2004's Appleseed was one of the more interesting anime features of the past several years, with a unique blend of both traditional anime cel animation and more ambitious CGI environments that helped catch both the intimate character study and larger epic sweep of that familiar anime trope, the dystopian future society dominated by machines and evil androids. Ex Machina is a suitably excellent follow-up to the first feature, even more impressive visually and with the added punch of some incredibly visceral action sequences influenced by and in some cases planned by producer John Woo. If the film is at times patently derivative and not exactly brilliantly scripted, it provides enough rollercoaster moments that most anime fans will find it a worthwhile romp, one splendidly splendid to watch and listen to.
The first film dealt largely with the backstory of heroine Deunan and her cyborg boyfriend Briareos (who, due to his enormous mechanical bunny ears, can't help but conjure images of a robotic Donnie Darko), both of whom are special forces operatives in a future police force known as ESWAT, dedicated to keeping the peace in a supposedly Utopian new civilization called Olympus. Of course any fan of anime will know going in Utopias are hardly the stuff of this genre, so evil madmen are certainly just around the next beautifully rendered corner. Those who haven't seen director Shinji Arimaki's first feature shouldn't worry, however, as the gist of the first film is delivered in an opening montage, and enough basic information is imparted throughout Ex Machina to make everything clear enough.
Ex Machina deals mostly with one madman's attempts to unite man- and robot-kind, which he hopes to achieve by offing any pesky people and/or cyborgs who don't agree with his One World vision. There's also a tandem plot of Briarios trying to figure out how human he still is, especially after his DNA is used to create a tribe of clones that will augment ESWAT. While several of the plot elements are telegraphed so strongly even a young child will see them coming (the visor-like multimedia units are obviously going to be used for mind control, for example), and other elements are lifted whole-cloth from such previous interstellar efforts like Star Trek (a Borg-like cube housing the baddies, and an ultimate bad girl who could be an animated version of Alice Krige as the Borg Queen), as well as more literally mundane films like Night of the Living Dead (the mind-controlled humans move and act like the zombies of that film), what this film really has going for it is a surplus of style and a nonstop series of knockout action sequences that leave any lingering doubts in the ubiquitous dust of multiple explosions.
The film's look is really incredible, with beautifully detailed backgrounds and a character design that, while more evolved than the first Appleseed feature, still is simple enough to evoke the manga origins of this series. While there's a certain discrepancy between the styles of the environments and the characters, one must assume this was done intentionally, as the backgrounds are so marvelously done. The sound design of the film is also spectacular, with whooshing spacecraft and weaponry whizzing from left to right and back again, with great results.
The film was done with a combination of motion capture and more "traditional" CGI (funny that CGI has been around long enough now we can talk about it being traditional). While not as remarkable and immersive as Beowulf, mostly due to the less realistic character design, Ex Machina still provides an at times frighteningly realistic portrayal of a future world that is attempting to get its act together, but frequently failing to do so. It's an interesting twist to the usual anime formula that the characters of Appleseed actually may end up succeeding despite their own shortcomings.
This is one incredible looking animated feature. I watched it on an upconverting DVD player on my HDTV and was left breathless several times by the sharpness of the image. Excellent color and saturation augment a uniformly brilliant visual design, in an A+ 1.78:1 enhanced transfer.
A similarly spectacular sound design will give your home theater system a real workout. Superb separation and fidelity make this a reference quality DVD for sound design.
This two disc set could have easily been a one disc set, as the second disc offers only two relatively short (approximately 18 minutes each) featurettes, one on the history of Appleseed from its manga origins, and the second an interesting examination of how eastern and western pop cultures have influenced each other. The first disc also contains two short featurettes as well, one detailing the collaboration betweeen Woo and Aramaki and the second showing the techiques used to animate Ex Machina. There's also an above average commentary by Jerry Beck (who helped bring Akira to the west) and Joseph Chou, one of the film's producers.
Ex Machina is simply so much fun to watch and listen to that its faults can be fairly easily excused. While some may find its attempts at seriousness pretentious, the overriding ethos of John Woo makes this an action spectacle that will delight both traditional slam-bang fans and anime followers who are at least open to something a bit out of the norm, style wise. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet