Based on Shirow Masamune's ground-breaking manga, Appleseed Ex Machina is a sequel to the 2004 film, Appleseed. Directed once again by Shinji Aramaki and produced by John Woo, this film is kinetic, energetic, and exciting. Viewers who haven't meet Deunan and Briareos from the first film don't need to worry either since this one brings people up to speed pretty quickly. Unfortunately the otherwise solid movie is marred by some pretty lame dialog and unimpressive character renditions. The surprisingly dated looking CGI people really distract from the eye-popping effects in the rest of the film.
The time is the 22nd Century, and the world is a different place. The Third World War, though it was non-nuclear, still managed to kill half the population of the Earth. From these ashes rose Olympus, a utopian city-state that consists of a large number of bioroids, genetically engineered humans that have had strong negative emotions like hate and anger removed from their genetic makeup.
Though the city is at peace, that doesn't mean there aren't problems and international terrorism is one of them. The rulers of Olympus feel they are best suited to handle terrorism on a world-wide scale and to help them achieve their goals they've started to develop a warrior version of the bioroid. In addition they've called together the other countries for a conference, the purpose of which is to convince the varying states to give Olympus unfettered access to their spy and communications satellite systems. With these satellites under their control, Olympus feels that it can stamp out terrorism.
Deunan, a tough, attractive lady and Briareos, a man transplanted into a cyborg body, are members of the Olympus ESWAT (Extra Special Weapons And Tactics) police force. They are partners who have a lot of history together. When Briareos gets badly injured battling a group of cyborg terrorists, the higher ups assign a new partner to Deunan, Tereus. The young officer wants no part of it however. Not only does she not want to give up Briareos, but Tereus is the spitting image of her partner before he was transplanted into a robot body, something that upsets her more than it should.
It turns out that Tereus is the first of the warrior-bioroids and most of his genetic make-up came from Briareos. Neither of the two really likes the situation either. Briareos is reminded of what he's lost, and Tereus is constantly faced with the fact that he's just a copy. They have to learn to work together though, because after Olympus has control of the Earth's satellite system, a mad man hacks into it. He wants to recreate humanity in his image, and the only ones who can stop him are Briareos, Tereus and Deunan.
This movie started off with a bang, with a raid against a group of cyborg terrorists. As fun as that was, having Briareos get seriously wounded was an unexpected surprise that really go the movie rolling. You can see John Woo's influence in the way the battle scenes are played out and the high-energy action that the beginning has.
Then the movie slows down and fills everyone in on just what the Olympus Prime Minister wants to do and why. They mention hacked cyborgs several times and, even more telling, make a point of showing the newest Bluetooth-like phone/internet access device that is the newest fad. This gives viewers everything they need to predict the biggest events in the rest of the film, and it becomes aggravating when the characters don't deduce what the viewers have. When various police men find people who were recently rioting laying unconscious with ear pieces that have sprouted veins that have dug down into the person's brain cavity, they don't think it's odd???
The dialog is also very stilted and unrealistic sounding. The characters sound more like figures in a poorly written comic book than real people having a conversation. In both the dub and the subtitles, the language used brought the movie down and made it feel like a B-movie.
The entire production is created with computer graphics, and while CGI technology has been advancing at an incredible rate, this film looks like it was done a decade ago. The people don't look realistic at all, and I was amazed at the lack of texture on their skin. Faces have a flat two-dimensional look at times because their skin has all the same tone and feel. The hair was absolutely the worst however. Deunan looks like her head has sprouted a batch of grass that has died, and Tereus has oily spaghetti for his hair. The hair didn't move with the people a lot of the time, just lying there instead. In one scene near the beginning of the film a hostage is laying on the ground, tied up, and a terrorist kicks him in the stomach. His head jerks back, but his hair doesn't move at all.
Maybe they didn't animate the hair because the producers knew it was beyond their ability. While the big battle scenes looked fine, the more mundane character movements are unnatural and unrealistic. When someone walks down a corridor their movements look more like one Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation puppets than a real person. This helped give the non-combat scenes the look of a computer game.
Having said that, the battle sequences were wonderful fun and they helped save the film. With battle-armored troopers zipping though the sky and bullets blasting all around, the fights were simply amazing and worth watching the film for. The background graphics were very detailed and helped the film too. The aerial images of Olympus city are breathtaking. With a plot that was complex enough to keep viewers' interest yet not so convoluted as to be boring, this is a movie that is almost really great, but doesn't quite hit the mark.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The 1.85:1 1080p VC-1 encoded disc looks absolutely wonderful. I'll be the first to admit that animation is generally more forgiving than live action features when it comes to compression and other digital artifacts, but this is a gorgeous looking film. The colors are solid, even, and strong and really pop off the screen. The lines are tight and the level of detail is very good. This disc does a fantastic job of presenting the film. In the beginning there's a scene where spotlights are turned on at night to light up a cathedral. The smoke and mist in the air is highlighted in the beams, and this ethereal matter flows smoothly through the light with no blocking or jittery lines. Grain and digital noise wasn't a problem at all, even in the frequent shots of the sky. The blacks were solid without being crushed and the whites were bright without blooming. All around this is an impressive looking disc.
This disc gives viewers the option of viewing the film with the original Japanese track in DD stereo or an English dub in DD 5.1. I was pretty surprised that there wasn't a multi-track choice for the Japanese audio and that an uncompressed or lossless option wasn't available either. I hating having to choose between full surround sound and the original language track, I selected the English dub and spot checked the Japanese track.
The DD 5.1 audio is pretty good but not as impressive as I was hoping. There's good use made of the soundstage in battle scenes, but in the rest of the film the rears weren't used as much as they could have been. The bass wasn't as deep and forceful as I was expecting either. Explosions didn't have that low end *umph* that the best tracks employ and while the gunfire sounded nice some of the highs could have been extended just a bit. The sound of shell casings tinkling as they hit the floor wasn't as crisp and high pitched as it could have been, but this latter critique is very minor.
The English voice actors did a great job too, bringing life to their characters. The Japanese track wasn't as impressive, being in stereo, but served the film well.
I was overjoyed when I discovered that not only did the Blu-ray disc contain all of the bonus material that the two-disc SD DVD had, but that it was all in HD too! That's the way to release HDM Warners!
First off is a commentary track by anime expert Jerry Beck and producer Joseph Chou. They work together well, with Jerry asking questions when the conversation starts to die. They discuss the genesis of the project, some of the techniques used to make the film, and some of the background too. A nice track that was informative and rarely dragged.
Team-Up: John Woo and Shinji Aramaki runs a bit over 15 minutes and discusses how the two men came together for this project and why. It was interesting enough to watch, but not that memorable. The next featurette, Revolution: Animating Ex Machina, ran a bit longer, 18 minutes, and discussed the improvements in computer technology since the first film was made, the motion capture techniques used, how the characters were animated and the various textures rendered. A great piece for the computer geek inside all of us.
People interested in the original manga will enjoy The Appleseed Chronicles: The Definitive History. This 19 minute reel has interviews with American manga fans, comic artists, and publishers and discusses the impact the original manga had, how it was released (it wasn't serialized...its first publication was in volume form, something very unusual in Japan) and it's reception both in America and its country of origin. Creator Shirow Masamune would not be interviewed on camera or even allow his voice to be used, so quotes from the artist appear on the screen and are read by a narrator.
Finally there's East Meets West, a 19-minute featurette on anime both in America and Japan. While I didn't learn anything new, it was fun to watch. This compares and contrasts the cultures of the two countries and how anime and manga are viewed. There's a section on Cosplay too, which is always fun to watch.
With engaging characters, a complex plot, and a script that poses some interesting questions about what it means to be human, Appleseed Ex Machina could have been a great anime film. Unfortunately it stumbles a bit with some poor character renditions and lousy dialog. Still the high octane battles are impressive and go a long way towards making up for the films faults. Recommended.
Note: The images in this review are not from the Blu-ray disc and do
not necessarily represent the image quality on the disc.