Beginning in 1985 as a graphic novel and continuing sporadically thereafter, Masamune Shirow’s tales of urban combat and political unrest in a hi-tech utopia have persisted in the affections and imagination of fans ever since. So it was with some fanfare that, in 2004, an adaptation of Appleseed directed by Shinji Aramaki was unveiled as Japan’s first CG animated theatrical feature. Naturally it was a success, and so it comes as no surprise that this 2007 sequel, Appleseed Ex Machina, should appear. This time the Appleseed production machine raised its game a notch or two, with three years worth of technological advances in animation behind it, the return of Aramaki as director and the attention-grabbing presence of John Woo – yes, THAT John Woo – in the producer’s seat.
Set some time after the events of the 2004 feature, the story follows central characters Deunan Knute and her cyborg partner Briareos as they continue their careers with ESWAT, the state defence force of the space-age city of Olympus. After Briareos is injured in the line of duty, their superiors come to realise that even he is not immortal, and provide Deunan with a new partner, Tereus. Tereus is a bioroid – an artificially created person made in the image of Briareos before he took cyborg form – effectively a clone of his younger self. Confronted with a mirror image of her partner, Deunan has difficulty reconciling these awkward events – a situation made only worse when Briareos returns to active duty. All this, however, is just the start of the trio’s problems. An unexpected attack on Olympus sets into a motion a spiral of events that will threaten the hard-won peace there, and sparks unsettling, erratic behaviour in Briareos. As this combination of events falls further and further out of control, loyalties will be tested, secrets from the past will come to light, and ESWAT will be forced to fight for the very preservation of Olympus itself.
The first thing you’ll notice about Ex Machina if you’ve seen the preceding 2004 movie, is the tremendous step up in the quality of the visuals. Considering Appleseed 2004 was no slouch in those stakes, it’s fair to say that Ex Machina is a considerable treat for the eyes. Very early on in the movie, from the opening scene where ESWAT storm a church full of terrorists, into the establishing shots of Olympus that carry us into the story proper, we’re shown some fantastic imagery.
What’s impressive right from the start is the way the intricately detailed environments and characters mesh together on-screen. Olympus is realised in a very convincing fashion, and the animation is, for the most part, so smooth that you can’t help but be drawn into the world that’s been created. Given that a huge part of what made Masamune Shirow’s manga work so well was the great effort he so obviously put into fashioning his locations, it’s a joy to see them interpreted here with similar care and attention. The same can be said of the mechanical designs by Takeshi Takakura – they’re extremely faithful to the visionary designs Shirow filled his four books with. From the insectile-yet-functional look of the ESWAT dropships to the dinky little Olympus police helicopters and, of course, the personal ‘landmate’ armoured suits, every technological lynchpin of Shirow’s original vision is nailed down tight. It’s an aspect of this movie that fanboys like myself can’t fail to appreciate.
Worth mentioning is that the Warner Bros. release of Ex Machina doesn’t have a subtitle track, so you’re stuck with the English dub. Thankfully, it’s a competent affair, featuring a standout performance by Luci Christian as Deunan. Some familiar voices such as those of Hilary Haag, Christine Auten, John Swasey, Illich Guardiola, and Chris Patton (in an unusually small role) also crop up, at times making this feel a lot like an especially classy ADV Pictures dub. Thankfully the cast is a little larger and more rounded out for this production than one of that now-defunct company‘s average releases, which just about saves things from the dreaded ‘cookie cutter dub’ effect. It’s all very well acted for the most part, although there are a few moments of wooden delivery and clunkiness. A bigger problem for me was Briareos himself – though he gives it a fair stab, David Matranga seems miscast somehow, his vocal qualities not quite portraying the character as well as I’d have liked.
These problems are forgivable, but not helped by a script that, while solid, has a few cringe-inducingly twee moments. When you see Deunan and Briareos in flashback, exchanging loving glances as the brutal, bloody business of war erupts around them, you’ll see what I mean! But, blips aside, the story develops well and without some of the awkward, stilted hiccups that somewhat spoiled the fun three years before. In terms of writing and storytelling, this is a superior effort.
The burning question is, does a CG movie with Ex Machina’s already quietly legendary reputation live up to the hype? Refreshingly, the answer is yes. Whatever minor faults can be found in the plot, script and its execution, there’s no denying that Ex Machina is top notch entertainment. As an action movie, it hits all the right spots. John Woo’s involvement is right there on the screen and easy to spot, with some exciting, action-packed set pieces. His white doves motif even make an appearance. Yet, tellingly, it never once feels like Woo has hijacked the movie. The result is a very slick, satisfying, well-paced adventure that is respectful of the source material it’s adapted from. Long time fans of the property will be pleased, while the movie’s also bonehead easy for newcomers to jump straight in on and enjoy.
And ‘enjoy’ is most definitely the operative word! If you come to the movie looking for depth and thought-provoking messages, it’s doubtful that you’ll find them. But what you will get is a movie that succeeds in one crucial area that a good number of bigger-budgeted, live action summer movies fail in – it’s LOTS of fun!
Whether you’re into the franchise, anime, CG or just good ol’ straight-up action flicks, you owe it to yourself to see this film.
Oh, and if you don’t want your own landmate by the end of the picture, which features those bad boys zipping about in righteous fashion, I swear you must have a cold, dead, empty heart.