AVALON. 2001

Director: Mamoru Oshii

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

The Japanese director of the classic anime The Ghost in the Shell makes an arty science fiction live-action film with a Polish cast. Avalon is dubbed a la Fellini or Leone for each market. The English language release works as well as any other internationally-targeted film; there's at least no sense that everyone should've been speaking Polish, though it might've been interesting to see it in Polish with subtitles.

The story is set in a dystopian future where the world's population is increasingly addicted by virtual reality warfare played with players' consciousness inside a computer.

The game seems to have no actual purpose except its own violent perpetuation. Whoever is not playing the game is watching others play it until their own turn comes up, as there are 3-D projections of the events that meet the same addiction-need as cinema & television does for us today. Points won while actually playing the game are the coin of the realm, so playing Avalon is not just a national pasttime, it's an economic necessity, it's a job.

A "purpose" arises when some individuals become permanently trapped within (perhaps willingly fused with) the virtual landscapes, like ghostly souls capable of changing the nature of the game -- in essence souls that have become viruses, developing new "levels" of the game impenetrable by the dystopian powers that be.

Killing these presences becomes the purpose of the game, for if they were allowed to perpetuate, they'll increasingly make the game & the players less controllable. A famed woman fighter in the Avalon game is Ash, & she becomes obsessed with finding the hidden levels & encountering the virus-like soul-warrior Bishop.

The visual presentation is artful throughout, every scene as beautifully arranged as the frames of the classiest of graphic novels. I would've been even more impressed if I hadn't just seen Immortal which even more perfecty blends anime design-work with live-action performances, creating an exaggeratedly aesthetic future.

Played with complete seriousness (unlike Mamoru's earlier & vastly less effective live-action films), the influence of Matrix on Avalon is perhaps a little too palpable to regard this as greatly original. A few fascinating visual elements seem to strain to be different from The Matrix but by their very similarity end up reminding the viewer that The Matrix, whether or not as good a film as it thinks it is, has smoother art design.

I actually like Avalon more than Matrix, but do wish it more strongly stood on its own merits without such obvious borrowings. There is an added sense of Kafkaesque East European influences that makes Avalon less slickly fashionable than Matrix, which is what makes Avalon rather the better film, even if derivative. It may be flawed, but among films with Virtual Reality themes, this is heads above the average.

Matrix of course took many of its influences from Japanese anime so it's only fair that one of the best anime directors would bring the influences full circle. The same existentialism renders some of the sequences befuddling if viewed literally rather than symbolically, but if one pays extremely close attention, or views the film twice, even some of the seemingly irrational events do have meaning & internal consistency. That it's somewhat a struggle to keep track of the plot & intentions is partly due to needless complexities, but it is in equal part the director's refusal to keep science fiction simpleminded.

The story remains fundamentally of the comic book & anime world, but that doesn't seem to matter. Quite often the limited acting that can be achieved with animation drags down some pretty good stories, whereas Avalon gives real actors the opportunity to emote with more than their voices.

For a science fiction film with so many strange images, it is actually very slowly paced, & will doubtless bore some viewers. But the pacing is typical of European films, & even the animated feature Ghost in the Shell was slowly paced for an action story, so fans of the director shouldn't be put off. Personally long static moments of Ash in her apartment doing "normal" things in between visits to Avalon were for me some of the most intriguing sequences, even though devoid of action.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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