28 June 2005 | BrandtSponseller
Visually attractive, occasionally suspenseful, but derivative, ridiculously exposition-heavy and enough with the overblown melodrama
I should note first that I'm not the biggest anime fan. I've seen a number of anime films and serials, but the genre has never quite clicked with me. If you're a huge anime fan, you might like Appleseed far more than I did.
Not that I hated it. It has some elements that were very successful. The animation is very impressive. One of my past complaints with anime has been that the artistry often looks like cut-rate Saturday morning cartoon fare. None of those low-budget shortcuts are visible here, even if another bothersome, bizarre staple of anime is present--namely that most of the characters look like Caucasians who just stepped out of a Walter Keane painting.
But the animation is all technically sophisticated, highly stylized 3D modeling. It's a bit like a complex video game world, except that the artistry is cranked up to 11. If you're at all a fan of that look, or you like immersing yourself in filmic fantasy worlds, Appleseed is worth a view for the visuals alone. There are all kinds of hip "camera movements". There is a fascinating, regular incorporation of photographic textures and photographic phenomena like explosions, smoke and water. At times, Appleseed looks as much like a computerized version of claymation as it looks like standard animation--the objects and the "people" in the film have that much weight, texture and depth.
But then there's the story. I don't usually believe that derivativeness is a flaw, but here, derivativeness is about all we're given. In terms of tone, and even a lot of very literal references, you'd achieve something like this if you put, say, Blade Runner (1982), Aliens (1986), Terminator I (1984) and II (1991), Star Wars Episodes I (1999) and II (2002), I Robot (2004), and the three Matrix films (1999 and 2003) into a blender and hit "Chop". And the references to other films do not end there. Appleseed director Shinji Aramaki even gives us one character, Briareos (voiced by James Lyon in the English language version), who inexplicably looks like Frank the bunny from Donnie Darko (2001). Of course, as in just about any anime film, there is the constant "Transformers" (1984) aesthetic--that's part of what amounts to a technological fetishism--and there have to be some nods to kaiju (Japanese monster) films.
The actual plot, which was based on manga (Japanese comic books) by Shirow Masamune, concerns a post-apocalyptic society (of course) that has attempted to create a utopia, Olympus (there are a lot of very shallow Greek mythology references). At the beginning, we see Deunan Knute (voiced by Amanada Winn Lee, or "Jennifer Proud", in the English language version) fighting off a bunch of Terminator/Transformer-like robots, Matrix-style. She's captured by a militaristic organization known as "E-SWAT", who take her to Olympus, which she didn't know existed. She learns at Olympus that there is another race of humans, "bioroids", who are genetically engineered clones, designed to "keep the peace". The bioroids cannot reproduce on their own--that was a "safety" feature built into them by humans worried that they'd otherwise take over. There is a Star Wars-styled council of elders (and occasionally congressional meetings right out of Episode II). And of course, there is a rebel faction of humans who are determined to wipe out the bioroids. Deunan ends up in the middle of all of this, partially because she is related to persons who were important in the history of Olympus, but more importantly, because she's an unstoppable, butt-kicking soldier, ala Ripley in Aliens, but given Neo-like powers, after he's had all of the kung-fu and weapons programs downloaded. The plot turns out to be something like a war between the rebel faction and the official government, in a race against time to see who'll survive and how.
As you might expect given a plot like that, Appleseed is a bit heavy on exposition--screenwriters Haruka Handa and Tsutomu Kamishiro have to explain a whole other world, including the intricacies of its politics, social problems, and a lot of technological gobbledy-gook. But you might not expect the exposition to be as heavy as it is. Voice actors frequently have to rattle off very long stretches of explanatory dialogue--this continues throughout the length of the film. They often sound like they're reading, and not much of an effort was made to make the exposition flow naturally in the story. Probably because there's absolutely no way to make such heavy handed stuff flow and not seem like a chore to listen to instead.
But even that wouldn't have to be so bad. I was reluctantly becoming acclimated to convoluted explanations, even if they remained a bit clichéd and hokey. What killed it for me, however, is that the further you go into the film, the more melodramatic it becomes. By the end, every bit of dialogue is delivered as if the fate of the world is resting on characters' feigned, overly serious concern, and annoyingly, they keep saying each other's names at least once every other sentence. I don't think a single one of these characters ever met a sense of humor. That disposition is a hard sell, and it needs far more artistry than a mishmash of genre film conventions in a predictable post-apocalyptic scenario.
Still, even though the story was growing more problematic by the minute, I found myself being slightly wrapped up in the climax. Aramaki is able to build suspense and put viewers on the edge of their seats even if they're annoyed. Imagine what he could do with a good script! I should also briefly comment on the music. Even though the score also tends to be a bit melodramatic and manipulative at times, there are a lot of good songs in the film ranging over various techno/electronica styles. If you're at all into that stuff, don't miss the soundtrack.