Anchor Bay // 2009 // 75 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Josh Rode (Retired) // January 27th, 2012
In battle, the moment of truth is when someone's actions determine the outcome.
Written by Russian artists Misha Shprits and Aljoscha Klimov, and animated by Japan's Studio 4°C, First Squad: The Moment of Truth is a collaborative effort loosely based on novels written during the Soviet Union's heyday. The film won the Kommersant newspaper award at the 2009 Moscow International Film Festival. When it came out in theaters, it was intercut with interviews from pretend World War II veterans talking about the depicted incidents, as if they actually happened. For whatever reason, those segments are not in this release, even as extras.
It's the early stages of World War II, and Nadya is tormented by a recurring dream of a Russian soldier getting beheaded by a strange apparition. She doesn't have a clue what the dream might portend, because her memory has been reduced to shattered glimpses of apples, circuses, and a lost love. It's only through a stroke of luck that she finds people who can tell her who she is, but the discovery does little to ease her mind. Turns out she's the last remaining member of an elite squad of clairvoyant teenagers whose mission was to counter a Nazi plan to raise a long-dead Baron. Now she has to find her forgotten friends in the land of the dead, in order to enlist them to help save Russia.
First Squad: The Moment of Truth feels like a part of a greater whole; it's not the beginning of the story, and makes it clear this is not the end. Watching it is akin to reading the second book of a trilogy without having read its predecessor. In fact, after watching it, I spent much time attempting to find the other films from what I assumed to be a series. Turns out they don't exist. They were supposed to, but the follow-ups were never made.
Though you can figure out who the characters are and what's going on, First Squad doesn't create a strong emotional link to any of them. When the story gives you images of things from the past, such as Nadya's teddy-bear pendant, your brain can tell you it's a sentimental token, but your heart is not engaged, and does not feel the loss the story clearly wants.
This problem is driven home by the film's very title. It's supposed to be about the First Squad, but before we get to know them, they're already dead. Thus we're given just enough information to make a stab at who these people are, provided one has seen any other team-based action show. First is the confident, unquestioned leader. Then there's the geeky tech genius. Add the cocky anti-authority guy and, of course, the token warrior woman with weird hair. Complete the set with Nadya, the child prodigy, and the ensemble of basic-heroic-team-member archetypes is complete.
But inference is all we get; First Squad doesn't allows us time to get to know the rest of the team, so when Nadya arrives in the land of the dead, there is no sense of connection to any of them. The reuniting rings hollow, especially since there is no point where the show hints that she has regained memories of her team, even as she greets them as if she knows them well. The end result is an unsatisfying affair.
Presented in standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, First Squad: The Moment of Truth is beautiful with clear visuals, though there is minor pixilation in places. The animation is quite good, ranging from nicely detailed to near-photographic. Colors are balanced but subdued, with a fairly basic palette. The Dolby 5.1 surround track is immersive, making good use of the surrounds, but the subwoofer is underutilized. The English voice cast is solid and their presentation is excellent. Sadly, a disjointed plot and underserved characterizations don't give them half a chance to be anything more than the base stereotypes.
There are no extras.
Perhaps First Squad: The Moment of Truth should have taken a page from George Lucas' playbook and written a prequel so we could get to know the characters before they die. A proper finale would have been nice, too.
Guilty of telling only one third of the story.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Russian)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Russian)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site