Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway, the latest entry in the beloved mecha franchise, isn’t really a movie that’s focused on its action. It’s more interested in the politics of its world than it is the giant robots that have made Gundam a merchandising powerhouse for decades. But when it does get around to squaring off its titular Mobile Suits, it does so with a fascinating new perspective.
Hathaway’s first major Mobile Suit action scene doesn’t take place until almost halfway through its runtime. The film’s protagonist, Hathaway Noa, is also known as Mafty Navue Erin — head of an anti-Earth Federation terrorist group itself called “Mafty.”
He’s currently under the watchful eyes of both the Federation and local police forces in Davao City, the Philippines, following a failed terrorist assault on the ship transporting Hathaway and several prominent Federation ministers to Earth.
As he sits in his hotel room reflecting on his past and his decision to wage a violent revolution against the Federation his father still serves (and he himself briefly served as a youth during the events of Char’s Counterattack), Mafty forces prepare to stage a precision strike on the surviving Federation ministers from Hathaway’s flight, who also ended up being diverted to Davao ahead of an important conference.
As Mafty Mobile Suits soar into the sky and prepare to begin launching strikes on the hotel the ministers are in, Federation suits from the city launch to counter them. It opens with an intense staring contest between the two sides; the Mafty suits fly down below the Federation’s, putting themselves between their foe and Davao City, believing that there’s no way the “good guys” would attempt to fire down at them and risk collateral damage on the civilian population below.
The Federation suits fire anyway, engaging with the unspoken calculus that civilian lives are worth sacrificing to destroy even a handful of Mafty dissidents. In a single moment, peace explodes into absolute chaos — fire and explosions engulf Davao. In the air, Mafty suits try to balance striking their target with surviving against the Federation suits. On the ground, Hathaway and his new “friend,” the mysterious young Gigi Andalucia (a fellow survivor to the terrorist’s attempted ship-hijacking), desperately try to escape the devastation raining down around them.
But it’s not just that our heroes are in danger that makes the scene tense. When the combat shifts from Davao’s airspace and into the city itself, Hathaway’s lens never moves away from Hathaway and Gigi’s perspective on the ground, as we might expect. Mafty and the Federation’s mechs don’t become our protagonists in this moment of action. These gigantic stage setters are both away from our focus, and yet also the driving momentum of nearly 10 minutes of sheer chaos. And while it is indeed a slickly animated sequence on a technical level, it doesn’t feel “cool” to watch Mafty and the Federation duke it out. It’s horrifying, playing out like a scene from a disaster movie and unlike the kind of action we typically get to see in Gundam.
Everything is framed from the perspective of the terrified civilians (Hathaway and Gigi among them) rather than the Mobile Suits themselves, amplifying the scale and destruction of the combat.
A beam discharged from a Mafty Messer’s rifle doesn’t just punch a hole in a Federation Gustav Karl’s armour, it spews searing hot, molten scraps of metal and pure energy down onto the crowds of fleeing people below. Crowd shots are framed by disorienting fire and noise, punctuated by booms that knock swaths of people clean over, some of them never getting back up to keep running. We’re shown that it’s not just blasts of missed shots from beams and cannons that are lethal to the people on the ground, but even the simple things that years and years of Gundam action has de-sensitised us to.
The sheer heat from a suit’s vernier engines kicking up clouds of dust as it descends, blowing nearby vehicles away. Mobile suits don’t delicately land on or around buildings but smash down and through them, their agility in the air contrasted with a heaving sense of weight as they stomp through housing blocks and city streets — an unflinching, uncaring reaction to the chaos in their wake.
While it’s an incredibly violent segment, it’s never gory. We’re not given the chance to see the aftermaths of fire and rubble on the bodies of people falling all around Hathaway and Gigi, other than to see them prone in the streets. We don’t need to in order to understand the horror of the moment, as we’re reminded of it constantly by Gigi’s panicked cries and screams.
We’re reminded even further by the contrast between her demeanour — presumably never having seen a Mobile Suit this close-up before, or perhaps ever outside of news broadcasts — and Hathaway’s strained, but also numbed, response to the horror around him after the trauma he developed fighting in Char’s Counterattack as a teen.
His desensitisation to the nightmare unfolding further speaks to his own conflicted emotions earlier in the movie, sparked by Gigi’s questioning if he and Mafty are in the right striking against the Federation the way the have been. The way they are, as flames engulf his world and the almost catatonic Gigi cradled in his arms.
The skirmish ends when two Federation suits corner a lone Mafty suit in a park that Hathaway, Gigi, and the surviving citizens had fled to for a brief refuge. One blocking the single Mafty suit’s escape, the other reaches to its waist, as it ignites one of Gundam’s most iconic mecha weapons: the fiery, purple-pink energy blade of a beam saber. So often in Gundam, a beam saber being unsheathed signifies the impending killing blow of a fight, a precise stab to the chest of an enemy suit that disables it and incinerates the helpless pilot within in a single strike. In stunned silence, all Hathaway and Gigi can do is watch as the Federation suit plunges its blade into the Mafty suit’s back, its chest unit streaming sparks all around like beautiful, terrible rainfall.
Hathaway doesn’t know if his friend in the suit, Gawman Nobile, survived the blow. Gigi, traumatized by the experience she’s just endured, can only sob into Hathaway’s chest. And yet, as Gawman’s suit lifelessly slumps against its attacker and to the ground, the camera lens draws back to contrast its form with Hathaway and Gigi’s, as they begin caressing and exploring each other’s bodies.
It’s an act of tender intimacy — awkward sensuality, massaging comfort, the pent up energy of a stressful situation having to go somewhere, anywhere. The humanity of their tenderness and the inhumanity of the horrifying combat they just watched unfold around them are placed against each other — these two different kinds of bodies, mechanical and organic, coping with their inflicted traumas.
Presenting Mobile Suit combat in Gundam like this is not a new idea, and shouldn’t really be expected to be in a franchise as old as it is. Gundam has, many times before Hathaway, juxtaposed the trauma it presents on the mechanised bodies of its humanoid mecha with the very real bodies of the humans that pilot them. Its message always that, as visually exciting as its action can be, the cost of it all is forever deeply traumatic — Hathaway is no exception.
By pulling its perspective away from the mechs themselves to the grounded lens provided by the civilians on the ground around them, Hathaway further amplifies the dehumanising nature of its mechanical weapons of war, presenting them as something akin to monstrousness in spite of their humanoid form.
To have Hathaway largely eschew action for thematic interrogation and use one of its rare sparks of conflict to speak to this long-running theme in the franchise is an outstanding moment of spectacle in and of itself. One that feels like a pointed evolution of that theme, rather than just a continuation of it.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway is now streaming on Netflix.