The Robotech Movie and the Difficulties of Adaptation

Sony has plans for a series of Robotech movies. But this one isn't going to be easy to get right on the screen...

With the recent announcement that Sony Picture has secured the rights to Robotech and that it “hopes to move quickly into production on the live-action feature” we are now faced with the big question: How can Robotech, a science fiction saga that spans many decades, possibly work as a traditional movie franchise?

Robotech is a story told over three generations (about twentyish years in between) with three separate groups of characters. The first (and most popular by far) saga, The Macross Saga, takes place over at least two years depending on which version of continuity you’re following. This is where Robotech is unique from many other series.

As stated by Columbia Picture Production Chief Michael De Luca, “Robotech is unique in that it has always been a marriage of spectacle with human characters that seem drawn from life.” The reason that they seem drawn from life is because they grow and change before our eyes. Rick Hunter is a very different character from when we first meet him as the cocky little pilot to the battle scarred admiral in The Sentinels. Max and Miriya meet as enemies, fall in love, get married, and have a child.

That child, Dana Sterling, grows up to be a young woman who is tasked with fighting a whole new group of alien invaders that created the first set of enemies her parents fought. However, her actions cause major problems for Earth that lead to Scott Bernard leading a small band of freedom fighters to retake the planet from yet another group of hostiles.

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Robotech is a long-form animated series. Could you do all of this in one movie? Maybe if you did small vignettes and the story is more about how Earth itself stands up against forces from beyond the stars. Think American Pop but focused on how war affects the characters instead of music. I would dig this approach, but I get the feeling Sony has other plans. They want a franchise. Who doesn’t these days? Robotech could fit the bill perfectly. Plus it has giant transforming robots, which I hear are pretty popular.

[Related Article: The Early Attempts to Make a Robotech Movie]

Each saga of the show could easily make up a trilogy of films on their own. You’ve got spinoff potential with all of them, as the various Robotech comics and books have proven. This is a huge universe. You can go backwards, forwards, and sideways with the all the different characters and their histories.

The challenge inherent here is getting it right, particularly the span of time the series has to cover. If the films remain faithful to the source material, characters have to grow up before our very eyes and if Robotech becomes some kind of monster hit, we won’t be getting a Boyhood style age in real time technique of filming. Rick Hunter ages at least thirty years between the start of the Macross Saga and his most recent appearance in The Shadow Chronicles.

That’s another challenge. Some characters come and go out of the story. We start with Rick, Lisa, Max, Miriya, and many others but once you hit the Masters Saga they’re gone. You have a whole new set of characters that, while related to some of the original characters are very much their own entities. It’s the same problem once you hit the New Generation Saga. Most of the characters we’ve known are gone and are only referenced in passing.

Much like how the Marvel movies are starting to introduce new characters in their films now, Robotech could do the same. Show Dana being born and her first meeting with Bowie Grant. Let’s see a young Scott Bernard on the SDF-3 or even Lunk fighting in the Masters Saga. Little easter eggs like this could pay off down the line and get an audience comfortable with a new set of characters taking over the main series of films. That isn’t to say you need to abandon everyone.

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Once the Macross saga is over you could adapt The Sentinels concurrently with Masters and have two series of films going on at once. It’s just juggling all these pieces that will be tough. Marvel is always the go to example, but it’s because they’ve more or less perfected it.

[7 Things We Want to See in a New Robotech Series]

To tell the Robotech story however, you need more time than even the Marvel movies have given their characters, besides Captain America. Each Robotech movie would be covering months or even years of conflict. This isn’t a story with one big bad guy they have to defeat. This is a war with skirmishes; battles won and lost that take their toll on our characters. We can’t just tell a one and done story of Rick Hunter learning to pilot his giant robot to defeat Lord Dolza.

Which also brings up another challenge. The amount of characters. Robotech is an ensemble with well over a dozen main characters making up the Macross saga alone. It would be easy to focus the films on, as De Luca mentioned, Rick Hunter’s “epic love triangle” with Lisa and Minmei. But with that you only really get how the war affects Rick. It’s all through Rick’s eyes, but to get the broad scope and set up the sequels, you’d need to spend time with everyone else. Plus throw in all of the action and you’ve got a very dense movie that would need to serve over a dozen characters, cover months of story at a time, and have a ton of giant robot fights.

The action is not really a challenge to overcome; it’s more a question of how much there will be. Keep in mind; the robots in Robotech are not characters like they are in Transformers. They are tools. They’re not as important as the characters themselves. So while I’m sure we’ll be getting a ton of transforming with the robots and impressive CGI dogfights, they need to keep all of the action centered on the characters’ emotions.

One of the most memorable fights in Robotech, silly as it is, is Rick out in space in his Veritech running recon while trying to watch the Miss Macross competition. His crush on Minmei distracts him from approaching enemy vessels and he’s injured because of it. More seriously, there’s also the death of a major character half way through the Macross saga that profoundly changes Rick.

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Robotech as a film franchise could easily just be about a group of soldiers getting into fights with some aliens and maybe a love triangle on the side. But that isn’t what the series is about. The true challenge of making a Robotech film is staying true to the hallmark of the series, that being showing the effects of war over multiple generations. How it changes us, brings us together, and throughout it all love is the only constant and even that has its downfalls.

You can’t do that in one movie. You can’t do it in three. Robotech needs to be a franchise to tell the story properly.