Distinctive. Memorable. These are the words I'm coming up with to describe Mamoru Oshii's film Avalon. It's a story about virtual reality, set in the near future, that clearly draws inspiration from The Matrix... but to describe it that way doesn't really capture what the film is like, because Avalon is most distinctive not so much in what its story is about, but rather in how its story is told.
Avalon is visually striking, and bears no small resemblance to a filmed graphic novel, with the way it sets up scenes and cuts from one image to the next. The color palette is, for most of the film, pared down almost all the way to black and white: the world of the main character, Ash, is presented in sepia tones, and the virtual reality world of Avalon in a golden-tinged sepia. Imagery is clearly as important to the filmmakers as straight narrative, and while that makes Avalon somewhat difficult to get into, in the end it also makes it very memorable.
While I ended up liking Avalon quite a bit, there's no denying that the pacing is quite odd. The film starts out very slowly, offering little narrative or explanation of what's going on. A few hints of an overall story start appearing, but barely enough to keep the viewer hooked, until about halfway through the film. At that point, the pieces start coming together, and the film becomes more and more intriguing all the way up to its conclusion... and the conclusion is one that will leave you wondering a bit after the credits roll. Avalon is a movie that gets more interesting as you think back on it; and that's always a sign of a well-done film.
One of the things I appreciated about Avalon is its extremely well-thought-out virtual world: its creators clearly knew and understood the world of massively multiplayer online gaming. The game Avalon is extremely realistic, with many small touches that perfectly evoke the experience of online play: from the contrasting play styles of loners and teams, to its addictive nature, to little details like arranging to meet people at particular landmarks within the game, it's extremely believable.
The one thing that's really wrong with the Avalon DVD is its atrocious cover art. Pretty much any image from the film could have been put on the cover, and it would have looked fantastic: the film has such a distinctive visual style that every frame looks interesting. But instead, we get a cheesy composite image that makes Avalon look like a cheap action thriller. It's just awful. So please, don't look at the cover when you're deciding whether to get this movie.
Avalon appears in a truly lovely anamorphic widescreen transfer, at its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The image is clean and clear, with a great deal of depth and detail; only a tiny hint of edge enhancement ever appears. Contrast is always handled extremely well, with the balance of light and shadow looking correct at a variety of light levels, and blacks always looking nicely deep and dark. Colors are also very well handled. Visually, Avalon is very distinctive, with most of the film presented in variations of sepia tones; by the end of the film, you'll certainly appreciate the handling of color.
Optional English and French subtitles are included for the original Polish language track.
The original Polish language track is presented in an outstanding Dolby 5.1 track. The overall sound is rich and full, always sounding natural, and with the musical score deftly woven in as well. The use of the surround channels is impressive as well; we get quite a few nicely done directional effects as well as an excellent overall sense of immersion in the world of Avalon. Dubbed English and French tracks are also provided.
Generous praise should go to the creators of the Avalon DVD for choosing quality over quantity in the special features: we get two high-quality pieces that are well worth watching. First is a documentary on the special effects of Avalon: the topic is fascinating to begin with, and with a full hour devoted to it, we're able to explore it in detail. This is no fluffy promotional piece, either; right from the start, it jumps into the "good stuff" behind the scenes. The second special feature is a twenty-minute interview with director Mamoru Oshii; again, this is a substantial piece that gets right into interesting territory about the film. Both the documentary and the interview have optional English and French subtitles.
Don't be put off by the cheesy cover art: Avalon is a distinctive and well-crafted science fiction film. This isn't a slam-bang action flick at all; in fact, it's a rather contemplative film that just happens to include some nifty special effects and cool battle sequences. And while the story is slow-paced and at bit difficult to get involved in at first, it does pay off in the end. Given the outstanding transfer and nice bonus material, the DVD of Avalon ends up meriting a "highly recommended."