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Voices of a Different Star, The
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by Jay Seaver

"More greatness in 25 minutes than most features five times as long have."
5 stars

I love that this short film exists. It's science fiction, the hard stuff, the kind that sees the laws of nature as the basis on which an emotional story can be built as opposed to things to be handwaved away because it's inconvenient. It's got action and adventure, joy and tragedy, and does it all without wasting any of its twenty-five minutes. And it looks pretty darn good for having been done, for the most part, by one guy on his home computer.

Mikako Nagamine and Noboru Terao are each other's first loves. Both gifted students, they are looking forward to going to the same high school, but that's before Mikako finds out she's been accepted by the United Nations space force's academy. There's a war on - a group of aliens called the Tarsians established a colony on Mars and our species don't get along - and Mikako will be piloting a combat mech. Basic training takes place on the moon, but while the mothership that takes Mikako from battle to battle can make hyperspace jumps, faster-than-light communication isn't possible. Mikako and Noboru communicate via cell phone text messages, and while ten minutes for a signal to get from the Earth to Mars isn't bad, the exponentially increasing distances as Mikako journeys to Jupiter, Pluto, the Oort Cloud and beyond will inevitably put a strain on their relationship.

I annoy people by criticizing the bad science in science fiction movies and television - why "it's called science fiction" is considered a valid argument but "it's called science fiction" isn't, I'll never know - so a story like this, which logically extrapolates a story from its premise, being found somewhere other than print is a special treat for me. I suspect that writer/director/editor Makoto Shinkai was able to tell this story at least in part because he didn't have to explain the relatively simple premise to a suit in Hollywood or Tokyo, but was able to just do it (originally, he also did the voice of Noboru and composed the music, but when distributor Mangazoo picked it up, those parts were given an upgrade).

Of course, if all the story had was good science, it would be clever and little more. Shinkai has strong storytelling skills, though - he sketches his characters out quickly and effectively, and knows how to build the world they live in without a whole lot of exposition. Having them communicate through text messages lets him give them their own articulate voices - they're able to believably say exactly what they mean, rather than engaging in awkward teenage conversation. He's good with the action sequences, too - not having a lot of runtime, he works their quick eruption and devastating speed into the story.

It's in the action scenes that he hits the limits of his tools; the three-dimensional mechs and spaceships don't have quite the same look as the two-dimensional characters piloting them. Those human characters are a little flatter and less mobile than some modern anime, perhaps a good fit the characters' introspection, but the mechanical things really do look like the best someone could do on his Mac. Still, even if the visuals aren't perfect, they are awe-inspiring - Olympus Mons on Mars, bolts of lightning that jump between Jupiter and one of its moons, a space battle near Pluto and Charon, virtual reality that lets the inside of Mikako's battle mech fade away, leaving her letting her act as if she's floating in space.

That something like "Voices of a Distant Star" can be made more or less by one guy with some help from his friends is exciting, for film in general and science fiction in particular: It's a singular story told without compromise. Most people who make the attempt won't make something as good as "Voices" (they just won't have Shinkai's talent), but enough will, and they'll make the jump to bigger things like he did (his feature "The Place Promised in Our Early Days" came out a year later to much acclaim). Even if "Voices" isn't your thing, all film lovers benefit from having talented new voices able to tell their stories.

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originally posted: 06/30/06 10:44:37
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