Opening Remarks - In my opinion, the best production ever to come out of Shinkai Makoto's genius. Oh, and I can definitely conclude he likes trains. A lot.
Story - It's a bit unusual for Mr Makoto to give his characters a good ending, but I'm glad he did and I'm glad for them too. That's a mark of an excellent work, isn't it? To make the audience happy that you're happy with letting the characters be happy.
Regardless of whatever the tags tell you, this is no science fiction flick. While they feature prominently, and there's some technical-philosophical jargon to get through, the sci-fi elements tend to function more like a backdrop to the story than anything else. But the attention paid to it, and the effort put into the premise of the science behind the story, is quite remarkable in its own right.
That's quite another departure from the usual way Mr Makoto works, isn't it? I always had the impression that he preferred not to distract his audience with too much thinking, instead relying on emphatic themes, stirring images and apt music in the background to keep them immersed in his story. Indeed, one common complaint about this movie may be that it does not quite tug at one's heartstrings as powerfully as Voices of a Distant Star, or even 5cm. Nevertheless, I personally found the change refreshing and prefectly executed. The trademark empathy-inducing moments are still there, and now with more substance in the world setting to back it up. The whole concept of tying the Ezo tower with the female lead's coma is quite inspiring as well. Mr Makoto really let his imagination run this time, and there's none of that feeling of incompleteness one gets from Voices and 5cm (the latter in particular feels amputated).
There are a couple of things to niggle about though, or I would had given this a 9/10. The anime is clearly set in a rather tense time period of impending war, but there's very little feel of that tension in the atmosphere. Granted, it's not the main point of the anime, but still...... Also, some bits of the science don't make a lot of sense. Like why doesn't the Ezo tower just 'replace' the seeker missile fired at it, or what's the big problem with blasting the whole tower done from a drone since that will stop its information feed and wake the female lead up anyway, right?
Animation - Well, this was done in 2004. I know it was done in 2004, you know it was done in 2004, but Mr Makoto didn't seem to get the memo. It really makes one stop and reflect on all that junk one has been watching in the intervening years.
If you've seen Voices you'll know the backgrounds were superb. This one makes that look like an early doodle. Everything about the animation is stunning, from the environmental panning, to odd angles, to lighting and shadow, to facial expressions, to close-ups and colour palette. Helped along, of course, by Mr Makoto's obvious desire to show off. I knocked half a point off his score for that, because it was too obvious. It is otherwise flawless.
The jet-prop-plane thing in the anime is possibly the most elegant, delicate, dreamy and fantastic object I have ever seen take to the sky, even if only in animation. And it can apparently carry a missile rack too. Conclusion: I WANT.
Sound - Voice acting is faultless. Music tends to be devoid most of the time, which is a pity, given how good Mr Makoto usually makes it. This section will be short, simply because soundwise the production carries that sort of subtle understated excellence that one just knows is good without ever being able to pinpoint why.
Characters - It may be due to the fact that the movie ran for 90 minutes, but there's a great deal more character development than I would generally expect from Mr Makoto. Everyone starts off rather generic and one-dimensional, but carrying hints of potential. Then the potential blossoms, conflicts arise and other facets of their being come into play. Masterfully carried out and woven organically into the story without any waste of minutes and frames. The late revelation of the factory owner's and head researcher's relationship was a particularly poigant touch.
I can understand why most folks would score this much lower than I do, and I humbly disagree with all of them. None of the cast feels redundant, all are thoroughly and truly part of the story and every single one of them feels humanly real. They are special enough in their own way to be irreplaceable in the anime, yet just bland enough to be easy to relate to. Their names and faces and mannerisms are blank slates and easily forgettable, but the roles they play are not. Their characters do not distract from their story parts, and in fact, are subordinated to it. Shinkai Makoto hit the sweet spot in ensuring that his cast can be stars in our eyes without ever being bigger than the anime in any aspect, no matter how insignificant (as a contrast example, think about how Lelouch is bigger than Code Geass). And yet no one feels redundant, and the cast runs a tight ship of itself.
Closing Remarks - A classic production, and a examplary exercise in how anime can be greater than the sum of its parts. Creative genius at its best.