March 11, 2008

Appleseed: Ex Machina


Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): **½ (higher for mecha die-hards)

Appleseed: Ex Machina is a follow-up to the popular first new Appleseed movie (there was a halfway decent 1988 cel-animated Appleseed as well), which was based on the characters created by Masamune Shirow in the manga of the same name. If you haven't seen the first one, don't fret - a quick, expository narration covers all the basics at the beginning. For the most part Ex Machina's a slight improvement over the original, which also looked terrific and yet featured even clunkier dialogue and plotting.

Set in 2131 AD, the story centers around a female soldier named Deunan Knute, who survived the Third World War and now lives in the utopian city-nation of Olympus. Deunan is involved romantically with her partner Briareos, a veteran soldier who happens to be more cyborg than human at this point; both serve in E.S.W.A.T., an elite special forces unit working to protect Olympus, which is run by AI and by bioroids, genetically engineered humanoids. The main plot here has the two lover-fighters finding their partnership tested in a new way by the arrival of Tereus, an experimental bioroid. (Olympus, Tereus, Briareos...the whole film is hit or myth.) When random violence by groups of terrorist cyborgs begins to escalate during a global summit, it's up to the E.S.W.A.T. team -- Robo-cops wearing suits that look like Transformers -- to save themselves and, oh yes, the course of mankind.

The CGI-anime hybrid design gives us colorful, gorgeously realized backdrops and foregrounds mixed with stiffer character design, only a cut above those found in the average Thunderbirds episode. While those two elements make for an awkward fusion, one can get used to it if things get rolling. And the plot here, derivative as it sometimes is, does grab more than I'd expected. The enticing action shouldn't come as much of a surprise since John Woo was the producer and definitely had a hand in things. (One amusing in-joke for Woo fans happens right at the opening credits when his name appears just as a flock of birds scatter from a ruined church, surely a reference to one of his favorite visual metaphors.)

The spunky heroine Deunan is a winning enough lead, and Briareos has his charms, but most of the other characters are relatively indistinguishable. The Japanese audio track with subtitles had less in the way of eye-rolling dialogue than the English dub, but both offer their share of corniness. The voice actors for the latter are decent, however, even if a few too many of the male characters sound to all have come from the Nick Nolte School of Gruff Voice Acting. Star Trek: The Next Generation aficionados will sniff a bit of the Borg in the way the plot unfolds and in the villain's look and floating puzzle cube, but the climax is engaging enough.

Fans of mecha anime will particularly dig Appleseed Ex Machina, for the action and art design are way above average. Those who don't care for people in giant robot suits and a lot of explosions will probably have less interest, but it's worth a look as fast-paced action and eye candy.

By the way, the pulsing electronica music score here is by Cornelius, and while I'm a big fan of his work there were times when I found it rather intrusive. It screamed of "Buy this cool soundtrack!"

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Posted by cphillips at March 11, 2008 12:15 PM
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