I’d been sat on Vexille for a while before watching it, to be honest. After the disappointment I felt from seeing the last Appleseed movie, I wasn’t sure if I could face another cold looking, mecha based, entrely CGI anime. But there’s an important fact that kept slipping my mind about Vexille, and that revitalised my interest every time I remembered it – that its the second movie from director Fumihiko Sori.
Sori, for the uninitiated, is probably best known for directing the live action Japanese film Ping Pong back in 2002. A small, gentle, touching but often very funny movie about friendships and rivalries between table tennis obsessed teenage boys, it became a huge favourite in our household after we caught a showing of it at the Bath Film Festival a few years ago. It’s a movie that works completely because of characterization, dialogue and the emotional relationships between the central characters, and with this in mind I was hopeful that Sori might breath some life and depth into the mechanical looking Vexille, seeing that he had sole responsibility for writing, directing and editing.
For a start, Vexville has a far more promising and involved premise than Appleseed. It’s 2077, and the UN has imposed severe limitations on the development of AI, robotics and nanotechnology, fearing that their unmonitored use could pause a threat to human civilisation. This has, quite understandably, pissed off Japan, who are the world leaders in this field, and have adopted a policy of isolationism, and taken this to an extreme never quite seen before. While they still trade with the outside world – selling robot and weapon technology to the highest bidders, they have literally sealed off the country using a powerful electromagnetic thingamybob field, which blocks all communication and observation including satellite photography, and no foreigner has set foot on Japanese soil for over a decade. Enter the eponymous Vexille, a female UN anti-terrorist agent and her squad of hi-tech commandos, tasked with sneaking through and then disabling the magic field so that UN snoopers can have a good look at what’s really going on.
And it’s here that things do start to get a little interesting. Without spoiling the big reveal too much for you, Vexille from this point onwards depicts a Japan that has undergone a singularity. For those of you not familiar with the concept, and who can’t be arsed the read that wikipedia link, the singularity is a point in the future where technological acceleration, and specifically the development of artificial intelligence, get to a point where machines are more intelligent than man. It’s a very common theme in contemporary science fiction, and in many ways has been used to create a slightly more utopian backlash against the dystopian worlds presented in cyberpunk. While writers like William Gibson used cybernetics and AI to paint images of hyper-corporate, corrupt societies, singularity writers use them to create worlds where scarcity and poverty are history, and nanotechnology is used to clean up the environment that science had previously wrecked. I won’t bore you with my involved views on the concept, but needless to say I’m sceptical. As a scientific principal it seems sound – if you disregard the fact that AI research has failed, for decades, to make the developments it has promised. But as a social concept I’m far more sceptical, not just of the the singularity itself, but of utopias in general. And as a device in science fiction, well that’s where I really have issues. While some writers have handled the concept well, for many it seems to me that it’s become more a way of repositioning science (and as a result scientists) as mankind’s godlike saviours, after years of cyberpunk chipping away at it’s ivory tower. Too often it feels too much like the utopian pop SF of the 1950s, where everyone sat around waiting for their nuclear powered hovercars, robot butlers and daytrips to venus, instead of trying to deal with the social issues of the time.
Okay, rant over. Again, while trying to avoid spoilers, what Vexille does is present a Japan post singularity where things are as pretty far from a utopia as you can get. And while it’s not the first SF movie to take this angle – arguably both Terminator and The Matrix do the same thing – it does it in a far more contemporary way, using popular singularity fiction ideas like nanotechnology, uploading and the physical re-shaping of the environment to create its own dystopian hell. And largely it works, even when some of the ideas verge on the more fantastic and unbelievable. What I mean by works is that it’lll be enough to get up the backs of the likes of Ray Kurzweil and everyone else that’s sipped the trans/posthumanist Kool Aid, and that’s fine by me.
Sadly, despite this over-arching theme of the failed, de-humanising singularity, there’s not much else plot wise to get excited about. After the setting has been established we’re treated instead to a fairly predictable and largely uninspiring parade of action sequences, set pieces and high speed chases. Even more disappointingly, considering Sori’s pedigree, characters are largely two dimensional and the dialogue is uninspiring, and we find ourselves back in familiar Appleseed territory. I’m not sure why this is in particular an issue for purely CGI anime; whether it’s because the script has to work harder to offset the clinical visuals, or whether its because studios are still concentrating too much on the production technology than the writing, but it’s something that’s haunted the sub-genre since Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Unlike some critics, I don’t subscribe to the opinion that CGI anime will always be artistically inferior to it’s hand-drawn relatives, but on the evidence so far it is hard not to argue against it being cold and emotionless.
Which brings us to the visuals. I’d love to say that Vexille is another CGI tour-de-force, but sadly much of the time it fails to impress in this area too. There are some fantastic moments – especially the sprawling US city scenes and the wonderful fly-bys of the bustling Japanese shanty towns, but a lot of the time you can’t help feeling that you’ve seen it all before. The mecha designs, whilst being perhaps more realistic looking in an industrial design sense, seem flat and un-stylish compared to the Shirow created Landmates of Appleseed. And at other times it feels like it borrows imagery too heavily from films like Mad Max, Dune and even Star Wars without leaving its own personal touch. Don’t get me wrong – it’s by no means ugly or aesthetically unpleasing at any point, it just has a tendency to feel rather dull and flat.
So, is it worth seeing? Yeah, I guess so. If you’re interested in singularity theories but don’t want to dive into too much detail, and you’re not yet bored of high-tech CGI action, then give it a go. If you want proper characterisation and depth with your sci-fi anime, then look elsewhere. Personally, i’m starting to feel a little fed up with CGI mecha action, and believe me, that’s something I never really expected myself to say.