Once again, I'm drawn back to discussing Sony's announcement of a live-action Robotech film. Rest assured, this isn't a post about Harmony Gold or the politics of the decision; I leave that territory to people better acquainted with such things than I. Rather, I'm going to look at the subject I should have tackled to begin with: whether making a live-action Robotech (not Macross) is by itself wise or fruitful. The conclusion I'm coming to is that it is a potentially fruitful project, and for reasons apart from the nostalgic appeal of the original.
The main insight I've gleaned about the Robotech franchise as of late is that it's an enterprise as discrete from its original sources (Macross and Genesis Climber Mospeada among them) as something like The Magnificent Seven was from The Seven Samurai. The latter two were connected by dint of the first being a remake of the second, but the first stands well on its own legs, and is in no way diminished by the fact that its source material is arguably one of the finest films ever made. My previous notion was that Robotech was the impostor and Macross was the real article, but it's clear now how that's an oversimplification — at least as much of one, and for many of the same reasons, as Voltron was distinct from GoLion and the other shows it was derived from.
What all this means for a live-action adaptation is something Sony hinted at in their own press release about the production: it's a big story with a lot of different elements that can be mined in any number of ways. The fact that such expansiveness was due in part to how Robotech synthesized and repurposed other things isn't really what matters here (and, again, isn't a bad thing, either). I suspect Sony touched on all this as as a way to hint at how this project has more in common with the shared-universe ambitions of the likes of Marvel and DC, now becoming all the more direct competition for them.
Positioning Robotech like this is a smart move, in big part because studios have learned how to get audiences to respond all the more to extended, sprawling meta-franchises. Even before the Marvel/DC movie machines got into full swing, it became clear something as ostensibly dumb as The Fast and the Furious could be made into a colossal money-earner, crowd-pleaser, and repeat performer. Sony has a few entries in this vein, like the 007 franchise, but nothing anime-derived.
Anime-derived titles have yet to get in on this action generally anyway — on this side of the Pacific, at least. In Japan, adapting anime is old news, as a number of live-action titles derived from anime or manga have enjoyed success there both as one-offs (Library Wars), as multi-part installments (Rurouni Kenshin), or as ongoing franchises (Tsuribaka Nisshi). What's long been the hard part about getting any such franchise off the ground outside of Japan is the fact that they're typically not designed with anything other than domestic (that is, Japanese) box office in mind. To that end, those franchises have little or no Western name-brand recognition — something movie companies bank on as a way to reassure themselves they're not throwing money into a black hole.
I was always dubious about how important name recognition is, but the flood of remakes and reboots are all the evidence you need that Hollywood takes name-brand recognition seriously. Maybe that is only because the studios are more comfortable leveraging the value of a known brand (whatever the size) than an unknown one (whatever it is), and feel more confident given such properties promotional support, but the reasons scarcely matter. It's what they do. My own misgivings about the artistic integrity of such things don't really matter; it's the strategy of the day, and Hollywood will continue to pursue it as long as it puts money back in their pockets.
Back to Robotech, which is — as I understand it — Sony's idea of a name brand that would have putative name recognition with today's audiences, given that many of them either grew up with it or were at least passingly familiar with it. I'm certain there are far more of the latter than the former, and that there are not nearly enough of the former by themselves to constitute the kind of nine-figure ticket sales you need to justify such a project. But again, I'm also sure none of that matters — were there really hordes of people so attached to 21 Jump Street from their youth that they couldn't help but make it into a hit? I suspect the reason Sony's picking up on the property in this case is because they know even a subliminally familiar brand name is better than something with no such evocation at all.
But there's something else about Robotech that makes it a good choice: as it stands, with almost no modification, it can be fashioned into the sort of wide-gauge entertainment that would draw a broad Western audience. For one, there's no need to localize the material; Robotech was already pre-localized — and, in fact, the underlying material by itself wouldn't have needed a whole lot of reworking. All that by itself is a big plus, since many of the pet titles favored by anime fans to be made into live-action films are tough sells outside of their milieu.
So what would get changed? My guess is that the biggest alterations made by the filmmakers would be more in the vein of condensing story for the sake of running time, than changing themes or subject matter for the sake of being comprehended by a Western audience. Very little of what the story actually is would need reworking. The material itself is not only familiar but welcome: after the likes of Battlestar Galactica (both original and remake), the core premise is likely to be a winner even for people who don't consciously brand themselves as fans of either SF or anime.
All this bodes well for a movie preserving what's most important about this franchise: the people it's about, the examples they set, and the breadth and richness of the setting. Those are all things worth seeing justice done to, and my fingers are crossed for Sony & Cie. to pull it off.