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Ex Machina

In a post-apocalyptic world that thankfully didn't pull the trigger on the nukes, a shining city called Olympus floats above the squalor. Mankind's last and best hope for world peace while competing with other last and best hopes, the city uses as its police a combination of armored humans, armored cyborgs and armored genetically engineered clones called bioroids.

If you're a fan of the long-running manga series Appleseed, then you already knew this. Long considered a classic, it's been adapted to anime a few times before. None of those efforts, however, have had the pedigree of the just-released DVD Appleseed Ex Machina. A CG animated effort overseen by anime master Shinji Aramaki with action film genius John Woo producing, the film doesn't so much break new ground as finally secure the perimeter for animated action films.

A film like this has a difficult challenge, which is to make its mythology readily accessible to new audiences while moving the story along significantly enough to please long-time fans. This Appleseed Ex Machina does quite well, establishing the central emotional conflict efficiently and more clearly than the first volume of the manga does. (Yes, it's one I have read.)

Special Forces officers Deunan and Briareos have a partnership that extends well beyond that of being a good fighting team. Unfortunately, somewhere in the apocalypse Briareos suffered an injury so debilitating that his brain and heart now inhabit an android body that looks like Bugs Bunny went mecha. It's another Beauty and the Beast story, with the insanely attractive Deunan forever unable to touch more than her lover's heart.

Of course, few versions have Beauty able to kick as much ass as Deunan can, and the infusion of Woo's sensibilities make this a really fun action film to counterbalance what is a rather predictable romantic predicament. This installment also ratchets up the tension by forcing Deunan to take a new partner - Tereus, a bioroid grown from Briareos' DNA.

For a small stretch of the film, it seems that this might create some incredible tension, as both Briareos and Deunan realize that Tereus can give her everything the cyborg can't - and since he's an exact duplicate, it's almost like it's not really cheating. Before that can get too tense, however, the film's major plot kicks in, leaving no time for emotional development.

Lest you think I'm coming down too harshly - as an action film, this really works. Aramaki lets Woo's language come through with trademark (and actually useful) slow motion shots. You can even see those doves fly by. But it's clever action, absolutely pulse-pounding and in its own strange way beautiful and gracefully balletic. That real humans couldn't achieve it is both its strength and a bit of a weakness.

In character design and animation, the film suffers a bit in that the humans have the videogame cut scene look. They're not really humans; they're animated action figures. Though shot over live action actors for a good portion, this isn't concerned with the ripples of musculature and skin like a Pixar movie would be. Everyone looks plastic, right down to their doll eyes, moving in a slightly inhuman way.

Ironically, that works for Briareos, who comes across as the most real character for precisely the same reason. He is a giant doll, frustrated by that reality. His five-eyed mask/helmet carries volumes of expression, though one does have to wonder what exactly the advantage of the strange headgear would be.

In the extras, animation expert Jerry Beck provides English language commentary with one of the film's producers, and their conversation about trying to make the film palatable for Western audiences does highlight a big difference in cultural entertainment expectations. That gets underscored by a documentary on the bonus disc, "East Meets West." If you want to dive deeper into Appleseed's history, that's on the second disc, too.

I watched the Two-Disc Collector's Edition, though you can get a bare bones single disc edition. The movie would be entertaining enough. Because I like those little extras, though, the two-disc is pretty alluring, contained in nifty metal packaging that makes up for the early years of Warner Home Video putting their discs in the lamest containers possible.

Of course, if you're otaku - and know what that term means - you're going for that two-disc package. You guys haven't quite convinced me to take on that title, but I'll admit that this foray into anime was well worth my while.

Appleseed Ex Machina (Two-Disc Special Edition)


Derek McCaw

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