I’ve mentioned in earlier posts how my relationship with anime really began when I was in high school. I would rush home to catch Toonami on Cartoon Network, and once I started college I began expanding my collection in earnest and keeping up with new series as they came out. However, my roots go back to my younger years, when my uncle Dave would come to visit, often bringing animated films he would rent from Blockbuster. His interest in different kinds of animation exposed me and my siblings to animated films and series from all over the world; Britain, France, Japan…it didn’t matter the country as long as the animation was good and the storytelling was powerful. From series such as Kimba the White Lion and Black Jack to classic movies like Miyazaki’s early works including Castle of Cagliostro, my uncle really inspired my love of animation in all forms, I just happened to really enjoy Japanese animation. Among the animated films he introduced me to was an animated feature based on an extensive book series from the 1950s: Lensman – The Secret of the Lens.
When compared with the much larger and more developed universe that Edward Elmer “Doc” Smith (E.E. “Doc” Smith) developed in the 50s, Lensman is understandably limited in its scope, and if you go into the movie being unaware of the source material you would likely be shocked at the staggering similarities it has with the Star Wars franchise.
The movie centers around Kimball Kinnison, a young man from the planet Mquie (Muh-kwee) preparing to head to Earth for the next chapter of his life. While he’s getting ready to leave, a battleship belonging to the Galactic Patrol appears on radar on a collision course with a nearby city. After intercepting the ship, Kim is entrusted with a critical mission to deliver top secret weapon information on the evil Boskone empire to the Galactic Patrol HQ, and is granted the power of The Lens. The movie follows his planet-hopping adventures as he works to get to HQ in one piece and deliver the information critical to defeating the Boskone.
I think we’ve all experienced the effect that “rose-colored glasses” have on some of our favorite childhood movies. We remember them so fondly that it’s hard to imagine them being bad. I had no such difficulty. Watching it again, now much older and aware of things such as character development and how a good storyline should develop, the flaws of Lensman were laid bare, and a once admired staple of my childhood came crashing down.
First, the story. Considering the source material it’s being pulled from, which is widely considered one of the greatest sci-fi series of all time behind Isaac Asimov’s iconic Foundation series, one would expect a richer backstory and more lore to fill out such an expansive universe. Instead, this movie takes place near the latter half of the Lensman novels, and with no explanation of the history of the Lensman or their previous struggles and encounters with the Boskone empire. The main storyline feels very rushed, as if the director was just quickly checking off boxes for “Things to Do” in the movie. Case in point: Clarissa (Claire) who is ultimately Kim’s main love interest. They share maybe 10-15 minutes of air time together before Claire is found snuggling close to him in an empty torpedo container and tenderly refers to him as “her love”. Seriously? I understand that in a 90 minute format with a lot of other story elements going on that you can’t necessarily stop and flesh out an extended romantic relationship, but there could have probably been a few more indicators or more sincere conversations before she fell head over heels for our protagonist.
The animation is decent. The way that they integrated 3-d renderings to try and step up the quality is admirable, but overall it hasn’t aged all that well.
Probably the strongest element in the film is the characters. Sure, they are archetypes that are VERY similar to heroes that we’ve seen before (Kim as Luke, Buzzkirk as a Han Solo/Chewbacca hybrid, Claire as Leia, etc) but they play their roles well.
In the end, this was a painful experiment, but I don’t regret it. Lensman will always have a special place in my heart, it’s just now I can objectively see it as a flawed movie. If given the opportunity to expand on the Lensman universe in an animated series, rather than a single 90-minute movie, I have every confidence that it would be a thrilling space opera. One can only hope…