Aldnoah Zero shows its inspirations from across a number of science-fiction animé, but perhaps most clearly Turn-A Gundam in its invading empire from space bringing advanced technology against a more primitive Earth. While Turn-A took this to an extreme, with technology more advanced than many of the pure science-fiction Gundam series set against early 20th century weapons, Aldnoah has a “standard” military sci-fi setting, with its own war robots and advanced versions of existing weapons, set against a high-powered invading force with more fantastical equipment. Having greater technological parity in this way puts the focus more easily on conflict from the start; although very quickly in Turn-A the Earthrace finding and learning to use advanced weapons becomes the defining plot point, it makes it very clear from the start that without this, the Earthrace cannot even destroy a single Moonrace machine.
Aldnoah has not, so far, offered a powerful counterattack for humanity; there is as yet no Gundam, and no Black History to mine for weapons. The Martians, its invading empire, begin by systematically crippling human resistance and then moving in with terror weapons to finish the job – while a small squad fighting in one front of a global invasion are apparently the only ones capable of resisting. It is far more Hollywood, in a way. The right everyman at the right time can unify the bickering, stupid authority figures and with his thinking outside the box destroy impossibly powerful enemies. Compare this with Loran’s position in Turn-A; even after finding the Gundam, he is still very much the servant, taking orders and more often than not trying to save the Earthrace from their own stupidity not by taking charge but by going out of his way to help. He is skilled, and possessed of an incredibly powerful machine, but he is very much unlike Inaho (the protagonist of Aldnoah) in his willingness to be a soldier rather than a hero. It is this modesty – perhaps expected of a character of his low social status in an alternate-history period piece as Turn-A is – that makes him unlike so many mecha animé protagonists, and so likeable as a character. Inaho’s arrogance in Aldnoah is quite the opposite impression; he is held up as a character people would want to be, not want to be with. He is the know-it-all who can outthink the overconfident enemies, knows vast amounts of trivia and can apply it to situations and can talk back to anyone if he thinks he is right. As a result he is boring; he is the maverick protagonist of any number of action films – and in this case he does not have the supporting cast to make him interesting. It has taken several episodes for Aldnoah to even begin fleshing out its side-characters and during that time there has been very little in the way of personality to the series.
A story, as Aldnoah is, of guerrillas fighting an overpowered invader needs to make its heroes sympathetic on a level beyond the fundamental they have lost everything that Aldnoah offers to stand out as a story. Consider post-apocalypse or zombie horror fiction (a similar enough genre for comparison); The Walking Dead, for example, puts a lot of effort into making the viewer be interested in its cast of survivors set against an inexorable threat. From the start it provided background, and context, for them – and made these interesting. It has, as said above, taken several episodes for Aldnoah to begin doing this in earnest and that has dragged it down. If anything, the series’ most interesting character is Slaine, an enemy pilot who is trying and failing to expose a conspiracy within the enemy forces and end the war, while being hampered by superior officers who want to prolong it. His recent focus scenes have set him more as a protagonist figure than Inaho, whose job is at times simply to solve problems with some piece of scientific trivia and save his friends – at least he has a plot arc, and he is an “enemy national” with doubtful loyalty played more, in fact, in the vein of Loran from Turn-A or Melda Ditz from Yamato 2199 than an attempt to gain pathos with a sympathetic “human face” of the enemy. By contrast within the series, Aldnoah’s subplot of the supposedly “dead” Martian princess hiding among human refugees is falling somewhat flat; Asseylum is nowhere near as interesting and not in any real position (on account of how the Martian conspiracy plot is playing out) to do anything. The whole focus of the guerrilla theming in fact feels somewhat heavy-handed; a superpower goes to war on a weaker nation on a fake premise, while a heroic group of freedom fighters lay low their overwhelming force with clever guile. It does not really innovate within a crowded, often tired genre.
Even the fights themselves – impressive as they are visually – feel very formulaic because of their reliance on cunning ruses. The series establishes from the start that modern weapons, in almost all cases, do not work on Martian armour. Thus a formula is set up of Inaho needing to find some other way of incapacitating the unit, a few line soldiers dying after shooting ineffectually at the enemy to reinforce in the viewer’s mind how invincible it is, and then his plan going off and easily destroying the enemy, followed by an explanation of how and why it worked. The setting, of a largely evacuated and depopulated city, allows for it to become almost a playground of physics objects to use to destroy the boss – an interesting point of comparison with Turn-A, which has a constant and uncompromising focus on trying to avoid civilian casualties, and protect lives. Aldnoah’s fights are almost framed in arenas; on the deck of an aircraft carrier, on a bridge, in a dockyard by a convenient crane – and feel so much like video game boss fights as a result. It in some ways is thematically appropriate for how the Martians wage war; they are simply out to destroy – but the almost gamist approach to the fights – described by one other viewer to me as like a pale imitation of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure in their plot and counterplot choreography always suits Inaho more than the Martians. It is effectively in its fight choreography a formulaic super-robot show without the super robot.
On this note the enemy’s visual theming – “evil” coded versions of classic heroic mecha weapons – is worth discussing. It is as unsubtle as the Martians’ overconfidence as a representation of superpower arrogance – each Martian unit so far has had a version of an archetypal mecha weapon: a force field, a beam sword and now a rocket punch in episode 6, as if to further press the idea that the Martians are just the super-robot heroes seen from the enemy perspective. Yet Martian Successor Nadesico was doing the same thing back in the 1990s, and far better. Its Jovians, obsessed with 70s mecha shows, built super-robots and fought with the blind arrogance of action heroes and were proved overconfident and wrong and childish. Aldnoah is effectively a more politicised (in its focus on guerrilla warfare and superpower politics) spin on the same conceit.
Indeed, Aldnoah’s engagement with the visual cliches of mecha animé is so eager to present the Martians as stupid and inefficient, and the human soldiery as dumb marines firing ineffectually at things then dying, that it becomes not so much a mecha animé but an animé about why mecha are terrible ideas. On the one side is the “realistic” human mecha, in their military sci-fi trappings with assault rifles and all drab colours – they are completely useless against a real enemy and die very easily. On the other are the Martian Knights, massive terror weapon super-robots which use heroic weapons and are impervious to attack, but at the same time are so easily outmaneuvered and destroyed by their own mechanical over-engineering that they seem completely pointless weapons. The two extremes of mecha animé are set against each other and both appear ridiculous.
Aldnoah is, despite these issues, entertaining; it is quite watchable and the fights, although poorly-written compared to how Jojo would do a similar protagonist to Inaho, are amusing. Yet it feels very much at times like a show kicking out against the entire robot genre, trying to sit above the whole idea of giant robots as science-fiction weapons with its smug, scientific protagonist who wins fights by pointing out how unrealistic and impractical science-fiction technology really is. Inaho is almost the pedantic audience of science-fiction who nitpick the inaccuracies, given the power in the series to destroy his foes with this obsession with realism.