Lightyear's Time Travel Is Straight Out Of An '80s Sci-Fi Anime (But Not As Good)

"Lightyear" is a complicated film within the Pixar canon. It may be the first straight sci-fi adventure the studio has done, with no kid characters and a focus on action and adventure. Its grand set pieces, anime-inspired mecha designs, and ludicrous plot twist stand apart from most other Pixar movies. But "Lightyear" is also a film plagued by an overly convoluted premise and a metanarrative that can quickly fall apart when you stop to think about it. 

If you manage to forget about the whole "this is not a movie about the toy" thing, "Lightyear" does offer some fun sci-fi shenanigans, the best of which happens during the opening act. You see, the film begins with Buzz crashlanding a spaceship full of scientists on a hostile planet, destroying the ship's hyperspeed crystal. After a year, a replacement crystal is ready to be tested by Buzz, who is tasked to do a short test run around the nearby sun. But while the trip takes Buzz just four minutes, four years have passed for everyone else on the planet. This is not exactly time travel, but time dilation, the perceived difference in elapsed time as measured by two objects. Though "Lightyear" relegates the concept to a single montage, the concept and the emotional damage it implies are straight out of one of the best sci-fi anime of all time — Hideaki Anno's early masterpiece, "Gunbuster."

Aim for the top

The directorial debut of "Evangelion" creator Hideaki Anno, "Gunbuster" starts out with a rather simple premise: what if "Top Gun" but with space mechas? The show is set at a time where aliens are threatening to destroy humanity, and our survival depends on an academy training teenage girls to pilot mechas to go out to space and punch the enemy in the face. The story focuses on Noriko as she grows from a cocky but inept student to humanity's best hope for winning the war. "Gunbuster" is in many ways a predecessor to everything studio Gainax would do, from "Evangelion" to "Gurren Lagann," with Anno's particular directing style and knack for shooting the same scene from a dozen different angles, the angular shapes, heroic sacrifices, iconic poses, and quick escalation to over-the-top, world-ending threats all present in this six-episode OVA.

But the real star of the show is how it uses time dilation to explore a very emotionally charged story about time lost and sacrifice. You see, most of the emotional moments of the show revolve around the use of time dilation to show the difference in passage of time between those on the front lines and those left behind on Earth. Noriko sees former bullies become friends, friends become adults, and adults pass away, all of what Noriko experiences like a couple of days. Rather than a quick montage clearly meant to evoke the emotional devastation of the opening of "Up," Anno returns to this idea again and again to support the show's themes of sacrifice and perseverance. 

What could have been

Even in the condensed, feature-length movie version of "Gunbuster," time dilation and the effect it has on the characters is treated with gravitas and given enough length to have a long-lasting impact on the characters. Those who went to space struggle to readjust to a world that carried on without them, with friendships that slowly faded away years earlier, and relationships that never materialized. By the time we get to the final mission and the threat of losing centuries if not millennia of time, "Gunbuster" reaches one of the most emotional and powerful endings in an anime.

This is where "Lightyear" fails to make an impact, because it abandons the more complex potential of its time dilation subplot in favor of a "you should stop working and enjoy life" message that we've seen time and time again. We spend the entire movie listening to Buzz regret the mistake he made, but very rarely does he mention the fact that everyone he knew and loved is gone, that he is literally a man out of time. Since audiences are not showing up to see the story of the movie that inspired the toy that inspired the movie, maybe they should watch "Gunbuster" instead.