Reviewby Zac Bertschy,
Appleseed: Ex Machina
The utopian city of Olympus is under attack by high-minded terrorists bent on controlling the will of the world's population - be they human, cyborg or the artificially-created Bioroids - and it's up to spunky ES.W.A.T. enforcer Deunan Knute, her impossibly skilled cyborg partner (and lover) Briareos, to bring them down. Added to the mix is a brand new Bioroid model named Tereus, created from Briareos' DNA, who finds himself developing feelings for Deunan.
In what will likely be a surprise to nobody, Appleseed: Ex Machina is light years better than the previous Appleseed film (the 2004 CG effort, not the ancient OVA from the 80's) in every conceivable way. The art direction, the animation, the music, the script, the storyline – it's all a vast improvement. That isn't enough to save it from being little more than a lightweight action pic with some pretty visuals, though.
The storyline is blissfully uncomplicated; there's a virus, transmitted via futuristic celphone things that look like in-ear Bluetooth headsets, that threatens to bring the entire human (and cyborg and Bioroid) population under a single controlled consciousness, thereby eliminating things like “individuality” and “freedom of choice”. This devious scheme was cooked up by a rogue group of scientists who operate under the notion that if everyone effectively shares the same heart and mind, total world peace will be achieved (which is an odd goal for this lot, considering that when their plan is executed it results in mass riots, major property damage and countless casualties, seemingly by design). Oh, and there's a half-hearted love triangle (that ultimately doesn't really go anywhere) between tough-as-nails ES.W.A.T. babe Deunan Knute, her robot-headed cyborg lover Briareos, and Tereus, the latest model of Bioroid created using Briareos' DNA, which makes him an exact copy, this time with a human face instead of the metal mug Briareos sports. Naturally, his status as an exact copy means he shares Briareos' feelings for Deunan. You can see where this is heading.
It's a refreshingly straightforward plot for a big-budget anime sci-fi action picture. The genre has historically been plagued with insanely complex (or, in the case of the first Appleseed movie, insanely boring) plots. Ex Machina feels a bit more like an American action movie, with a simple plot that zips right along from action sequence to action sequence, stopping occasionally for brief expository conversations between the principal characters. It's a far cry from the head games of movies like Ghost in the Shell: Innocence and its ilk, resulting in an experience that's a lot less draining (or sleep-inducing). The dialogue leaves something to be desired, to be sure – nearly every conversation is belabored exposition, often with characters telling each other things they already know for the sake of the audience – but it's not enough to drag the whole thing down.
The story is helped immensely by the inclusion of an open, obvious romance between Briareos and Deunan. Although it's difficult not to think about the obvious issues their relationship would have (how do they have sex, anyway? Is Briareos even “equipped” for that scenario? Surely that can't be… oh, nevermind), the element of romance adds a very welcome, surprisingly honest and relatable human element to a film that could have potentially been very cold. Their relationship is the “heart” of the film, and without it, it's difficult to say if the movie would've been capable of conjuring any emotion from the viewer at all aside from “huh, neat explosions”, especially considering how blank and personality-free most of the characters seem to be.
Obviously, the most important thing about Ex Machina is the visuals, and in terms of art design and execution, it's a knockout. The previous film's cel-shaded “anyone remember Reboot?” look has been replaced with a sort of halfway point between the old look and standard two-dimensional character designs, and the result is much more pleasing to the eye. The film's color palette in particular is deserving of praise – the city of Olympus really pops off the screen, and there are moments where you could pause the film and have an image worthy of framing and hanging on your wall.
The problem is, Appleseed: Ex Machina stops looking so incredible once things start moving. While the motion-captured movement in the first film was vastly clunkier, many of the problems that plagued the animation then are still around for the sequel. Character movement is unnatural, unsubtle and unconvincing, for the most part. There are moments of believable movement, but generally, the animation looks more like someone with invisible hands moving dolls around than it looks like natural human movement. For whatever reason, there seems to be a reluctance to fully animate characters' hands; they are static unless they're holding something, and the result makes everyone look like they're moving their arms but not their hands. Nothing ever seems like it has any weight to it, either. Deunan moves the same regardless of whether or not she's holding a beer bottle or a massive automatic weapon. Also, due to the film's look and the animation method, it's difficult to shake the feeling that you're watching a series of videogame cutscenes – a feeling that is not relieved by the script, which ends quite literally with a perilous final dungeon, a mini-boss battle, and a final boss.
That's not to say the animation is bad, per se, it's simply awkward and, in the age of motion-captured films like Beowulf, it does look a little amateurish when held up to other productions using a similar technique. Regardless, the film's physical beauty can not be ignored, and is easily the highlight of what is, at its core, an undemanding but entertaining action movie that will keep anime fans – and fans of action movies of all sorts - happy for a little under two hours.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : C
Art : A
Music : A
+ Gorgeous art design, zippy, entertaining plot and the romance angle works pretty well.
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