CAPSULE: AVALON (2001)

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DIRECTED BY: Mamoru Oshii

FEATURING: Malgorzata Foremniak, Wladyslaw Kowalski, Jerzy Gudejko, Dariusz Biskupski

PLOT: Ash is a master solo-player in the illegal immersive game “Avalon” who risks brain-death in pursuit of the secret level known as “Special A.”

COMMENTS: Tanks rumble down the dilapidated streets of an Eastern European city center. Civilians scurry around frantically; partisans take aim at the lumbering metal beasts. One of these gun-toting figures stands out for her daring maneuvers. Artillery barrels blast, shots burst forth, and a number of figures are hit. They transform into two-dimensional renderings before shattering into thousands of polygonal shards. The lady fighter leaps a-top one of the tanks and… soon the mission is over. Ash awakens in a dingy room and removes her virtual reality head-set. She’s earned some cash from this lawbreaking, but more importantly she’s added to her legend. She is the reigning queen of Avalon.

What follows, to put it politely, is a bit of a dramatic letdown. When your dystopian future is washed in the same sepia and decay as the escapist game which acts as your dramatic vehicle, it helps to have some convincing characters to differentiate between the decrepit future and the decrepit whiz-bang tech. Mamorou Oshii is no stranger to science fiction, no stranger to compelling visuals, and no stranger to techno-cynicism. However, being shackled to in-the-flesh actors and materials-based set-pieces, he has lost his ability to adequately shape the world. It is no surprise that when he is playing with the (then) new CGI wizardry, he shines—a sequence involving a cannon-covered super fortress on wheels is stunning. It is perhaps a surprise, however, and certainly a letdown that the human actors driving the speculative narrative seem to have fewer dimensions than his literal two-dimensional animations.

Reality, morality, choice, perception, and the relationship between man, machine, and the virtual: these are all explored in Avalon, but are explored much better in other Mamorou Oshii films, not to mention the many other CGI/VR movies that arrived en mass in the early aughts. Avalon gets points for being a Polish addition to the genre (the director’s nationality not-with-standing), and for the polish of its look (it is yet another movie which adds up to far less than the sum of its single frames). But the stilted performances become impossible to overlook. There is a blast of beauty-cum-surrealism in the final scene, when Ash reaches the elusive hidden level within the game. For the first time, the film enjoys the full color spectrum, and a diegetic symphony underscores a dramatic encounter. Ultimately, though, Avalon suffers from its anchor to the real world, and acts merely as a reminder that some filmmakers best perform their amazing magic when not constrained by the laws of the mundane.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Neither an out-and-out actioner nor a fully realized study of the psychology of games-playing, pic is still reasonably diverting and has a curio value coming from Mamoru Ishii, director of cult Japanese anime ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (1995).”–Derek Elley, Variety (contemporaneous)

Where to watch Avalon

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