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"Appleseed Ex Machina" is Satsifying Sci-Fi Cheese

by on March 16, 2008

It’s no secret by now that computer graphics have changed the way animation is made, from the use of computer effects to enhance hand-drawn animation to the fully CGI-animated movies taking over the multiplexes. CGI has even spawned its own sub-genres, from the fully rendered movies of Pixar and DreamWorks to the Flash animators of TV and the Internet and the handful of filmmakers using technologically innovative motion capture techniques to assist CGI animation. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese are far in advance of Americans in this form of animation. While Robert Zemeckis was busy finding ways to use the technique to produce the most hideously ugly movies possible, director Shinji Aramaki and a talented crew of animators produced Appleseed, which loosely adapted a manga by Shirow Masamune (Ghost in the Shell). The results were mixed, with the striking visuals occasionally looking a little strange. The fact that the movie began with clichés before slipping into incomprehensibility didn’t help.

Briareos and Deunan. Deunan models the better of two costumes designed for the film by Miuccia Prada.Despite the anger of many hardcore anime fans, who seem to love hand-drawn animation as much as many American animation enthusiasts do, the results were successful enough to warrant a sequel. Aramaki was fortunate enough to team up with famed Hong Kong action director John Woo, who was a fan of the original film and signed on as a producer. The result was Appleseed Ex Machina, which came out in Japan in 2007 and is on American shores now on DVD, thanks to Warner Home Video. It is the exceptionally rare kind of sequel that manages to better the original in nearly every way. Its technical innovations are still a little jarring, and the story will win few kudos for originality, but on the whole the movie is a deeply satisfying science-fiction/action piece. It may not be the groundbreaking trailblazer of Toy Story, but it definitely proves that there is a real future for motion-captured CGI animation. If nothing else, it’s cinematic comfort food that’s been given an attractive, new presentation.

Appleseed Ex Machina picks up where the first movie left off, although new viewers should be able to jump straight into the sequel with no problems. The lead character is tough-girl Deunan Knute, who works for the elite anti-terrorist strike force ES.W.A.T. with her partner and paramour, the rabbit-eared cyborg Briareos. ES.W.A.T. is the enforcement arm of the mega-city of Olympus, notable as an oasis of peace in the war-torn setting of Appleseed, and also for its governance by fully robotic “bioroids” who have been engineered not to have feelings of anger or rage. One of the new bioroid characters introduced in this movie is Tereus, the first of a new breed of combat-oriented bioroids. However, Tereus was created from Briareos’ DNA, which creates an intriguing love triangle and no small amount of friction when Tereus is assigned to learn the ropes as Deunan’s partner.

I want to take his faaaace...OFF!To summarize much more of the plot would pretty much give it away to anybody who’s ever watched or read science fiction in the past. After the opening credits, nearly every new element of the film seems to come from the “It Sounded Like a Good Idea at the Time” catalog of sci-fi plot elements. The only question is how soon these elements are going to backfire badly, and how much copious cartoon violence and technobabble will be required to resolve the problems they cause. Unfortunately, making these elements work requires the characters to overlook the abundantly obvious on quite a few occasions. The movie also dutifully runs through many of sci-fi anime’s favorite themes, especially those of Shirow Masamune, such as the human-machine dichotomy, the use and misuse of technology, and the futility of war.

Even so, there is at least one red herring plot element that is introduced but not used in the way one expects, and at least a few of the new characters manage to behave in surprising and unexpected ways. The plot of Appleseed Ex Machina isn’t completely original, but it’s also not entirely clichéd. The execution of that plot is also fairly conventional, but it is still well-done, and embraces many of producer John Woo’s favorite running themes and plot elements. This also means that there are times when the movie takes a deep theme and handles it with equal parts of cheese and corn, but this is also one of Woo’s trademarks; and like Sam Raimi, it’s something he’s not afraid or ashamed of. In any event, both plot and execution are much more coherent than the nearly nonsensical original movie, putting the sequel on firmer footing right off the bat.

My name is Briareos and I'll be kicking your ass tonight in the Boom-Boom Room.The movie also further improves on the spectacular action sequences that were the hallmark of the first Appleseed. The opening sequence is a loving homage to John Woo’s filmmaking (and, according to the special features, was mostly finished as a tribute to Woo before he was involved in the movie), as Deunan and ES.W.A.T. blast through a hostage situation. Adrenaline junkies are sure to get their fix from Appleseed Ex Machina, as the landscape is perforated regularly via either two-fisted gun-blazing action or big exosuits wielding giant cannons. Woo’s influence is everywhere, especially as characters leap through the air in balletic slow-motion, shooting up opponents in a rain of shell-casings. There are even a few martial arts sequences, including one where Briareos and Tereus express their antagonisms by sparring with crunching impact. Unfortunately, the first half of the climactic battle was inspired by The Matrix Revolutions, and suffers from the same problem of feeling more like a video game than a proper movie. It is worth sitting through for the genuinely interesting final sequence that is also unexpectedly touching, even if it is more than a little cheesy.

To those who denigrate motion-captured animation out of hand, Appleseed Ex Machina probably can do no right, but the animation here is striking and effective, succeeding where movies like The Polar Express and Beowulf failed. Despite using the same basic techniques, including motion-capture suits and facial performance scanning, Appleseed Ex Machina manages to stay mostly out of the “uncanny valley” that makes Zemeckis’ efforts look creepy and artificial. This is a movie made by animators who are trying to make animation, as opposed to Zemeckis, who seems to be using animation to try to make a live-action movie. Characters in Appleseed Ex Machina can touch and interact with each other, the props, and the environment far better than those in Beowulf could manage. They can also look at each other more convincingly, and even share a very believable kiss. Interestingly, one of the most expressive characters in the movie is Briareos, despite the fact that he has no moving facial features at all to emote with.

Even so, the movie doesn’t quite achieve escape velocity from its technological origins. When watching the average Pixar movie, the advances in CGI technology will catch your eye for about five minutes before you stop paying attention to the graphics and begin focusing on the movie. In contrast, you’re almost perpetually reminded about how Appleseed Ex Machina was made, so the technique never manages to fully fade into the background as quality animation should. As appealing as Deunan and Briareos are, I suspect that time will make this film feel far more dated far more quickly. Its technical flaws still draw attention to themselves now, and we may only notice how much progress has been made when watching it in the future.

The Triple Long Jump Away from an Explosion is the Worst New Olympic Event EVER.The DVD is excellent, with a crystal clear widescreen image mated with an impressively booming soundtrack. In addition to the original Japanese and the English dub, you can watch the movie in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and what sounds like Korean; subtitles are in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Korean as well. The breadth of language choices is tempered by an incredibly annoying DVD menu that kicks you back out to the main menu screen when you change the soundtrack or the subtitle language, meaning it requires far more work to watch the movie in Japanese than it should. The English dub was supervised by ADV Films, using an entirely different voice cast from the first film. It is up to their usual high standards, although David Mantranga’s Briareos comes off a bit too thin to my ears with a voice that doesn’t seem to match his size. Easily the best special feature on the disc is the commentary track by Cartoon Brew’s Jerry Beck and producer Joseph Chou, who discuss the technology used to create the film, the story decisions and who made them, the rationale behind some of the differences in the Japanese and English soundtracks, and general commentary on anime in general. There are occasional dead spots, and also a few moments when it feels like the track was really an interview that was re-cut for alternate purposes, but on the whole the commentary track is informative and definitely worth hearing at least once. Two more featurettes round out the special features: one about the movie, which features the usual self-congratulatory hype; and the other about the technology used to make the movie, which is more informative and interesting. We received the single-disc edition to review, but there is a two-disc special edition available as well that includes more features about the history of Appleseed and the technology behind the film.

In the end, perhaps Appleseed Ex Machina succeeds where Beowulf failed because the former obeys its own moral lessons. At heart, both Appleseed movies are about the uneasy relationship humanity has with its machines. Questions about “What does it mean to be human?” and how much reliance on technology is too much should be very familiar to any sci-fi or anime fan. However, despite its heavy use of technology, Appleseed Ex Machina seems to know better than to rely on it too heavily, and is aware that there are problems better solved through human involvement instead of technical wizardry. The animation of Beowulf may use more and better technology and cost a lot more money, but the animation of Appleseed has heart and real character. In short, it’s just more human than the hyper-realistic mannequins of Beowulf. Let’s hope the DNA of Appleseed is the one that wins out in the end, and that the Beowulfs of the animation world prove an evolutionary dead end.

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