Jonathan Clements on the latest movie version of Masamune Shirow’s manga
The Appleseed franchise has always been the Cinderella at the anime ball, never quite making the right connections to realise its potential. It was a state-of-the-art cel anime in the year before Akira wiped the floor and changed the rules. It was a forerunner in CG animation before getting bogged down in an acrimonious fight between its producers, some of whom wandered off to make Vexille, while others stayed around for Ex Machina. Despite having the potential to pack similar punch to its sister title Ghost in the Shell, it has been defeated in the past by a series of naff scripts and gung-ho interpretations, hobbled by the limitations of under-funded CG.
Shinji Aramaki’s Appleseed: Alpha is a marked improvement on previous Appleseed CG features, although the bar has been set so incredibly low that that in itself is not much of an achievement. Set before the opening of the manga, in a post-apocalyptic New York and the Wild West desert that is apparently nearby, it plumps for an intriguing zombie aesthetic in its cyberised goons, mixing biomechanic textures, chrome implants and carbon patches with distinctive camo-influenced body art. The film’s design excels at showing rather than telling, hinting at the messy clean-up after a high-tech war, and offering a world in which Deunan Knute appears to be the only unaugmented human – at least, the only one we see.
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With a series of box-ticking MacGuffins, wandering-monster encounters and vaguely defined side missions, Appleseed: Alpha feels all too often like one is watching someone else playing a computer game, not the least because several crucial moments are bodged or oddly framed, so that it is not always clear what’s going on. A series of level bosses have convenient Achilles heels, and a series of coincidences serve to impart the feeling of playing on rails, even with the whole of the American wilderness to explore. The plot is so bonkers that even the cast seem incredulous at some of its twists, while there are some odd slips of logic – like a kingpin who is prepared to leave his office to do his own grunt work and a vaccine that nobody seems to actually need.
The script itself is one of the greatest mysteries, packed with redundancies, half-hearted exposition and a series of quips that are less dialogue than they are “barks” – one-liners yapped at one another by sprites in a game when someone presses a certain button or stands on a certain place. The notable exception to this is Chris Hutchison as Dr Matthews, who imparts real meaning and character to his clichéd dialogue. The other voice actors do their best with their one-dimensional material, but are infected with a Marvel Comics virus that forces them to repeatedly think of something witty to say in the middle of every strenuous fight. Credited to a non-Japanese writer, English appears to be the “original” language of this Japanese film, with lip sync matching Anglophone phonemes, much as the characters in Resident Evil added a cosmopolitan cachet by speaking English even in the Japanese game.
Oddly, the smart decision to make this latest film a prequel to the action of the original is undermined by the inclusion of a plot device that earlier versions have used at least twice before – a rogue robot tank. The comedically indestructible gang leader Two Horns blunders through the story like an NPC with a malfunctioning loyalty algorithm, sometimes threatening to kill everybody, sometimes lending a hand, accompanied by random bodyguards who forget to leap to his defence when he is threatened, allow armed enemies to walk into his office, and turn out not to be able to shoot straight, even when they open fire. He is involved in his own private war with the rival cyborg Talos and a sleek lady-android, who turn up late to the party like dinner guests who couldn’t find anywhere to park.
Many elements of the film recall 1980s cyberpunk, with several shots redolent of iconic moments from James Cameron movies. But this could easily be another design decision, recalling the inspirations that were so obvious in Masamune Shirow’s original manga. Appleseed: Alpha is a step closer to the idealised Appleseed franchise that producers and fans undoubtedly dream of, but one wonders how many more stumbles it will take before it actually delivers the goods. However, for the crowd at the screening I attended at Glasgow’s Scotland Loves Anime, much of the film’s shortcomings were taken on the chin and greeted with increasing, good-natured hilarity, as if we were watching a much-loved cheesy action movie from our childhood, complete with quotably corny dialogue and a plot written by a teenage dungeon master who just wanted to get to the fight scenes.
Appleseed: Alpha is out now on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Sony.