Friday, June 20, 2014

Avalon (2001)

Between Ghost in the Shell and Ghostin the Shell 2: Innocence, Mamoru Oshii tackled a live action science fiction film. It wasn’t his first crack using a non-animated medium. But this was the first time a Japanese production team was going to film in Poland with a Polish cast and crew. You can bet this movie was going to be like nothing you’ve seen before.

In a dystopian future, the game Avalon is a huge hit. It creates a virtual reality world at war, where players can team up to complete missions and win cash. The best players and teams can make quite a living off of the game. There’s just one little snag: it is illegal and dangerous. Players have been known to go insane or brain dead while playing.

Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak) is one of the best players of Avalon, but she always works alone. Once she was part of Team Wizard, but after a mishap the team disbanded with a lot of bad blood. One day Ash runs into a former teammate, Stunner (Bartek Swiderski) who claims that their old team commander Murphy (Jerzy Gudejko) attempted to access the ultimate level hidden within Avalon. Unfortunately Murphy is now a drooling vegetable. Ash decides that she will succeed where Murphy failed, attempt to find the secret level, and achieve the impossible prize – to see a world that lies beyond the game, a place that my truly be Avalon.

Good Points:
  • Wonderful cinematography and visual execution of themes
  • Creates an oppressive atmosphere for much of the running time
  • An impressive and often propulsive score by Kenji Kawai
Bad Points:
  • Some budget limitations keep the world from feeling complete
  • Oshii’s slow pacing and obsession with hound dogs returns
  • May actually have worked better as an animated film
Oshii takes his exploration of perception of reality into the live action realm, and the results are impressive. He creates an atmospheric film with a lot of symbolism hidden away in the visuals. The action scenes do lack punch, and his slow pacing will drive some viewers nuts. But the final result is a film that creates an interesting world and characters that are hard to forget.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Ash in her Avalon avatar mode.
Coming hot on the heels of The Matrix I remember this film suffering a lot in comparison to the big budget American blockbuster. I don’t think the advertising, which focused on the action scenes helped. Even anime fans who were familiar with Ghost in the Shell and knew something of of Oshii’s style (and quirks) were let down. Avalon just wasn’t the movie they were expecting. Yes, I’m putting myself in that camp.

My first viewing of the film left me puzzled by the whole experience and feeling that the director was spinning his wheels a bit. But the funny thing is, a lot of the imagery of the film stuck with me. I finally decided to revisit the film as part of my examination of Oshii’s work, and I was surprised by how much my expectations had hurt my initial viewing of the film. Seeing Avalon as a bridge of sorts between the two Ghost in the Shell films puts the whole thing in perspective.

Ash in the virtual reality interface for Avalon.
Let’s explore the plot before diving into the visuals, because thematic elements tie strongly to the style the Oshii attempted in this film. Ash is a true gamer. She wants to be the best player of Avalon, period. To do this, she must find the level: Special A. All the rumors she hears lead her to believe that a series of unique events must occur for the level to be revealed. She has to see a glitch in the game known as The Ghost. This ghost of a little girl must be shot, and then the player can proceed to Special A. But to even find The Ghost, the player must be part of a team that includes a character type called a bishop. But bishops are high-level players that rarely interact with teams. The second half of the film deals with Ash finding a bishop, joining a team and finally getting to Special A to complete the most dangerous mission.

The first half of the films follows Ash as she plays the game, showing us how good she is and how much she plays. We get a glimpse of her life away from the game, and how empty it seems. During this portion of the film she runs into Stunner, and we discover a bit about her past on Team Wizard. She visits Murphy’s brain dead body, and we see a hospital filled with glassy eyed bodies – other victims of Avalon? During these scenes we get to know Ash - a woman who always appears to be in control and confident with her place in the world. But it is also obvious that the events leading up to the break up of Team Wizard have impacted her.

The yellow tinged world of reality... or is it?
One of the most unique things about Avalon is the yellow filter used for most of the film. It appears in various degrees throughout the movie. When we are seeing Ash in her real life, the filter is lightly applied. The effect is that everything has a kind of washed out almost sepia look to it. Reds stand out quite a bit, but they are rarely seen. All the interfaces in the film are yellow or orange (a trait shared with Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence).

But once Ash enters Avalon the yellow filter dominates the visuals. This world seems a bit brighter than the real world, but it is still a war torn place with ruins dotting the landscape. All the life we see in this world, including the trees, grass and other players is awash in this bright yellow light.

Eventually that yellow filter vanishes, and the result is remarkable. Colors that we’ve spent nearly an hour and half without bombard the viewer: blues, greens and purples. It actually reminded me of a similar event that occurred in Boogeipop Phantom, which saved the cooler hues for the final episode or key moments.

Ash exploring the secret level.
In addition to the stark color changes that occur in the film, Avalon differentiates between the three worlds with production design.  The level Special A: is essentially Warsaw in the year 2001. This is a vivid contrast to the broken down world Ash lives in, and even the gaming world, that is always filled with the smoke of war and shadowed by ruins. When Ash arrives in Special A, she is given an actual gown to wear and a symphony to attend. Things she would never experience in her world or with the normal game of Avalon.

The movie is essentially bookended by long sequences of Ash wandering her world. In the first half we see her in her regular routine, her gaming, and caring for her dog (whom she treats much better than she treats herself). It seems strange to spend so much time watching her do these things while the plot is in standby mode until she meets Stunner. But the scenes in Special A show us a mirror of the earlier scenes. In this case, Ash is not comfortable in her world, she is the outsider, and yet she is intrigued by what she sees. Foremniak plays it all very subtly, but her eyes show you that this world of Special A is something she falls in love with. Ash is a very different person in both these sequences, even if the sequences themselves seem all too similar.

The game of Avalon is a brutal one.
One of the main reasons Avalon was filmed in Poland was to give the movie a unique feel from typical Japanese films. It works really well, feeling like we are in a world that is unfamiliar. Warsaw has a very European feel to it, and Oshii selects locations that feel aged and lost. In addition Oshii was able to make a deal with the Polish military. So the tanks, helicopters and weapons you see in the film are real functioning equipment. This brings a level of realism to the game sequences.

But to keep things virtual, there are some computer effects thrown in. A few of the vehicles you see are obviously mecha designs, like the citadel machine that Ash and her team face near the end of the film. There is also a neat effect when players get killed in the game, they break into component digital parts. Very reminiscent of both Tron and Tron Legacy. There are also times when the visuals play with the computer imagery, like when Ash literally walks behind some smoke on the battle field and it all goes from a 3D immersive cloud, to a flat 2D set of pixels.

Ash takes no prisoners in the game world.
The budget constraints do peek through on a few occasions. The world seems very claustrophobic at times, but that works well with the story. It happens frequently enough that you get the feeling that there is more going on, but that they just didn’t have the budget to show it. The yellow filter does manage to hide the seams in some the scenes. The action scenes suffer in places because of budget limits. It often feels like Oshii is using edits to cheat around the fact that he couldn’t damage the borrowed equipment or the locations they were shooting at. It is just obvious enough to make those scenes feel a bit clunky, something that rarely happens in his animated films. For those reasons, I would be curious to see what Avalon could have been like in an animated format.

The acting is a bit hard to judge. I’ve seen this movie with the original Polish dub and English subtitles. For my revisit I watched the English dub. Like most of Oshii’s other films, there are some really talky sequences in this movie.  Watching the film in Polish feels more natural but keeping up with the subtitles can be a chore. The English dub is a real mixed bag. Most of the voice actors have Eastern European accents, and for some reason it just doesn’t work. I kept getting pulled out of the movie by the accents and the mismatched lip flaps. Usually I can look past that kind of thing, but this time it was tough. Still, the story seemed to flow a bit better with the English dub and I could focus more on Oshii’s visuals.

A haunting empty game world, but so similar to her
real one.
The sound effects work is pretty solid. Some of the in-game stuff is creative, and gives an additional element of the unreal. But the real star of the audio show has to be Kenji Kawai. This score is much like his score for Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence – cold but driving forward. He uses some electronics in this score and it works wonderfully. But the big difference is where the Ghost in the Shell series used ancient Japanese songs as it’s base, Kawai focuses on an Eastern European symphonic sound. This fits Avalon like a glove and makes this one of his most accessible scores for an Oshii film. The final confrontation plays against a symphonic concert with some massive choral performances. It really works wonderfully in the film and also as a stand-alone listen. Kawai and Oshii work together so well, and this film really proves that.

Like Oshii’s other films, each element of filmmaking plays a part in the larger message and themes he is exploring. Once again we come back to perception of reality, a concept he has been exploring since Urasei Yatsura 2:Beautiful Dreamer. Much like Ataru in the dream jumping finale of that silly movie, Ash travels from reality to reality, seeking out an answer to a question she didn’t know she was really asking – which world is my reality? Oshii’s long scenes allow us to soak up the atmosphere and feel of each of the three worlds. And like Ash we begin to feel that Special A, must be the real world. It has all the color, all the excitement, all the “reality” that her life and her game doesn’t have.

"Hey there babe. How about a ride?"
And yet, there’s that hound dog again screwing things up. Why is this dog even in the movie? The easy answer is that Oshii is obsessed with basset hounds. But there is a thematic reason too. As I mentioned we see that Ash cares for her dog much better than she cares for herself. She gets it the best food she can afford. She obviously loves the little guy. When he disappears about halfway through the film, she becomes very distraught.

But Avalon throws us a visual curveball. The hound reappears in Special A, physically in a car passing by (but the camera makes sure we get a good look at him watching Ash). Then, a basset hound is featured on all the posters for the symphony where Ash makes her final reckoning with fate. Seeing her dog catches her eye and draws her to the symphony, sure. But why was the hound selected as the key image for a symphonic concert? Suddenly we have to wonder if this Special A world was built by Ash in a subconscious way. Or maybe it was designed to draw her into a trap. Remember she runs into Murphy in this world, but back in her home world, he is a drooling vegetable. Will Ash suffer the same fate if she stays here? Finally the hound could just be a visual clue the audience that Special A is where Ash will find what she’s looking for – her lost dog and her lost life.

Ash entering the final level? Or ending her life?
Oshii’s movie is like much of his other work. You’ll either enjoy his visual style, his slow evolution of the story and the lengthy dialogue scenes that seem a bit too full of exposition. Or you’ll find the whole thing to be dull and visually unappealing. For some folks the yellow filter is going to be too much to get around. I think that Avalon is a unique film, and one that has a lot of interesting elements. It stands out from the crowd and I certainly found it to be one of the more intriguing science fiction movies I’ve seen in the new millennium. It makes a perfect double feature with David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ.


  1. A treatise could be dedicated to misleading trailers. Didn't a moviegoer sue the producers of "Drive" back in 2011, because the trailer made it look like "Fast and Furious" and thereby tricked her into buying a ticket?

    Anyway, I never saw Avalon -- in part because of the trailer -- but you've convinced me it's worth a look at some point.

    1. Yeah, I think I remember that! I know it is the marketing department's job to get butts into the seats. But sometimes they just go too far. And to tell you the truth "Avalon" is a hard sell. It really is more of an art film using sci-fi to deliver it's message. It is not an action movie, and it is certainly not "The Matrix" in any way. I can imagine the marketing guys not really knowing how to handle the film, but figured riding the coattails of "The Matrix" was the best bet.

      Give the film a shot, it is worth seeing.

  2. I mentioned Avalon on my list of cyberpunk must watch films, my take on Mamoru Oshii films is you have to be in a certain mood to watch them, you can't be expecting lots of action, because his films are never about that. They are always introspective, quiet, moody...I guess you have to be in a mood to appreciate that kind of atmosphere he puts on his films. I enjoy it actually, inmensely, once you know what kind of movie to expect, then you can sit back and take it in for what it is.

    I enjoyed Avalon, the issues it tackles about society, and our place in it. Do we want to pass to another level? Or are we contempt with were we are? Dug the visuals of course, to me this is the coolest thing about this film, the cyberpunk element, the gadgetry, and the cyber world. A film that Mamoru Oshii fans will enjoy no doubt. Now I want to re-watch and review it! Awesome review.

    1. Yeah Oshii is a unique film maker and not for everyone. But I find that those folks who enjoy his stuff tend to really enjoy it. The simple fact that some of his visuals are so potent that I remember them clearly after nearly a decade says something about the man's ability. Thanks for the compliment Francisco, it means a lot!

  3. I must tell you this one is on my shelf. Bought it some time ago thanks to you but still need to watch it.

    Oshii is definitely not in it for the action and we have to appreciate his more heady approach to filmmaking don't we?

    Your summary is interesting to be sure.

    That Kenji Kawai is something special too. I love the music created by Kawai for Patlabor. His score for Patlabor 2 is beautiful.

    Anyway it sounds interesting and the photos you applied here whet my appetite further.

    Outstanding and in depth coverage of Oshii as always Roman.


    1. Yeah, Kawai is really a gifted composer. Very versatile, and his work with Oshii really brings out some of his most interesting work. Those two really seem to understand each other. His music in "Avalon" is really impressive.

      Thanks for the compliment, it really means a lot.

    2. And I'll be back to read carefully after viewing it when that day comes my friend