It was with some slight trepidation that I sat down to watch Appleseed Ex Machina this weekend; the completely CGI anime is a sequel to the 2004 Appleseed, with both being based on Masamune Shirow‘s classic 1985 manga. Being a fan of the original printed version (and Shirow’s work in general), I found little in the first film beyond it’s impressive visuals to get me excited, sadly.
For those of you with no prior experience, the background to the Appleseed series is kind of interesting. Set some point in the 22nd century, after a non-nuclear war has destroyed 90% of world civilisation, it tells the story of the rise of Olympus, a high-tech floating city-state. Apparently utopian at first glance, the city is populated by a mixture of baseline humans, cyborgs and ‘bioroids’; genetically engineered humans designed with altered emotions to bring peace and stability to the city. For both the reader of the manga and the viewer of these two films, our point of view into this world is through the two main protagonists and lovers; female human Deunan Knute and the once human but now fully cyborg Briareos Hecatonchires. Both veterans of the war, they find themselves trying to adjust to life in Olympus, whilst also being recruited into ESWAT, a high-tech special weapons police unit detailed with keeping the peace in the so-called Utopian city. In the original Shirow uses this environment to explore the moral, political and social issues raised by this very artificial utopia, whilst also showcasing the beautifully visualised technology, gadgets, weapons and mecha that he is famed for. Unfortunately, while the movies deal with the latter in exhilarating style, it’s with the former thematic issues where they start to disappoint.
But let’s look at the positives first. Visually the film rarely fails to impress; the city of Olympus, its inhabitants and their technology and weapons are all rendered in a colourful, bold, energetic style. Of special note are the Landmate Mechas; the distinctive powered fighting suits that the ESWAT members ride into combat, which look like they’ve stepped off the page of the manga, matching Shirow’s designs perfectly and moving in subtly realistic ways. Gone is the slightly cell-shaded style of the first film, that aimed to make the characters look more hand drawn, in favour of a pure-CGI look, which while probably appeasing the many fans that disliked the look of the first film, I can’t help wondering if it doesn’t make the film seem slightly colder. Certainly the only place where the film failed visually for me at times was when depicting human characters, and especially their expressions…faces seemed too plastic, too clean and somewhat lifeless. While motion capture was clearly used for character movement, it looks very unlikely that it was for faces – probably due to budget and time constraints – and at times it’s clear much more attention has been lavished on the intricacies of the mecha and their weapons than on bestowing life into the protagonists. While a deeper, more challenging narrative would have used the emotionless plasticity of both the human and bioroid characters to subtly infer something about the true nature of Olympus, instead AsDE’s weak plot leaves it instead feeling like you’re watching yet another video game cut-scene.
Which is exactly where I started to have problems with the film. It borrows heavily, and faithfully, from computer game aesthetics – and there are a lot of times when this approach works perfectly. The action scenes are at times breathtaking, especially the aerial combat scenes between the Landmates, and are almost enough on their own to recommend the film. In fact, if like me, you are a mecha freak then the film is definitely worth seeing for these designs and action sequences. Similarly if, god forbid, you’re some sort of Michael Bay loving explosions freak, then you’ll have fun. But sadly the borrowing from video games doesn’t end there, and it feels like the producers take too many pointers from one area where games are famously weak: plot.
I mean there is some plot here, something painfully obvious about a new consumer technology (an actually quite cool looking, but never really explained in any detail, augmented reality cell phone type system) being used to control the actions of it’s users. And there’s even a sub-plot, with the introduction of a new character cloned from Briareos’ DNA, so that he looks exactly like the cyborg before he went full-op – which of course leads to weird if predictable emotional reactions from the two central characters – even hinting at a painful love triangle – but this never goes anywhere and is almost forgotten by the third act, despite being probably the script’s most potentially interesting angle. Instead the plot feels all too much like videogame padding between levels – sorry – action sequences, culminating in an impressive final battle that looks a little too much like an end of game boss encounter (and even worse, slightly like the fall of Zion in the third, terrible Matrix film). The problem was, despite how frenetic the action was at this point, with the plot failing to grip me I found myself wondering whether I really cared any more.
Which is, sadly, why I was ultimately disappointed with Appleseed Ex Machina. Coming from being a fan of the manga, it seemed an awful waste to, again, not try and tackle the subtle but important themes that Shirow pre-occupies himself with in the original. Especially when you contrast the dense, sometimes dizzying, philosophical and political plots Shirow’s most successful adaptations; Production IG’s and Mamoru Oshii‘s famous Ghost in the Shell movies and TV series. Disappointing, like I say, but still fun in places. If you’re into mecha, high-tech video-game violence or just uber-cool CGI in general, it’s still worth checking out. Just don’t expect to be intellectually challenged, or to be able to skip the more boring cut-scenes by hitting ‘A’ on your gamepad.