Eye For Film >> Movies >> Appleseed: Ex Machina (2007) Film Review
Appleseed: Ex Machina
Reviewed by: Anton Bitel
Watch several Japanese dystopian animes, and certain patterns start to emerge with alarming regularity. Fantasies of empowerment, the merging of man and machine, a mythology of paranoia and alienation, massive gun battles (often involving massive guns) and lightning-fast chases in super-sleek environments – yep, this is a niche subgenre that seems to offer exactly what every growing boy needs, while making many an older (or female) viewer yawn at the astonishing consistency of its themes. Yet while one might be forgiven for ascribing a certain sameness to these films, there is, for those who care to look closer, considerable genetic variety to be found.
First and foremost these films have come over time to reflect a rapid evolution in technology – an evolution that affects the way in which they are animated, as well as informing the very substance of their SF plots. While Tatsuhiro Otomo's Akira (1988), with its stunning cityscapes and destruction on a monumental scale, may have offered the template for all the cyberpunk animes that followed, it also consisted of Cels which, though unprecedented in their number, detail and colour, were – hard now to believe - entirely hand-drawn. Cut to 2004, and Shinji Aramaki's Appleseed won the honour of being Japan's first fully computer generated anime – and even if it had the ill fortune of coming out in the same year as Mamoru Oshii's peerlessly perfect Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, at least it could claim to be based on a manga by the same author (Shirow Masamune) and with more or less the same concerns (the shifting place of humanity in a technology-driven cyber-future) as Oshii's masterpiece, while offering complex enough plotting and undeniably luscious visuals that enabled it to hold something of its own against its smarter sibling.
Now even Appleseed has its own sequel. Although Ex Machina suffers from a flatness of characterisation similar to its predecessor, it offers the endless spectacle of beautifully realised aerial action to match its low-brow futuro-political philosophising. The film is set in 2135, in the gleaming new utopian city of Olympus that rose out of the ashes of a non-nuclear global war that almost brought an end to the human race. The wounded from the war have been reconstructed (and enhanced) as cyborgs, Olympus' political class comprises clones (known as 'bioroids') who have been genetically engineered to take decisions unaffected by strong emotions, and international peace is enforced by a geared-up police strike force known as ESWAT.
Yet as a world summit is about to decide whether every nation's surveillance system should be placed under the control of Olympus' government in the interests of international security, otherwise unconnected groups of cyborgs begin carrying out seemingly random terrorist actions. As the athletic, all-human Deunan Knute and her mostly-cyborg boyfriend Briareus try, in their work for ESWAT, to get to the bottom of the rapidly escalating situation, Deunan must also contend with her confused feelings towards new partner Tereus who, as a clone, is exactly like Briareus before his body was all but destroyed in battle. Still, as further attacks come from ever more unexpected and insidious sources, and as Briareus' own behaviour becomes more erratic, the three must join forces to save Olympus and the world from someone else's different vision of utopia.
One of the first things that even the casual viewer will notice about Appleseed: Ex Machina is that it is positively crammed with references to other films. The heroine who allows herself to leap backwards down into a gunfight is a nod to the opening sequence of Oshii's first Ghost in the Shell feature (1995). A motorbike speeding along an overpass with a metropolis looming in the background references the marquee image of Akira. And isn't that the talking billboard from Blade Runner (1982) that we can see floating over the city? Mobs whose minds have been taken over by a computer are figured as armies of shuffling, dead-eyed zombies. There is even a slo-mo shoot-em'-up in a church as a loving homage to the balletic brand of action that characterises the films of John Woo (who is one of the producers of Ex Machina), not to mention the presence (which turns out to be more integrated into the plot than it first appears) of Woo's signature motif, fluttering doves.
If all this sounds a bit derivative, then at least Aramaki has the good manners to acknowledge his influences openly – and if so many of the ideas in his film seem merely second-hand copies, that somehow sits well with a story featuring so prominently characters who are cyborgs built from human remains, or clones genetically engineered to replicate human originals. Indeed the whole notion of being belated or second generation is one of the film's central themes, and a source of anxiety to several of the main players, in search (like the film) of their own individual identity even as they appear mere constructs.
In any case, the film's echoes of other films or even of historical realities involve a certain mutation. In one sequence, the young son of a fallen policeman is shown to salute at his father's funeral, instantly channeling the iconic footage of John F. Kennedy's bereaved boy – but the circumstances here are so very different (the dead policeman was himself a brainwashed assassin, and his own killer is present at the burial) that viewers are left unsure how exactly to respond to the visual cue. Similarly when a villainous character needs to cloak his identity, the electronic mask that he chooses bears the unmistakable features of Adolf Hitler. It is as though the spectres of the past can still haunt the future, where the horrors of eugenics and 'social Darwinism' take on rather different, technology-driven forms (even as their underlying principles remain woefully unchanged). Both Deunan and Briareus may be mocked by their colleagues for wearing antique analogue watches in a digital age, but the old and new devices still mark the same time. Here history – and story – are doomed to repeat themselves, as humankind's conflicting will both to destroy itself, and to survive at all costs, plays out on an ancient stage that just happen to look dizzyingly high-tech.
Amidst all this sequel's state-of-the-art 3D visuals and technological obsessions is a quest for the human beyond (or at least within) the machine. It is ultimately what gives these photorealistic fantasies their humanist heart – and if you struggle to see that heart in characters as bland (or as lost in technology) as these, at least you can sit back and enjoy the eye candy.Reviewed on: 30 Apr 2008