Moving his incongruous style (long, quiet, almost static pacing) to Poland and live action1, Mamoru Oshii has made a film that seems more like a tone poem than science fiction. There are themes he’s dealt with before: reality vs. perception, life at the whim of nonexistent, unseen forces. But Avalon‘s tone is muted, and the plot is almost subliminal. It has an intellectual and aesthetic impact.

In the future, Avalon is a virtual-reality game that everyone plays. Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak) is one of the best professional players, winning solo in a team-based sport. The game is her only real connection to others, aside from her lovely little basset hound. She was on the best team, Wizard, but an in-game mistake broke them up, and the other players dispersed.

Ash likes to be alone, until she finds another player, Bishop (Dariusz Biskupski), who is better and plays from an untraceable location. While looking for him, she finds evidence of rogue factions in Avalon – the Nine Sisters, who have access to a hidden level in the game. Bishop says he is a program maintenance worker, and wants Ash to help solve a problem in the hidden level, a secret compartment that can’t be reached singly. Those who tried to enter, like Murphy (Jerzy Gudejko), Ash’s ex-teammate, lost their minds. Bishop wants Ash to go there and eliminate a single target.

Oshii reclaims the debt owed him by the Wachowskis with this Matrix-like film. Most of the action takes place in a computer-simulated world, and the questions of reality are like those of The Matrix. (Particularly in the secret level of Avalon, which is either Poland, or a simulation thereof.) However, the questions and themes of Avalon do not seem to interest Oshii. Characters and story don’t have enough meat on them to let the setting, the main focus of the film, be more than a stack of pretty pictures.

But the pictures are pretty. Different color schemes separate the layers of reality (or unreality). The game itself is yellow, Ash’s “real” world is sepia, and the hidden level is shot in realistic color. This creates a sense of grime and discomfort throughout the film, and visually, the last part in the hidden level is a relief after the gloom of the first eighty minutes.

Kudos go to the FX design, and to the production as a whole. When players are shot in Avalon, they break like glass and disappear. The explosions are 2D – they have width and height, but no depth. Ash lives in common dystopia, but the uniformity of purpose in the production design sets it apart. The future tech is grungy, but it doesn’t look strewn together like many science fiction contemporaries do2.

Avalon looks great, but it lacks focus. I enjoyed it, and I admired it, but that’s because the notion of the game is more intriguing than the film. The questions that arise (if the game is real, and whether it is more real than “real” life) have no impact because they don’t matter to the players themselves. They play the game to get better at it. Hell, I play games, but when I do well, I don’t take out advertisements.

It isn’t hard to see why Oshii liked the material, but it is hard to see where was he going with it, and whether he succeeded. Watching Avalon is like watching someone else play a video game. I wasn’t moved by it. I just wish I had a game like that.

1Ishii has done live-action before, but anime is his strength. America loves him for Ghost In The Shell.

2Examples: 12 Monkeys, which does it quite well, and the Matrix movies, which don’t. I can’t be the only person who thought Zion looked like crap. Any computer simulation would be a preferable living space to THAT rat-pile.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email kentc@explodedgoat.com