Reviewby Carlo Santos, Dec 7th 2008
BLURAY - Special Edition
The year is 2077. For the past decade, Japan has operated on a policy of strict national isolation, achieving technological developments unknown to the rest of the world. When an international meeting with Japan's leading corporation Daiwa Heavy Industries goes awry, the United States calls upon a special task force to infiltrate the country's borders. Among them is a young woman named Vexille Serra, who is left stranded in Japan when the operation falls apart. What she discovers there is a nation mutated beyond recognition, its people completely oppressed by an all-powerful conglomerate. As Vexille struggles to get out of Japan alive, she finds herself pulled into a nation's fight to save its last shreds of humanity...
Vexille really, really wants you to know that it's saying something important. Humans good! Machines bad! CGI neat! All right, it's a little more sophisticated than that—but not that much more sophisticated. Armed with a laundry list of provocative "what-if" situations, pie-in-the-sky science, and special effects galore, this film is basically the anime world's latest tech showcase, sure to be remembered more for its grand ideas and presentation than the actual execution or quality of story. Enjoy it for what it is—a shiny, fancy sci-fi action flick—but don't buy into the self-congratulatory hype presented by the bonus features and promotional material.
If there's one part that does deserve the praise it gets, though, it's the thought-provoking ideas behind the movie, which are clearly grander and more complex than 105 minutes of film can allow. Extremist politics, biotechnological ethics, corporate hegemony, and man versus machine all sound fascinating on paper—and would probably be just as fascinating on screen if the story hadn't merely scraped the surface. Ultimately, that surface treatment turns out to be the downfall of these grand ideas, and once you start considering them in greater detail, suspension-of-disbelief questions start to arise. How does a single nation gather up enough money and resources to create a perfect physical and electromagnetic barrier? How do rampaging scrap-metal sandworms emerge as sentient beings? Oh, and why does all sci-fi weaponry involve robot drones and super-soldier powersuits that would be impossibly costly to engineer?
Answer: Because it looks cool and makes for great entertainment. And that's the other point on which Vexille succeeds, alternating action-packed set pieces with quiet moments of sci-fi grandeur. For every explosive, heart-pounding scene, there's another one that freezes time for a moment of otherworldly beauty—and the pacing achieves just the right balance between these extremes. But if the pacing works so well, that's probably because everything is carried out according to action-movie formula. Here, again, is where grand ambitions fall short: the characters and plot developments are all derived from standard blockbuster fluff, from the opening jargon-filled narration to the secret organization shenanigans to the tragic love story to the dramatic villain speech to the noble sacrifice. Clearly, having a great idea isn't the same as having a great story.
Even the animation, which is trumpeted as being this unique hybrid of live-action and computer-generated technique, meets with mixed results. The earmarks of the Appleseed production crew are all over this one, blending cel-shading with 3D modeling and motion capture, but there doesn't seem to have been that much technological advancement in the past few years. Some of the effects are indeed beautiful and unmatched—water, sky, snow, the scrap-metal monsters, one particularly epic high-speed chase through a tunnel—but the visual elements that matter the most, the characters, fall flat. High framerate and perfect linework mean nothing if the characters still amble around like robots (ironically, this proves to be the perfect cautionary tale of man versus machine). The robots and powersuits, meanwhile, are rendered in a style that looks like they wandered in from another movie, reminding us that even cutting-edge animators ought to remember the basic principles of consistency.
At least the music has a more unified theme, even if—like the story—it evokes all the sci-fi action blockbusters of the last decade or so. But that's the price to pay for having a well-established name like Paul Oakenfold handle soundtrack duties, providing the intense electronic beats that he's known for, plus a handful of insert songs. Perhaps the only music that doesn't fit is the syrupy ballad over the ending credits; what's that got to do with a tale of the future?
A strong English dub proves to be one of the highlights of this disc, and the voice talent manages to deliver their lines without descending into cheese and overacting—a particularly notable feat considering that this is a genre known for just that. Sure, you get your fair share of eye-rolling one-liners, but these characters still say each one with convincing authority. Don't listen to the dub for an accurate translation, though; this is a script that frequently sacrifices accuracy for the sake of sounding natural, sometimes even adding extra lines of dialogue where there are none, or daring to change the nuance of certain lines (watch carefully when the villain Kisaragi makes his dramatic speech about creating a master race).
With almost 2 hours of bonus content (longer than the actual movie), this is one release that lives up to the potential of Blu-Ray ... until the realization that the extras are all in standard definition. But those willing to adjust their TV settings will enjoy the hour-long making-of feature, which shows director Fumihiko Sori at his most candid as he takes the film from initial conception through production to festival premiere. However, the other main bonus feature—an extended interview about the movie's themes and various plot details—is a self-indulgent drag that is easily supplanted by reading the booklet in the disc case, which contains much of the same content.
So, does Vexille truly have something important to say? Certainly, it raises some big questions about the role of technology in society and the future of humankind—but instead of tackling those difficult questions head-on, it just dodges and shows us a slick, eye-popping action movie. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's a shame to see such potential cast aside. Obviously, Sori is an animation director and not a scientist or anthropologist or cultural critic, but it wouldn't have hurt to challenge himself a little. Even as an animator, his visual ambitions fall short after assuming that CG software comes with a tool that automatically makes everything awesome. It would be too harsh to say that Vexille is entirely a failed experiment—rather, it's an experiment that achieves some interesting results, but lacks sufficient data to be called an outright success.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : B
+ Grand ideas and well-timed pacing make this great sci-fi entertainment, along with stunning special effects and backgrounds.
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