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I was lucky enough to see Shoji Kawamori, the creator of Netflix’s new anime series Last Hope, at Otakon this year. Listening to the man behind not only Last Hope, but influential anime series like Macross and The Vision of Escaflowne, made me realize two things. One is that he’s an extremely gifted mechanical designer—he builds prototypes of his designs using Legos to make sure they’re mechanically sound. The other is that his eccentric worldview can lead to some truly off-the-wall concepts, many of which don’t make for great storytelling. Last Hope, with its quantum physics-fueled biomechanical designs and concepts, exemplifies both sides of the Kawamori equation.
The concept behind Last Hope is pretty silly, albeit more or less in line with Netflix’s original anime lineup thus far. It takes place in the year 2038, seven years after a quantum reactor exploded, spurring an evolutionary explosion that caused biological and mechanical forms to merge but killing most of humanity. The new biomechanical lifeforms, known as Biological Revolutionary of Artificial Intelligence, or B.R.A.I., pose a major threat to the last vestiges of society.
The people of Neo Xianglong, the last remaining city, fight the B.R.A.I. using Multi-purpose Organic Evolution Vehicle (M.O.E.V.) variable units. Meanwhile, Leon Lau, the exiled scientist behind the quantum reactor, struggles to perfect the Hyperdrive, a quantum weapon that would allow humans to battle against the B.R.A.I. more effectively.
The first episode, however, makes one of the story’s greatest faults abundantly clear: failing to embrace its silliness. There’s all kinds of whacked-out imagery, including but not limited to: literal equations flying around and fusing with strands of DNA; a giant mechanical crab bent on murder; and B.R.A.I. combining by jumping on top of each other a la Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. It should, by all rights, be the kind of goofy, over-the-top sci-fi series at which many anime excel. But with a color pallet of dusky blues, sickly greens, and concrete grays, Last Hope offers little fun or joy.
Things lighten up a bit when the setting shifts to Neo-Xianglong, a vibrant science fiction reimagining of modern China. With its verdant gardens, bustling marketplaces, and ornate architecture, it moves and breathes with a sense of life few fictional metropolises possess. The mood shifts and things don’t seem as grim and gritty.
Not that it’s a total success. Leon joins Pandora, a military group dedicated to defending humanity’s last stronghold from B.R.A.I. threats. Here, Last Hope tries to emulate ensemble-driven procedurals like Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Cowboy Bebop. It tries to build the audience’s investment in the characters by assigning them each one or two personality quirks—one is a womanizer but totally devoted to his cat, another is a Strong Female Character who loves sweets and cute things—and a tragic backstory.
Still, the group never really gels. They have neither the individual complexity nor the group chemistry to build strong audience investment, and they fail to play off each other in interesting or unexpected ways. These characters are little more than cardboard cutouts—Cecilia Soo’s oversized bosom is the subject of regular and unwelcome fan service.
The dialogue flies fast and thick with technobabble, as the show treats its premise with unwarranted gravity. Pretty much every impossibility gets explained away by quantum physics and the Hyperdrive, but only after several minutes of characters chattering away about how impossible the B.R.A.I.’s abilities should be. It’s predictable and unsatisfying every time, a dull time-filler before the action has a chance to shine. A subplot involving brown-skinned refugees from outside Neo-Xianglong carrying a deadly disease is a tacky, poorly conceived reminder of the real world’s refugee crisis.
This gratuitous babbling weighs the show down to the point of desensitizing viewers to what should be standout moments. A man opens his mouth and a missile flies out. That sort of thing should be wild! But it happens so fast, with such a lack of direction, that all I could say was, “Huh. A missile just came out of a man’s mouth.”
Fortunately, Last Hope’s final few episodes come to embrace the over-the-top potential of its concept. Pandora’s main enemy is a man in blocky gold samurai clothing who calls himself “Mr. Gold,” like a villain straight out of Power Rangers. And since the explosion that created the B.R.A.I., Leon has been haunted by the mysterious appearance of a man at the scene. This man finally shows up again, cackling and playing a synth keyboard as he watches the B.R.A.I. create mayhem. These moments provide exactly the kind of silliness the show cried out for from the very first scene.
Despite a promising concept, Last Hope gets bogged down by taking itself way too seriously and refusing to have any fun with its potential for chaos. Until the rest of the series becomes available, there’s no knowing if it will evolve into the over-the-top action show it was meant to be, or if it will become obsolete.
Need more ideas? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, indie flicks, true crime, food shows, LGBT movies, gangster movies, Westerns, film noir, and movies based on true stories streaming right now. There are also sad movies guaranteed to make you cry, weird movies to melt your brain, old movies when you need something classic, and standup specials when you really need to laugh. Or check out Flixable, a search engine for Netflix.
Caitlin Moore has been watching anime since a two-episode VHS cost $30. She writes for her own blog, I Have a Heroine Problem; writes, edits, and podcasts for Anime Feminist; and travels to anime conventions doing panels about shoujo manga.