|Appleseed: Ex Machina|
|Written by Darren Gross|
|Thursday, 01 May 2008|
“Appleseed: Ex Machina” is an interesting combination of two different styles of animation: motion capture and traditional cell animation. The animated series “Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex” also combined cell and computer animation for an interesting effect and with similar themes. While the animation is almost entirely done on computer with the performances being sourced from motion capture, the final work has been given the look of traditional cell animation. The synthesis is an odd one. The action has a thrilling fluidity and sleekness. The futuristic armored suits and vehicles are impressive, as are the action sequences. Hong Kong action maestro John Woo joined the production as one of the producers and contributed some stylistic flourishes to some of the battle choreography. His method of introducing slow-motion to highlight an isolated piece of action within a scene is used extensively, as are camera moves that rapidly pull out and swing away from close shots to much wider angles. The filmmakers also introduce the “bullet-time” effect (pioneered in “The Matrix”) into the animated film for an impressive shot. While the action sequences are thrilling, scenes featuring crowds of people have that awkward marionette look typical of motion capture. The cell-animation look makes the film a little warmer than a motion capture film, but it’s still an emotionally distancing film. The characters’ faces and eyes seem flat and dead. The faces move and express anger, fear, etc. but there’s this creepy lifelessness to them that is like staring at a formica countertop. The story feels particularly derivative, using elements that have been well-worn in dozens of other manga, anime, and live-action science-fiction films. The influence of the “Matrix” films hangs over the story, as does the Skynet satellite idea from “The Terminator” series and many elements from the original “Ghost in the Shell.” It’s clear that a tremendous amount of design and technical work went into “Appleseed: Ex Machina” but perhaps some more effort needed to be expended on crafting a more original story; one that’s worthy of the visuals.
The BD release presents the elaborately designed mecha with a great deal of smoothness, detail, and shine. The costumes (like Deunan’s two Prada-designed outfits or her sexualized battle suits) seem physically tangible at times, and surfaces that are metallic or rubbery have been given a particularly clean and stable presentation. There is a rich level of detail in the original animation as well as in the 1080p BD image, but there are instances of shimmering with extremely fine horizontal lines. The source would appear to be a direct to HD digital encode instead of a film element transfer and the colors are vibrant and dense. The palette is enormous, though the predominant colors on display are a multitude of gray tones, some within very dark scenes. The different tones are always clear and never become muddy or indistinct. Note: the opening of the film is meant to create the look of a corrupted video signal, so don’t be alarmed at the visual errors contained in the prologue.
The Japanese 5.1 Dolby Digital track is excellent. The disc packaging incorrectly states that the Japanese track is 2.0 only, but thankfully that’s not the case. The 5.1 track is excellent with sweeping sound effect usage, which helps underline the presence of flying machinery and helicopters that frequently move through the soundscape and give the viewer a greater sense of the world of Olympus. Gunfire and explosions are crisp and cleanly recorded, but could use a tad more weight in the LFE channel. Sound effects are well-mixed and involving. The chittering, zipping sounds used to accompany the metallic tentacles near the finale are well-chosen and effective. The Japanese track is preferred over the somewhat overwrought English dub.
The commentary track features Joseph Chou, one of the producers of the film and animation historian Jerry Beck. It’s an interesting chat, from a viewpoint that’s almost on the fringe of the production. The three handsome featurettes all average 15 minutes in length and are presented in 1080p. “Team-up: John Woo and Shinji Aramaki” discusses the collaboration between director Aramaki with consulting producer John Woo, whose contributions seem to have been limited but memorable. Some footage of Woo in conference with the producers, and clips of his video wishing them luck, as he went on to another production, are included within them, but no interview footage is presented. Japanese culture expert Patrick Macias (author of Tokyoscope and others), Dark Horse Comics representative Carl Horn, and others discuss the origins of “Appleseed,” both the manga and animated adaptations in “The Appleseed Chronicles.” “Revolution: Animating Ex Machina” focuses on the motion capture and other techniques used to make the film, with a particular emphasis on the English language dub. “East Meets West” basically discusses the evolution of anime enthusiasm in the United States and its stylistic origins. While all of the featurettes are well-shot and their choice of participants is solid, there’s an amusing lack of specific visual reference within them. For example, when discussing Woo’s stature and career, not a single poster or image from his films is displayed. Instead, black and white stills of some anonymous caucasion production person dressed in a black suit pointing a gun are used to convey Woo’s films. The same kind of thing is done in the anime discussion, where anime-style drawings are shown instead of specific references. Giant monsters are conveyed by a guy in a cardboard costume and mask, instead of a clip or image from UltraMan or Godzilla. Anything that’s not an “Appleseed” character is only hinted at or alluded to. This is probably inspired by cost or legal considerations, but it doesn’t prevent these parts from seeming a bit silly.