Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 24th 2005
In the far future, only one inhabitable city is left on Earth: Olympus, a sprawling utopia maintained by a supercomputer and a council of Elders. The population is divided between regular humans and Bioroids, enhanced clones that have had their reproductive and emotional capabilities removed. Some factions oppose the Bioroids and want to return Olympus to full human control, while other groups would rather maintain the current balance. One group in favor of coexistence is the government agency ES.W.A.T., and when they recruit elite soldier Deunan Knute, it may be more than just for reinforcement. It seems that anti-Bioroid groups are after her too, and after an attack threatens the future of the Bioroids' existence, Deunan must unlock the secret of the "Appleseed" that will save them. With this power in her hands, she willl have to choose in favor of either humans or Bioroids.
|Have you ever bought the latest electronic gadget or software and wanted to push all the buttons just to see what it can do? Feels pretty exciting, doesn't it? Now imagine a staff of animators being given the latest in computer animation technology. Motion-capture, 3-D CGI, and lots of other sexy hyphenated phrases—what's the first thing to do? Push all the buttons, of course! The end result is Appleseed, a firestorm of visual effects that almost suffocates viewers with how incredibly shiny everything is. Beneath the lustrous exterior, however, is just another save-the-world blockbuster action movie. But hey! I bet those animators felt awesome about pushing all the buttons.
Manga-ka Masumune Shirow has made a name for himself creating sci-fi worlds where badass women blow things up—and so it is with Appleseed, a story where Deunan must kick, punch, and shoot her way to saving the human race. Like Ghost in the Shell, it's set in a future that contains amazing but conceivable leaps in science; rather than raising questions about artificial intelligence, though, this movie tackles artificial life. If Bioroids are equal to humans (or better), why must they be servants and guardians? Who's the real threat: Bioroids and their altered genetics, or humans and their destructive tendencies?
Who really cares? Let's have some explosions and gunfights!
That's the route that the Appleseed movie chooses to take, going for a formulaic action approach rather than exploring the ideas behind Bioroids. While the film does have some philosophy embedded into the dialog, the rest of it feels like Lord of the Incredibles Spiderman Matrix Wars: Episode III. The unexciting first half introduces some fancy vocabulary words and backstory, and by the time they become relevant, you'll have forgotten them. Things finally start to make sense when Deunan unlocks her memories; from there it's a predictable escalation of crises and a head-spinning denouement of who the real bad guy is.
Like most action movies, Appleseed looks really silly when it tries to build any emotional bonds between the characters. Nothing says "contrived" like the relationship between Deunan and ex-lover Briareos, a fellow soldier who had his body replaced with mechanical parts. The movie tries to tell us that they once had feelings for each other, but their actual behavior says otherwise—Deunan's tough attitude and Briareos' aloofness lack any sort of sentimental touch. The only moment that shows any heart is where Deunan recalls her mother, and even then it plays out like standard Hollywood cheese. Lack of emotion may be a useful trait for Bioroids, but in storytelling, it's a death sentence.
Everyone already knows that Appleseed is a visual tour de force, but does great technology make great art? The 3-D CGI style overlaid with 2-D cel shading creates an amazing level of sharpness, but it also gives the movie a cold, clinical look. The lack of a human touch is also evident in small-scale animation like mouth flaps and hand movements. Motion-capture techniques work beautifully for big, sweeping action scenes, but seeing computer-generated figures clumsily mimic the subtle motions of humans is still on the creepy side. For inanimate and mechanical objects, however, the animation is unmatched, and the intensely detailed backgrounds are like a contest for which locale is the most breathtaking. Even better are the effects like fire, smoke and water, which could easily pass for real. However, unimaginative cinematography hinders the visual style, and someone should have told the staff that they've called a moratorium on using overhead camera shots whenever someone dies. The animation of Appleseed is an ambitious experiment with technology, but artistically, it's not all that clever.
The music score stands out best when it's in all-out rocktronica mode, with Boom Boom Satellites and guest artists like Basement Jaxx and Ryuichi Sakamoto providing heavy, modern beats that punctuate the movie's chases and gunfights. Less outstanding is Tetsuya Takahashi's orchestral score, which visits the usual strains and harmonies of an action movie but without any memorable themes. Put together, these disparate styles of music suit the movie well, but take away the visuals and it's just a series of mildly interesting mood pieces.
Appleseed's English dub wouldn't sound so bad if it weren't for the terribly clichéd dialogue. The voice matching between the English and Japanese cast is admirable, and most of the actors make an effort to inject a natural rhythm into their lines (except for Mia Bradley's shaky performance as Hitomi). However, no amount of talent is going to save a script that's written like an amalgam of Vin Diesel, Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. It's not like they're trying to ham up the translation, either—switch to subtitles and you'll just get to read trite phrases and technobabble instead of hearing them.
For a movie that makes such a big deal about its animation techniques, the DVD is surprisingly low on extras, lacking a making-of feature or even a production gallery. The only extras of note are producer and director commentary and some "music cues" that feature the action scenes as music videos. Apparently, the animation staff isn't interesting enough to warrant a feature that focuses on them.
So after all that button-pushing, what have we got? A formulaic, pseudo-Hollywood movie that's mostly a 105-minute demo for the latest CGI technology. The backgrounds, props and action scenes are top-notch, but motion-capture is still far from capturing the subtleties of human motion, and there's no artistry in how the visuals or story are presented. As Appleseed shows, there are some great tools available to professional animators today, but now they need to be handed to someone with a sense of craft and a genuine story to tell.
Overall (dub) : C-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C-
Animation : A-
Art : B
Music : B
+ Gorgeous scenery and near-realistic effects showcase computer animation at its best.
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