After getting his CGI feet (and probably whole body) wet working on James Cameron's epic Titanic, Fumihiko Sori went on to craft a number of notable Japanese releases as either director or producer, chief among them Ping Pong and the two Appleseed animes. Sori has pushed the envelope of motion capture CGI yet again with the stunning Vexille, a sort of Appleseed: The Next Generation (or, to be perfectly frank, The Last Generation), which maintains a completely incredible visual style while presenting a story that actually has some human emotion for a change, something some may find ironic considering some of the story elements being depicted.
Vexille is the name of our heroine in this film (and it's important to note that Sori seems to go for distaff action leads, as in Appleseed), a member of an elite fighting squad known as SWORD, a group that is asked to penetrate an isolated Japan in the year 2077. For ten years, Japan has literally been cut off from the world, after withdrawing from the United Nations and erecting an electromagnetic "screen" around its islands to keep out prying satellite eyes. Japan had been embarking on development of "biometallic" androids, sort of half-human, half-machine creatures, which the rest of the world wasn't too crazy about. Suffice it to say that once Vexille and her group manage to get inside Japan, they find that they may be the only human life left there, and perhaps not in the way you'd initially think.
This film is a marvel to behold, with an intense visual style that shows a dramatic evolutionary through line from the first Appleseed to the more expansive Appleseed: Ex Machina. Some may wonder why filmmakers go to such trouble to capture motion and then deliver it digitally into CGI environments, but when you look at the incredibly impressive vistas that Vexille offers, all of them beautifully rendered and depicting everything from ultramodern United States locales to the decrepit ruins of Tokyo, you quickly realize that a live action production of something this mammoth would be prohibitively expensive. There are a surfeit of amazingly cool effects in this film, my favorite being the "jags," huge tunnels of mayhem-minded metal, remnants of the biometal experiments gone awry, which may remind some viewers of the sand monsters in Dune. These snaking, rotating tubes of discarded metal parts are an amazing sight to behold and play an important part in the plot, to boot.
Some people had a problem with the character design in Ex Machina especially, and they probably will have a similar problem with Vexille. While there aren't the exaggerated eyes of the two Appleseed features, and humans (or their robotic doppelgangers) are more realistically rendered, there's still the patently clumped hair that seemed to really bother a lot of people in the Appleseed films. Personally I loved the character design in this feature--the ultrasmooth skin and gliding movements of a lot of characters give it an unreal quality, something that pays off bigtime once the putative "twist" (which most will see coming) is revealed about halfway through the movie.
Vexille is also not shy about its action sequences, which start the movie off with a literal bang and then continue unabated for the next hour and a half. In fact, about the only fault I can find with the film plot-wise is that the ultimate showdown seems overblown (literally) and gets to a semi-ridiculous climax with two limping characters dragging themselves around to their ultimate fate, something that may strike some as unintentionally funny.
Where Vexille excels, however, and where the Appleseed extravaganzas may have come up a little short, is in real human emotion. By the time Vexille finds herself secreted away in a Tokyo hovel, separated from her SWORD boyfriend, there's a real feeling of isolation and despair. When the film delivers a really shocking (and perhaps unforeseen) twist toward the end, when a character unexpectedly dies in a horrendous way, it's an emotional jolt that quickly brings home how involved the viewer has become by that point. And in fact, I need to send major kudos to the filmmakers with regard to how this death is handled--most modern directors would have made it a bloody mess, with close-ups of the character meeting their untimely fate. Instead Sori sets up the situation (which has been brilliantly foreshadowed in another sequence) so that there's no question what's about to happen, and then cuts to a longshot where you can't actually see the death occurring. It's something redolent of the tamer Golden Age of Hollywood, where gruesome deaths weren't allowed to be shown, and I must say it's actually more emotionally devastating that way--your imagination can fill in the details much more disturbingly at times than if something like this is shown outright.
Vexille is another giant leap forward for Japanese anime, and anyone who has enjoyed Sori's previous films is going to love this one.