Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
Expelled from Paradise
Angela Balzac is one of the top agents at DEVA, a posh all-VR space station where only an elite few humans can live in absolute perfection, their personalities digitized into a mainframe that supplies them anything they could ever want, so long as they contribute to the continued prosperity of their home station. Recently, this virtual reality paradise has been invaded by messages from an unknown entity called "Frontier Setter," imploring citizens to abandon their virtual lives on DEVA and join him in an interstellar flight to explore the galaxy. The requests are upsetting to the pampered denizens of the VR world, and the admins at DEVA aren't sure what to make of this threat, so they grow a clone body for Angela and send her to earth to investigate the source of these suspicious signals.
Once on earth, the haughty and impatient Angela meets up with her contact, a pragmatic and devil-may-care gaucho named Dingo. He immediately takes advantage of her arrival, hijacking her super-advanced combat robot for scrap and using its weapons to harvest oodles of sandworm meat for sale to fellow merchants. Angela is furious, but he assures her there are mission-related reasons to cut her off from DEVA, and so the two are forced to work together on the desolate dust-ball that once was Earth, searching for the enigmatic "Frontier Setter."
It's rare to see an anime movie released with such a strong, yet entirely mysterious pedigree behind it. Seiji Mizushima and Gen Urobuchi are both well-established voices in their industry, but they've never worked on a project together before, so it makes sense to have high expectations for "something," while having no idea what that "something" will be. As a director and writer, their styles and interests in subject matter diverge greatly. Mizushima has a simple, meandering sense of humor not found in Urobuchi's brutally direct tragedy tangles. The most obvious commonality they share is that both men are known for making politically charged works that mask their intensity through fantasy and science fiction trappings.
So it may come as a surprise that the debut collaboration between these artists, Expelled from Paradise, is most notable for being heart-meltingly sweet. This is a positive case of trailer deception where the commercials for the film belie a strength rather than weakness. Yes, there are big ideas and even bigger explosions at play in this movie, but the story's firmest lasting impression comes from its profound tenderness. The world may be large, but the stakes aren't world-ending. The conflict is small, centered entirely around three lovable characters and the bonds they share despite holding widely divergent views of their world. Animosity turns to friendship turns to romance, and it's all delivered with a thoughtful gentleness a breed apart from what all those robots, sandworms, and VR spaces might imply.
That doesn't mean those elements are neglected, though. On the contrary, Mizushima's chops as an action director get their full due here, and the spectacle on display is entertaining from the first second to the credit roll. The story is mostly mystery and character drama, but it has the good sense to space its action scenes out along a sharp, tight line most reminiscent of the pacing in a Hollywood action movie (maybe more one from the 80s than the modern day.) The action strikes when it matters most and never becomes redundant or showy for its own sake, although there are a number of showstopping scenes that pop up mostly when Angela has had enough. The film's last 10-15 minutes are nonstop robot action that travels from the virtual world to outer space to earth and never stops churning in transit, apart from a few lovely character moments that are well worth the little break.
Despite the heaping helpings of robot battles and virtual reality martial arts, the movie's really at its best when Angela, Dingo, and the mysterious Frontier Setter are just talking to one another, and the movie's direction is at its best in these moments as well. Scenes that could have been dry mystery-solving exposition become charming exercises in character-building, through little things like Angela's gradually changing reaction to earth food, and the disparate reaction all three characters have to one "old" j-rock song. Mizushima's sense of humor comes through strong in the staging of these scenes, making it clear that this action-heavy half-dystopia has no problem rolling around in its own silliness for minutes on end in order to build character. The standout example of Expelled from Paradise's happy marriage between script and direction comes when Dingo and Angela must set up a remote camera to spy on Frontier Setter, and blow through about five solid minutes of mystery-solving exposition in the process. What could have been a dry filler scene is transformed into a comedic duel of worldviews as Angela scales a ruined tower to plant the camera and becomes progressively more exhausted both from staircase upon staircase and Dingo's flippant dismissal of all her deductions and ideas. There's no reason two characters talking over the radio while one scales an abandoned building should be this entertaining, but it's one of the most memorable scenes in the movie.
Needless to say, that means Expelled from Paradise is not actually about what it appears to be about. More and more, Gen Urobuchi has displayed a tendency toward "semiotic subversion" in his scripts. In other words, he has a tendency to write extremely familiar genre premises that have certain thematic expectations attached, and then make his own story's theme completely different, while also suggesting that he knows that's not how the game he chose is supposed to be played. This genre self-awareness is often mistaken for deconstruction, and in fairness, there is a case to be made for some of Urobuchi's work as true deconstruction, but most of the time, his subversions have a simpler goal, and Expelled from Paradise is the clearest example of this.
On the surface, this story of an arrogant virtual reality "angel" falling to earth and being forced to live with the common, animalistic people would be about serving her a dish of humble pie and arguing for the virtues of flawed reality over a perfect world that "isn't real." Expelled from Paradise does address this conflict, but then sweeps it under the rug with a big fat "Who cares?" The fact is that DEVA does seem like a pretty perfect place to be. It was constructed by mankind with all the best intentions, and while there are virtues of the flesh to be had and strength to be built through adversity on earth, nobody really wants to suffer for some false sense of superiority or humility, not even Dingo. Your actions and choices define you as a person, and if Angela prefers living without a body in Paradise, or Dingo prefers the freedom of uncertainty on Earth, that makes them the people that only they can be, and the universe is richer for both viewpoints.
Of course, the key word in all that is "choice," and this turns out to be the movie's true focus. The film's question is not one of "real vs. virtual," but "happiness vs. freedom," and it argues firmly for one side of that equation over the other through the welcome addition of Frontier Setter, who also blows the "real vs. virtual" argument further into irrelevance. Whatever path you choose, Expelled from Paradise asserts, let it be your own. It's all well and good to seek happiness through your choices, but it should never be at the expense of your own freedom of choice. The moment you lose the power to choose your own life, even the greatest happiness can become dull, and more importantly, you'll never be able to create happiness for others through your own decisions. Angela grows up over the course of the film, not because she "grows out of" virtual reality, but because she grows into a personal sense of responsibility that realizes happiness can change often in one lifetime, but freedom can outlive you in surprising ways.
These simple but resonant ideas are carried through the film's excellent score and sound design as much as the story itself. The aforementioned j-rock song is central to the story, reprised in several different incarnations, both diegetic and non, to communicate different moods and ideas throughout the movie. Expelled from Paradise's music isn't all self-serious action, electronica, and dark ballads, but peppered with light, energetic, uplifting pieces and playful melodies that lend the movie much of its surprising cuddliness. By contrast, the robot artillery is heavy and floor-shaking, and the virtual world is thick with pounding, echoing buzzes that fill its cavernous spaces with an imposing weight. The gravity of DEVA's power comes through great in those sequences, and it's the balance of heavy and light, along with some well-placed silence, that sets the aural element of Expelled from Paradise far above expectations and makes for a great in-movie and even standalone soundtrack.
Unfortunately, this brings up the visual component of the whole experience, which is so disappointing that it threatens to sink the film despite its many laudable elements. The art itself is certainly not the problem. Expelled from Paradise has been lauded as the peak achievement thus far in developing the "cel-look" style of CG animation from Japan. It's CGI that's intended to look like hand-drawn anime, and in still frames, it definitely does. In the moments where Expelled from Paradise slows down, freezes, or pans out to display its more sweeping vistas, it could very easily be mistaken for a 2-D anime film. It's not just in wide shots, either. There are a few extreme closeups on Angela's face that look exactly like hand-drawn cels, and it's clear that there's some promise in the concept through the attractive and mostly well-rendered art.
The devil lies in the animation itself, and the execution of this stylistic concept just doesn't work at all. In an effort to replicate the "every three frames" limited animation minimalism of its 2-D equivalent, frames have been cut from the CG-rendered scenes so that characters' poses jump and jerk in an anime-like way, but the disconnect in translation to 3-D is massive. Watching limited animation in 2-D still manages to creates an illusion that the viewer is watching "real characters," and for whatever reason the brain fills in the gap between the less fluid pose-to-pose transitions as "motions unseen" that were still actually made by the little flat characters in this fantasy world. In 3-D, we know that these 3-D objects can move fluidly at all times without extra cost, (just extra rendering time,) so the "intentional" jerky stuttering only achieves the feeling of watching a video game that's being run on an outdated computer, or marionettes being bounced around and abruptly posed, not actual characters. They look and feel like dolls, and their actions are equally weightless. This is most apparent in the characters' lip flaps, which have been animated to resemble the limited style of 2-D anime, but once again, while the viewer's brain can make an easy connection between the limited animation mouth and a fully articulated human voice in two dimensions, the instant it's moved to three, the intentional slowdown just makes it look like bad lip sync.
90% of the movie's visual problems would be solved by keeping the cel-style character models and just not cutting the framerate at all. There's imitating anime-style and then there's being shackled to it, and Expelled from Paradise falls firmly on the latter side, because thanks to the limping framerate, there's literally nothing in the movie (apart from maybe the robots or VR environment,) that couldn't be communicated just as well, if not better by 2-D. After all, the 3-D models still have trouble communicating a sense of weight that limited 2-D animation can do quite easily. There's not much room to squash and stretch the 3-D models either, and this film even seems hesitant to tarnish them with blood or dirt in a way that would be effortless for a 2-D version of the same scenes. That still leaves the 10% problem of genuinely poor artistic choices like the stiff spaghetti hair that drifts physics-free in chunks to the detriment of many scenes. It's by far the best-looking Japanese CG animated film in recent memory and perhaps yet made, but the framerate slicing in the animation really cuts the movie's legs off when it comes to getting immersed in its spectacle.
Aniplex's LE release of the film comes with the requisite postcard (or "pin-up card" as it is softer and bendier), art booklet, and an extras disc. The art booklet is packed with concept art, development sketches, and final versions of pretty much every character and significant item in the film, along with a solid, lengthy interview with screenwriter Gen Urobuchi. The interview gets waist-deep into the movie's ideas and Urobuchi's thoughts on the appeal of sci fi overall, but the real gem of the discussion is what real soft-rock song inspired the film's central musical statement, "Eonian." The extras disc contains a subtitled trailer reel and 30-minute making-of with Seiji Mizushima and his art/animator team. Unfortunately, more time is spent praising the film as a technological achievement than exploring the process in this extra, which gets a little awkward considering what the movie looks like in execution.
Bang Zoom's english dub for the movie is competent at best, but pales dramatically to the Japanese track in giving these characters the necessary amount of warmth and depth to make their story stick. Of the three main characters, Steve Blum's Dingo is the most successful, honest and easygoing if not slightly on autopilot. He mostly just coasts through where the other two central characters fail more noticeably. In the case of Johnny Yong Bosch's Frontier Setter, the casting is sound on paper, but some terrible error was made in the voice direction that he should deliver his lines as affably robotic as possible, which steals all the emotional charm away from the most warm and heroic member of the trio. (The number of lines with exclamation points in the subtitles of his dialogue that sound like faint periods in the dub is disheartening.) Wendee Lee's Angela is the ultimate nail in the coffin for this dub, though. Angela is the most emotional and physically strained character in the movie, but Lee's delivery of lines like "This is so frustrating!" or "I'm in a bad mood!" ring perky, overacted, and false. Scenes where the character is sick or exhausted don't play well either, delivered in pleasant, robotic anime-girl voice without much vulnerability or genuine emotion. Performances are flat and detached across the board, and it seems like Dingo, by virtue of his character traits, just escaped these problems most easily. (Side note: Eonian is not dubbed when either Dingo or Frontier Setter sing bars of it.)
To make matters worse, the dub's adaptive script, while not inaccurate, is often transformative to the detriment of natural-sounding dialogue. (There is one major inaccuracy caused by script finagling when the term "artificial intelligence" is swapped in for the very different term "cyber personality" to narrative incongruity.) It's not that the dub script is inaccurate, just overly packed with adverbs, passive voice, and mid-sentence pauses that didn't exist in the Japanese version, sometimes not even in the interest of matching flap. (There are awkward pauses in convoluted sentences even when the camera is not on the characters' mouths.) This is one of the best examples:
SUB: "You aren't afraid of me. I wonder why. That's my point. You ought to get it. That we digitized humans are the next stage in human evolution."
DUB: "It's strange. I can't help but wonder...why is it you aren't afraid of me? It's for that reason...you must have realized by now...the fact that we digitized humans are inevitably going to be the next stage in human evolution."
It's a listenable dub, but that's about it. The Japanese version is strongly recommended for connecting to the emotional core of the movie.
This movie has, as Dingo might put it, a "tough row to hoe." Narratively, Expelled from Paradise blows every American animated movie of 2014 out of the water, but visually, even at the current peak of this cel-style's technology, it comes in dead last. It's a blessing that the story can win out over these technical limitations in the end, and underneath the handicapped animation is a terrific sci fi film: chock-a-block with action, understated in its maturity, but most of all just plain adorable.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : C-
Art : B
Music : A
+ Sharp direction alongside strong writing, packs compelling action around a warm and thoughtful center, exceptional use of musical score and sound design, likely the best-looking Japanese CG film yet made
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