The second attempt at animating Shirow Masamune's manga series and following its limited theatrical release domestically, Geneon has brought Appleseed to DVD in several different editions, including this single disc release. Appleseed is set with the world in tatters, almost every square inch of it having been ravaged by war.
One of the few unspoiled territories remaining is the utopian Olympus, where humans and the genetically-engineered Bioroids theoretically live in harmony. The Bioroids are designed to help usher in an era where mankind doesn't have to live in fear of war, and an inherent part of that design involves suppressed emotions, an inability to reproduce, and a reliance on periodic treatments to sustain life. Discontent bubbles under the surface, as members of each group fear the other holds the key to its destruction. When a terrorist faction launches an assault that cripples the Bioroids who make up half of the city's population, the divisive solution appears to involve something dubbed the Appleseed. A female soldier named Deunan Knute, recently transplanted from the battlefield to Olympus, gradually discovers what the Appleseed is, what effect it could have on the future of humanity, and how it relates to her tragic, long-repressed past.
The sprawling futuristic world of Appleseed has been constructed in the digital domain. The attention to detail is remarkable -- Olympus is a bustling metropolis, and it seems at times as if each and every citizen was individually rendered and tossed somewhere into the frame at some point, and I was impressed by how intricately the battle armor would latch onto its pilots. Although the background elements boast a three-dimensional appearance, its characters, along with some of the vehicles and armor scattered throughout, are cel-shaded. It may not even be obvious from a casual glance at a single still frame from Appleseed that this is computer-generated imagery, as its characters share the same exaggerated features typically associated with anime. The filmmakers made extensive use of motion capture technology, giving these animated characters life-like movements and fluidity.
At first, the combination of the two elements seemed really jarring to me -- I've never been much of a fan of rotoscoping in traditional animation either -- but as the movie progressed, it began to seem more and more natural. The animation as a whole is genuinely impressive, and even though cries of style over substance are somewhat justified, when the "style" is at this level, that almost doesn't seem like a problem.
The movie moves at a remarkably fast clip, and at pretty much any point in Appleseed, the next battle sequence never seems to be more than three or four minutes away. One of the frequent complaints I've heard about this incarnation of Appleseed is the overwhelming amount of dialogue between the brawls, but I personally didn't think they dragged down the pace of the movie, and I have a short enough attention span to be sensitive to that most of the time. Admittedly, the plot is secondary to the action and visuals, and although I can't claim that I entirely understood what was going on throughout, it all seems to make some measure of sense by the time the climax rolls around. Characterization is virtually non-existent, and hardly anyone spends enough time on screen to do more than fire off a few rounds, spout off some exposition, or push the story wherever it's supposed to go. Even though the storytelling is deeply flawed, the core of the plot still managed to maintain my interest throughout, and that's more than I can say for a lot of movies.
Where Appleseed really excels, even moreso than its animation, is the action. I know as an online DVD reviewer, I'm supposed to be too pretentious to spout off something as hackneyed as "bad-ass", but I can't think of any better way to summarize how swift, brutal, and elaborately choreographed these sequences are. Part of one key fight has Deunan decked out in her battle suit, pummeling an armored enemy, firing several shots from a massive cannon at its apparent head at point-blank range, yanking off its cybernetic right arm, then finishing it off with a roundhouse kick.
There were several parts like that throughout Appleseed, from a plummeting shot through the forehead to the climactic assault by a small army of colossal spider-like tanks, where I'd find myself cackling "awesome!" in front of my TV. Okay, maybe that's not the sort of admission I should make to potentially thousands of people, but still, these action sequences are really what sold me on the movie.
Appleseed is better characterized as a great experience than a great movie, thanks to the explosive action, stunning visuals, and a decent, if unspectacular, sci-fi plot. The storytelling may be flimsy, clichéd, and occasionally overwrought, but I found that the movie's strengths more than made up for its shortcomings. My interest in anime is more casual than most, but I personally really enjoyed Appleseed and strongly recommend it.
Video: Flawless. Appleseed's 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation stems from a direct-digital transfer, and since it's bypassing any sort of intermediate celluloid step, blemishes such as film grain, nicks, speckling, and the like aren't a concern. Authoring flaws like artifacting and edge haloing never once creep in. The image is crisp and richly detailed, and color saturation and black levels both appear to be spot-on. The film's distinctive visuals translate beautifully to DVD, and this is one of the more impressive looking discs I've seen in an exceedingly long time.
Audio: Appleseed features a slew of six-channel mixes, including the original Japanese soundtrack in DTS as well as Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes in Japanese and English. Doing some quick and dirty A/B comparisons between the two Japanese tracks, the differences between the DTS and Dolby Digital audio seem fairly marginal. The DTS track struck me as a little punchier, and that's what's reviewed here.
I'd struggle to think of a DVD more enveloping than Appleseed, especially during its firefights. The chaotic battle sequences are teeming with effects that smoothly slide from speaker to speaker, and these unrelenting barrages of pans and discrete sound effects are immersive and remarkably effective. The movie's soundtrack features a slew of A-list electronic artists, including Basement Jaxx and Paul Oakenfold, and their contributions are naturally accompanied by monstrous, almost destructive waves of bass. In the scenes where their music takes center stage, more in the opening battle than anywhere else, the lower frequencies for some of the sound effects appear to have been dialed down a bit to make the songs stand out as much as possible.
That wouldn't have been my preference, but this appears to be an intentional decision rather than some sort of flaw or oversight. Explosions, collisions, and the incomprehensible amount of havoc wreaked for so much its 115 minute runtime otherwise continually coax a low-frequency thunder from the subwoofer. (Some owners of the DVD feel that the lack of LFE for sound effects I noticed in the first sequence is pervasive throughout the movie. Although that doesn't reflect my experience, you can read their concerns in the DVD Talk forum.) For some reason, gunfire sounds thin and insubstantial, especially compared to the numerous other sound effects in the movie.
I didn't bother with the English dub, but the Japanese dialogue comes through with remarkable clarity, often spreading convincingly across all five speakers rather than anchoring itself to the center. Optional English subtitles are offered, but the DVD is not closed captioned, nor are there subtitles or dubs in any other language. Appleseed is a sonic showcase, and if I ever found myself trying to explain the appeal of multichannel audio to a friend, this would almost certainly be the first disc I'd grab off my shelf.
Supplements: Geneon is issuing Appleseed in several different ways, including a lavish two-disc special edition. The difference in price between this single disc release and the limited edition collector's set isn't that drastic -- it looks to be a $5 to $7 premium at most online retailers -- but viewers with more of a casual interest still might find themselves drawn towards this less expensive, if less comprehensive, disc.
The only particularly notable extra on this slimmed-down DVD is an audio commentary with director Shinji Aramaki and producer Fumihiko Sori. I'm sure this sounds completely hypocritical, but even though I have no qualms watching a movie with subtitles, there's something about spending 115 minutes reading an audio commentary that doesn't strike me as particularly appealing. Maybe this makes me a terrible person, but I played the movie at a zippier speed and read the subtitles as they blazed across the screen rather than sift through them in real-time. That might be the best way to approach this track. With as technically impressive as the movie is, Aramaki and Sori rarely delve in-depth into those aspects; they frequently note what they were striving for and some of the difficulties they encountered, but they don't mention how they managed to leap over those hurdles aside from having a talented staff on-hand.
Other frequent topics of discussion include how the movie appears on DVD vs. film, what they could accomplish in 3D that would've been impossible with traditional 2D animation, viewing Appleseed as part of a new genre rather than strictly computer-rendered anime, and the differences between this incarnation of Appleseed with the earlier OVA and manga series. Overall, it's an alright discussion, but it's not an essential listen (or read, depending on how you interpret that).
The DVD also offers direct access to scenes with music cues by Boom Boom Satellites and Paul Oakenfold. The five cues (four for Boom Boom Satellite, one for Oakenfold) can be viewed individually or consecutively. Plugs for the movie's soundtrack and other Geneon releases are also provided, and the extras are rounded out by brief biographies for some of the talent involved and a list of DVD credits. The disc includes a set of impressively animated 16x9 menus, and the movie's 34 chapter stops are listed on a provided insert. The DVD comes packaged in an eye-catching embossed slipcase.
Conclusion: As the screen cut to black and the end credits began their upward crawl, my initial reaction wasn't to perch myself in front of my computer, hammer out a review, and move onto the next movie. I wanted to watch Appleseed again immediately, and it's rare for a movie to have that sort of effect on me. Even if the animation had been plainer and the soundtrack less bombastic, the passable story and spectacular action sequences are of a sufficiently high quality that I'd still be writing a positive review, but the fact that the video and audio are both so exceptional make this DVD an easy recommendation. Viewers intrigued with what goes into a production on this scale should consider picking up one of the special edition packages instead of this single disc release, but regardless of your appetite for extras, Appleseed is very much worth adding to any collection of animated action. Highly Recommended.
Related Reviews: Chris Tribbey has written an extensive review of the limited edition if you're curious about the differences between the various releases or even if you'd just like a second opinion on the movie itself.