that fits well with Bioware’s insistence of pulling its characters through the emotional and moral wringer. Some of the finer points might be missed such as who and what the Collectors truly represent but by and large this is a wholly accessible experience for those who have no idea what the game is about although some might get the erroneous impression that Vega is somehow the main character throughout the trilogy.
For diehard fans the movie works as decent entertainment by expanding the Mass Effect universe while providing some needed backstory to a universally underused character. While continuity errors are present, by and large they don’t cause massive damage to the gaming universe and I have a feeling that most will chalk them up as minor quibbles. Watching anyone other than Commander Shepard take center stage is actually a refreshing experience and allows the filmmakers considerable flexibility in which to present a different take on the universe and its inhabitants. Not everyone can be the savior of the galaxy but at least the movie presents its case that James Vega is one of its prominent inhabitants.
**1/2 out of ****
2012, USA/Japan, 90 Minutes, Funimation/Production I.G.
Directed by Atsushi Takeuchi
Screenplay by Henry Gilroy
Produced by April Bennett
Executive Producer Gen Fukunaga, Takeichi Honda, Chris Moujaes, Yui Shibata
Original Music by David S. Kates, Joshua Mosley
Freddie Prinze Jr.: Lieutenant James Vega
Monica Rial: Treeya
Jad Saxton: April
Vic Mignogna: Messner
Patrick Seitz: Captain David Anderson
Marc Swint: Mason
Eric Vale: Essex
Travis Willingham: Captain Toni
Laura Bailey: Kamille
Bruce Carey: Admiral Hackett
Justin Cook: Brood
Jason Douglas: Archuk
Kara Edwards: Christine
Josh Grelle: Nicky
Todd Haberkorn: Milque
© 2012 The Galactic Pillow