Wanting to get deeper into Dream Pod 9’s Heavy Gear: Blitz! game and setting, I ordered Heavy Gear: Battle for the Badlands from Netflix with low expectations. Friends had warned me that the animated series isn’t very good and they were right. They maybe should have said. “Heavy Gear: Battle for the Badlands? We don’t talk about that.” Released in 2002, Battle for the Badlands is a collection of five episodes from the second act of the 3D computer animated series, presented as a single film with one opening sequence and one set of credits at the end. Besides the lacking animation and uninspiring stories, there is also little attempt to explain any of the action onscreen to the viewer. You either understand a traveling arena with mecha whose pilots are trying to kill each other in between sanctioned tournaments or you already follow Heavy Gear. But then there’s very little for a Heavy Gear fan to get out of Battle for the Badlands except to see the Gears in motion, but for that, there are video games which I bet are far more entertaining. The question I kept asking myself throughout the DVD’s hour and 39 minutes was “Why was this ever made in the first place?” Most of the other movies involving gaming I’ve seen are worth seeing at least once, but I suggest staying away from this dull stinker. If you have to see it for yourself, watch any five minutes of Battle for the Badlands; it will never get any better. That said, if you are a fan of the podracer scene from The Phantom Menace and its double-headed announcer, this may be the film for you.
The Good in the Badlands and the Gaming Connection
The only reason I would consider watching Heavy Gear: Battle for the Badlands again is to study the Gear designs up close and in action. The beauty of Heavy Gear really comes down to the wonderful aesthetics of its Gears and they fortunately are in 95% of the movie. It is easier to spot what a particular Gear’s part does when it is blown up on screen as opposed to trying to figure out the detail on a 28mm figure. MRFs or Medium Rifles are just as ineffective in the animation as they seem to be in the game and there are plenty of Light Rocket Pods (LRPs) and Medium Rocket Pods (MRPs) in the film, though when the rockets and missiles fire on screen, they’re slow and kind of impotent. There’s not much variety in the Gears themselves with the Southern pilots using a variety of Jagers plus one Cobra and a Rattlesnake. It looks like the Northern Gears may be Hunters with a Mad Dog thrown in. One cool detail in the DVD is the existence of “Gear Beat” magazine, which is Terra Nova’s version of “Tiger Beat”. Something I’ve also not encountered in Blitz is a Vibro Naginata, which is wielded by the villainess Yoji in the show. While I’m unfamiliar with the Heavy Gear RPG or miniatures game of the early 2000s, the current iteration of the game is far, far superior to anything in the animated series. I would not even have this DVD on in the background while painting because the animation and dialogue are really that bad and distracting.
Plot, Characters, and Dialogue
No matter how wonderfully designed the Gears are, if the story is subpar and the characters are flimsy, it all adds up to a steaming wreck. The stories could be lifted from RPG adventures or Heavy Gear scenarios, but poor ones at that. The good Shadow Dragons from the South battle against the cheating Northern Guard team, Vanguard of Justice. First they do it aboard a gigantic Mag Lev train, then in the mysterious MacAllen Tunnels and Waterloo Arena, then twice in the main tournament in Trash City Arena to see who will become Heavy Gear Tournament Champion, and yet again, in a third tournament (with a twist) in Trash City Arena. Along the way young Marcus Rover is shown to be far superior to his older teammates, a teenaged ace who fights with honor. Despite being the protagonist, he’s also nearly as shallow as the GREL soldier Sebastian or his Japanese ally Tachi who fights with his great grandfather’s Vibro Katana. They are all cardboard cutouts and the Battle for the Badlands makes no attempt to even have a moral of the story, except for “Don’t cheat!” As for the cheaters themselves, they’re drawn from old clichés, ranging from the Russian sniper Serge to the Dreadnok-like Rank. They certainly cheat and double-cross at every turn with zero consequences from the Heavy Gear Championship Tournament organizers and with the complicity of announcer Maddox, who even remotely pilots a gigantic dragon Mega Gear against Marcus Rover during one of the arena combats. In a setting where Southern Gears derive their names from serpents and other reptiles, it’s odd that no one comments on this draconic Mega Gear or even on Major Drake Alexander Wallis III’s first name.
“Hot metal-munching mama!”
The dialogue is horrible stuff. I love some pretty bad puns, but “This is what I call a Gear death experience,” is pushing it. “Goodness gearacious!” is over the line. Marcus Rover has a constant refrain throughout the film, “Dragons forever!” What this means and who it inspires is anyone’s guess. There were a few little gems. One character exclaims, “Hot metal-munching mama!” My favorite lines though followed a character’s apparent death. After one character mourns, “He was like a father to me,” the other responds “He was like a commanding officer to me.” Very dry and these came from the villains’ team.
This is Heavy Gear? Animation and World
When not in their Gears, the characters’ animation from Mainframe Entertainment ranges from barely passable to awful. I was surprised to see that motion capture was actually used. Faces are usually expressionless and resemble mannequins. The shot of the crowd cheering is especially obnoxious. I know this was 2002, but World of Warcraft introduced /cheering that was much more lively two years later in 2004. Every environment in WoW also has more depth and occasionally the only texture in Battle for the Badlands is a skin applied to one of the surfaces in the background. By the end of the disc I would have settled for static frames with voiceover as is sometimes done to save money in animation. At the same time the directing and visual narrative is consistently strong. The animators went for cinematic shots found in Hollywood blockbusters, eschewing simpler shots common in 2D animation. Make no mistake about it, a lot of effort went into Battle for the Badlands with battle damage on gears and attention to lighting sources and shadows, but to no avail.
The other sad part of the animation to me as a fan of Heavy Gear: Blitz is that while I am aware that Gears have multiple movement modes including Walker or Ground (wheeled), I really hadn’t realized how much like roller derby Heavy Gear actually is. At times in the animated series, they are actually skating by crossing their Gears’ legs over and not just moving directly forward on their wheels. The world onscreen is also a puzzling one. I know it’s the Badlands and it should be a rough place, but where do the tens of thousands of spectators actually live? What do they even subsist on in the desert landscape? What powers the huge arena video screens? Why in such a desolate area are there giant roller coaster cars that seat six 25-foot tall Gears each? Obviously so the Gears can race each other for the audience’s entertainment. Phantom Menace podracing indeed.