Sunday, August 26, 2007

Movie Review: Appleseed

Wake me up when the exposition is over.

Appleseed, written by Haruka Handa and Tsutomu Kamishiro. Directed by Shinji Aramaki. Produced by Sori. Voices by Ai Kobayashi, Jurota Kosugi, and Yuki Matsuoka. Geneon. Runtime 105 minutes. Rated R.

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Shirow Masamune is probably best known for writing and illustrating the cyberpunk manga Ghost In The Shell, which is heavily dependent on William Gibson's cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (and this cultural cross-fertilization works both ways, for The Matrix is heavily dependent on the film adaptation of Ghost in the Shell). Shirow Masamune is also responsible for the manga Appleseed, which is also cyberpunk and also that particular brand of manga/anime cyberpunk known as mecha, which mostly features people riding around in big fighting machines and engaging in heavy firefights. This of course has western antecedents, especially Starship Troopers and BattleTech.

This film version of Appleseed is, to say the least, loosely based on Shirow Masamune's work. It is not animated in the traditional sense, but is created with an innovative CGI technique that combines hyper-realistic 3D backgrounds with elaborately shaded but nonetheless 2D-looking characters. There is an entire theory of cartoon art postulating that backgrounds should be elaborately detailed while characters should be cartoony; I do not know the reasoning behind the theory, but I can say it usually works well in practice. Appleseed, however, takes the theory to an extreme that, while visually arresting at times, suggests it's possible to have too much of a good thing. Because the characters are not live actors or CGI characters or cartoon characters but something hovering in between the three, they often look zombie-like and detached, as if their appearances and movements are simultaneously too realistic and not realistic enough. The bored-sounding actors in the English dub don't help, but as I'll explain momentarily, they have good cause for being bored.

The movie has stripped Shirow Masamune's philosophical musings, world development, and technical mumbo-jumbo down to its utmost basics. The world is a wasteland thanks to a third or maybe a fourth world war, and the story opens with some hip, loud music-accompanied slow-motion CGI-fu/gunfighting as the young female soldier Deunan Knute (Ai Kobayashi) and her S.W.A.T. team take on a gang of cyborg thugs. Though her team is wiped out, a new group of ES.W.A.T. team members show up and save Deunan, airlifting her out of the area and taking her to a new Utopian state called Olympos, where humans have finally achieved something resembling peace, partly through technology and partly through a genetic engineering program that has produced a race of "Bioroids," humanoid entities with no capacity for strong emotion or violence. Bioroids make up half the population, living in uneasy peace with humans. Among the ES.W.A.T. team members who airlift Deunan is her old lover Briareos (Jurota Kosugi), who is now a decidedly robotic-looking cyborg because his body was nearly destroyed in a battle. As the story progresses, Deunan learns there is trouble in a paradise, and she has to don some heavy-metal armor (called a "landmate") to hunt down a mysterious secret called "Appleseed" and save the Bioroid population from destruction. After that, she has to turn around and save the human population from destruction, too. Can't a girl get a break?

The first obvious difference from the manga is in the appearance of the central character, Deunan, who in the manga is more-or-less a regular self-capable woman with an unusual skill for violence and mayhem, but who in the anime has become a short-haired tomboy whose fighting skills ascend to the level of gravity-defying superpowers, as she is capable of backflipping over enemy gunfire in slow-motion. Her relationship with Briareos is also different. In the manga, they are together when people from Olympos find them, and they are already involved in an ambiguously romantic relationship, both of them apparently more-or-less comfortable with the fact that Briareos is a cyborg. The film has replaced this curious dynamic with a hackneyed old-flame romance in which Briareos bemoans his cyborg body (echoes of RoboCop) and Deunan utters miserable lines like "I won't lose you again" and "There's no future without you." I kept waiting for her to break into a pop song.

On top of that, we have to endure one of my all-time least favorite sci-fi conceits, the emotionless robot who envies the ability to love. I direct all readers to Daniel H. Wilson's How to Survive a Robot Uprising, which nicely skewers the ridiculous concept of an emotionless robot showing an emotion, saying, "Never show fear. Robots have no emotions. Sensing your fear could make a robot jealous and send it into an angry rage" (p. 110). Okay, okay, it isn't an emotionless robot who bemoans the inability to love, but one of those "suppressed" Bioroids. Still, how can anyone be jealous of love if he can't experience it? The Bioroids' loveless lives might seem like a serious issue, all things considered, but one of them steps up late in the film and says, "Just because our emotions are suppressed doesn't mean we can't feel love." Oh. Well, I guess that solves that problem.

And though this stripped-down version of the Appleseed world is not particularly complicated, the screenwriters apparently feel justified in giving no less than three massive infodumps. Combined with the action sequences, the infodumps make for a basic mecha movie punctuated by lengthy lectures.

The film's big question is, "Can humans overcome their penchant for violence and live in peace, or are they destined to destroy themselves?" Good question. The movie offers at least three answers. The first is that we can curb our desire to kill by building human-like beings who don't kill but are likely to replace us. The second is that, bad as we may be, we're not as menacing as those Bioroids who might replace us. And the third, which the movie finally lands on, is a sort of vague sentimental thing about letting our children figure these problems out. It's an interesting question on which to muse and one that is always worth revisiting, but this movie does a decidedly poor job of musing.

Though it's animated, that doesn't mean it's for your kids. I think the R-rating is arguably a bit high, as the film contains no nudity, no foul language, and violence I would have placed at about PG-13 level. Presumably, an image of a man getting his head crushed by a cyborg and another image of a guy getting shot in the forehead earned the R-rating. Children could be disturbed by such pictures and would likely be bored by the infodumps anyway. Be warned that the manga contains gratuitous cartoon nudity and some foul language; I've only tracked down the first volume of the manga so far, but I assume the others contain more of the same. And while I'm here, I'll just ask, what's with you humans, anyway? Why would anyone want to see a naked cartoon character?

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Appleseed:

Myth Level: Medium (some universal themes and a lot of passing references to Greek mythology)

Quality: Medium (technically impressive with a clunky script)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-High (very little objectionable; some graphic violence and brief shots of skimpy clothing)
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