Reviewby Theron Martin,
In the wake of a devastating world war that nobody won, two soldiers-turned-mercenaries find themselves working for local thug Two-Horns in order to make a living. One, Briareos, is a Hecatonchires, an advanced model cyborg that is practically legendary for its capabilities, though damage and power issues have Briareos initially functioning at well below optimal levels. The other, Deunan Knute, is a highly capable young woman who has long fought alongside Briareos. Deunan dreams of finding the rumored city of Olympus, a haven for surviving humankind, while Briareos remains the skeptical realist. While performing one last job for Two-Horns, the duo come across and rescue from trouble Olson and his charge Iris, who are on a special mission of their own but are initially reluctant to talk about where they come from or what their goal is. Iris's mission has also caught the attention of Trident, a group that seeks to reform and rebuild the world, and its leader Talos, a former associate of Olson. That only leads to trouble for Briareos and Deunan, but in helping Iris that duo finds something that they had long been lacking: a purpose.
Although previous entries in the Appleseed franchise have touched on what Briareos and Deunan were doing in the time before coming to Olympus, none of them made it a focal point. This 2014 movie changes that by instead having the story entirely set in the time before the two come to Olympus. In the process it also retcons a substantial chunk of established franchise lore, hence making this tale the beginning of an alternate timeline. Thus Alpha is friendly enough to franchise newcomers to be an entry point to the overall story. Newcomers may miss a few subtle references to the Olympus-based storylines, but that's it.
The biggest and most immediately obvious change to established franchise fans is that Briareos starts the story as a cyborg rather than becoming one upon being brought to Olympus, with an implication that he has been that way for long enough for his Hecatonchires nature to become lost technology. No connection between Briareos and Deunan's father is ever established, either; in fact, how the two fell in with each other is never explained or really even hinted at. Established fans may also notice that some elements from previous franchise installments pop up here in different contexts, such as the distinctive combat suit used by the ESWAT members in Olympus or something akin to the walking gun platforms from the first CG Appleseed movie.
The actual storytelling has never been one of the franchise's strong points, and this entry is, unfortunately, no different. Nothing about the story seems fresh or new, whether looked at from the viewpoint of the franchise or post-apocalyptic tales in general, nor are any of the characterizations. As a result, nearly everything that happens in the roughly 90 minutes of actual animation is entirely predictable, with the only minor surprises being that Iris proves not to be entirely helpless in a fight and that a VTOL somehow lands at one point without anyone hearing it – and yes, the latter one is not a surprise in a good sense. The one thing that the story does offer that the franchise hasn't often been explicit about is a concrete explanation for where the title comes from, and that does not come up until the post-credits epilogue. The story does not put on any airs about being deeply philosophical (a la Appleseed XIII) or waste much time on searching for deeper meaning than “the world sucks, but it's survivable if you can find a reason for living,” and does not go much in depth on the characterizations, so what you see on the surface is what you get.
Of course, few actually watch the franchise for its story; viewing Alpha is all about the visuals and has been ever since the CG-dominated entries started getting produced. In that regard the movie does not disappoint, as the all-CG effort is the sharpest that the franchise has ever looked. The detail level is incredible, to the point that viewers can make out individual strands of hair on Deunan's head or the imperfections on the skin of the exposed part of her upper torso, and background and equipment detail is second to none in CG-produced anime to date. The animation, much of which was apparently based on motion and facial capture technology, carefully articulates facial movements for the few characters who actually can be seen talking and provides a bit more expressiveness than what has been seen in past CG efforts, hence limiting the “frozen face” phenomenon commonly present in CG works. It skimps not at all on animating anything, down even to the way characters shift their postures while standing, and produces some spectacular action sequences as a result. The animation isn't perfect, as in places certain movements seem unnatural (the way a Humvee flips in one scene) or ill-timed; that the animation grade is only an A- should be regarded as applying to a much tougher standard that I normally hold more conventionally-animated anime titles to and as a reflection of the fact that, as good as this animation is, it still could have been a little better. However, it still has vastly richer and more articulated animation than any anime TV series. Fan service consists of occasional shots that seem to emphasize Deunan's chest or peek down her cleavage (and the design of the clothing and equipment she wears certainly makes that easy to emphasize!), but bloodshed in the ample graphic violence is virtually non-existent; in fact, Deunan seems to miraculously come out of everything without a scratch despite a lack of full protective clothing and being in situations where at least a few scrapes, cuts, and/or bruises should have been expected. In other words, the content is strictly kept to the PG-13 rating on the packaging.
The musical score emphasizes harder-edged and more progressive sounds, with heavier blends of techno being common. The timing of their use is sometimes awkward, but even beyond that the score strains to smoothly apply the dramatic effects that it wants from the music. As a result, the music's ability to enhance the effectiveness of dramatic scenes is limited.
The main language track for the Blu-Ray release of the movie is English, and the credits suggest that the motion capture for the animation was based on the English voice actors. (Dubs for French, Spanaish, and Portuguese are also available, but not Japanese; credits for one do exist, but it must be on a Japan-only release.) Luci Christian and David Matranga reprise their performances from all previous Sentai-produced dubs for the two lead roles, and each does a fine job with those roles. Wendel Calvert, who has done only bit parts in anime prior to this, is a good fit as Two-Horns and the rest of the cast is capable but unexceptional. Since the animation was done for the English track, the integration is, of course, flawless. Subtitles are available in English, French, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Though the English dub is provided by Sentai Filmworks, the actual release of the movie comes by way of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Separate Blu-Ray and DVD versions are available. The Blu-Ray version includes filmmaker's commentary and an 11 part “making of” documentary, both of which are fairly standard fare for what they are; the latter is really mostly for those who want to “geek out” (to use some slang which actually appears in the English dub) on the technical details. The Blu-Ray also includes a special code for viewing the movie online via Vudu and Ultraviolet, although the code can only be used once.
Overall, Appleseed Alpha is certainly worth watching for the visuals and as a decent post-apocalyptic action-adventure story, though it offers little to anyone seeking a richer and more involved viewing experience. It is set up as if intended to start a new branch of the franchise, but at the time of this review nothing has yet been announced to that effect.
Overall (dub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : C+
+ Exceptional artistry, mostly excellent, good voice work.
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