Okay, I admit that I wouldn’t rate this one quite as highly without I was a huge fan of the television series. A quick crash-course in the show, though it is possible to enjoy the film in ignorance. Set a hundred years into the future, Earth is much depopulated after the Moon mostly broke when humanity had an accident there developing warp gate tech. The resulting changes to tides, vastly increased meteorite activity, etc. has driven humans to other places in the solar system. A partially terraformed Mars is now the premier planet and wealthiest location, but humanity has also colonized Venus, a number of large asteroids, moons around the gas giants, and so forth. The main cast make their living as bounty-hunters who travel the solar system capturing criminals for the reward money.
The series deals with the pasts of the main cast and each ends up with at least a partial resolution by the end of the show. The creators have, in the 20+ years since the only season, so far refused to make any further episodes or material beyond the end of the main story. (Of the live-action Netflix remake, let us not even speak.) This film then, is not a sequel or even a prequel, but a tale set during the main run of the show as a kind of extended episode inserted probably in the latter half of the timeline of the television run. The movie does feel something like an extended episode of the show, but I would say that’s a compliment to the show rather than a criticism of the movie.
This film involves our heroes taking on an everyday bounty that unexpectedly leads to a huge bounty for a terrorist threatening to unleash a bio-weapon of sufficient destruction as to create an apocalyptic horror for humanity. Some of the tension attendant upon such stakes is undercut by the knowledge that the ending must turn out at least relatively well. After all, our heroes go on to finish the television show, and Mars is still a bustling, inhabited planet, so they must succeed. So what’s the tension?
Well, the show was never shy about dealing with the death of characters, even if we don’t end up fearing for the crew of the Bebop. Death lurks near everyone and there are several new people who, despite their only appearance being in this movie, stand up well next to the cast with which we became familiar over the course of 12 hours of television. Moreover, the show itself was smarter than a simple police-procedural style show and made its reputation by developing and exploring complex and interesting characters. Though some of the SF elements are silly, and there are jokes, the themes are ones that have universal and timeless appeals and (like the original Star Trek) simply uses a futuristic setting to explore them.
The nearly lost art of hand-drawn animation is beautifully exemplified. (The opening credits and song are set to the animation in a way that would not make Edgar Wright ashamed.) The villain is properly villainous, but not cartoonish (if you will excuse the term) in his motives and choices. The rival in the chase is a character about which I would have been glad to know more, but the mystery is part of the appeal. One of the show’s strengths was in not over-explaining. When the series ended, fans were deeply interested in knowing more, learning more about and seeing more adventures of the characters they had come to love. The movie succeeds doubly by both giving the audience more information and one more adventure, but also creating a few more of those intriguing characters and mysteries and hinting yet again at the world that lies outside the border of the camera frame.