Appleseed Alpha

Look – I’ll level with you. the part of reviewing anime that I hate most is summarizing storylines. I just hate it. I mean, what’s the point? If you’re already interested enough in a show or movie to read this review, you’ve probably already read up on the premise of whatever it is you’re thinking about watching, right? And in the case of something as well documented as Appleseed, can I really tell you anything you don’t already know?     

Well, there’s a new movie out, so I guess I’d better try. Appleseed Alpha is the third CG movie based on Masamune Shirow’s beloved Appleseed manga, which is by now a firmly established fan favourite series. It brings director Shinji Aramaki back to the property, after two successful previous outings in 2004 (which really needs a UK Blu-ray release!) and 2007 respectively, and pairs him with a Western writer. That should iron out some of those awkward translation issues and ensure mass appeal, right?

So, what’s the selling point for an Appleseed movie this time around? Apart from seven years’ worth of advances in CG animation, we have the same core characters but a different setting, in keeping with the concept of Alpha being a prequel to Shirow’s manga. In this story, Deunan and her cyborg partner Briareos haven’t made it to Olympus yet. Instead, they’re preoccupied with working off their debt to a cyborg gangster, Two Horns, with Olympus being something of a fairy tale that Deunan clings to. This changes, however, when the pair run into a couple of Olympus citizens during the course of a mission in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. This hapless couple are being pursued by the movie’s new villain, Talos, and it’s from here that things… get a bit hairy.

There. That’s the painful part done for me. Now to talk about the stuff that matters.

The visual impact of Appleseed Alpha can’t be overstated. It’s an absolutely amazing looking movie. It’s very clear that Sola Digital Arts have spent a lot of time perfecting their motion capture and rendering of facial expressions. The level of detail and texturing on the characters and environments is staggering. I’m told by pals in the know that getting things right in CG like hair, lips and eyes is a huge challenge, and the results here show that Sola have risen to it capably. It’s certainly a film to watch and be overawed by as you soak in the technical achievement it represents. I did notice some jagged aliasing and even a few weird CG glitches early on in the movie, but these are rare occurrences. Atmospheric lighting, character animation and environmental effects are all nothing short of stunning to take in.  Short of the so-incredible-it’ll-never-happen prospect of somebody throwing enough money at the franchise for a faithfully adapted, big-budget live action movie, it’s hard to imagine Appleseed looking better than this.

But… the unfortunate downside is that jaw-dropping visuals are simply not enough. Look beneath the surface, and there’s not a lot going on.

Remember I mentioned that this movie had a western writer? Well, unfortunately, that works very much to Alpha’s disadvantage. Marianne Krawczyk, whose previous notable writing credits have been exclusively for video games, manages to script the movie in such a way that it unfortunately feels very much like one. There’s a laughable excess of overly-convenient storytelling and plot progression, which makes everything feel like an exercise in getting from point A to point B in the story. This is only exacerbated by some truly abysmal dialogue and cliched character moments. When a story references its own absurd plot holes and developments by way of openly having characters draw attention to them, it’s a clear indication that the writer knows the script’s shortcomings and can’t find a satisfactory way to address them. Do this once or twice and you’re being cheeky and ironic. Do it three or four times, as Alpha does, and it just feels lazy. Those contrived story developments ask us to suspend disbelief beyond a point that’s reasonable. There’s just no escaping the fact that this is a poorly written movie.  

It should say something about this film that I found this review really hard to write. Not because the pros and cons of this feature are in some way difficult to articulate, but because it’s just so hard to see a property I love falling so hard into mediocrity. As a fan of Shirow’s dystopian sci-fi story since my school days, when the original manga was excitedly passed around under desks and highly coveted, seeing it distilled into such a weak brew is heartbreaking. There should be more dynamism to an Appleseed movie than Alpha manages. It definitely has its moments, and I don’t think I’ll ever watch anything with the Appleseed brand on it and not be entertained by it to some extent. But those moments where it shows the strengths of its source material are just spread too thinly. It takes until the last leg of the film for it to deliver anything as memorable as the two preceeding Appleseed movies managed – and, even then, it feels curiously devoid of excitement. It’s easily the most underwhelming entry in the series for me – and the awkward question of how it sits in continuity with Aramaki’s other movies (hint: it doesn’t) only deepens that feeling for me. Why endlessly reboot this series? Why not give us an actual arc and ongoing story for these characters that we can get properly invested in beyond a couple of movies?

For me, a huge problem is that there’s just nothing new here. Everything Alpha shows us is either stuff we’ve seen in Appleseed media already somehow, or has been done better elsewhere. Even the prequel angle feels ill-judged. I’d personally argue that the city of Olympus itself, as featured in Shirow’s manga, is a pivotal if not essential part of the package. So setting this prequel completely apart from that was always going to be a risky gambit. This daring decision could have paid off if the opportunity were taken to tell us anything revelatory about Deunan, Briareos or even Olympus itself. And save for one short post-credits scene that you could easily miss if you weren’t aware it was there, that just doesn’t happen. All you’re really getting is ‘Deunan and Bri – The Early Years’, and it falls a little flat.

What ultimately frustrates me, though, is that this is a potentially world-beating entertainment franchise, and this latest entry feels like it was cranked out just because. While the source material has never been especially deep or complex, in spite of all the allusions to Greek mythology and military jargon that permeate it, it’s always been lively stuff. And this is my biggest beef with Alpha – it just comes too close, thanks to that dull script, poor direction and leaden pacing, to feeling boring. And Appleseed should never, ever be boring.

On the plus side, the dub’s great. I mentioned way back in my review of Appleseed: Ex Machina that I have reservations about David Matranga’s Briareos, and those reservations still hold. But this is probably just down to me being a persnickety, entitled little fanboy. Briareos is probably as hard a role to cast, in truth, as any other iconic pop culture hero. At least this time around, I found his delivery more on point, even bringing a little humour to the  character – and BOY does this film need a little more of that. Luci Christian is dependably great as Deunan, but it’s Andrew Love who steals the whole shebang as the gloriously larger-than-life Two Horns – most definitely one of the best things about the movie. And did I mention how great this movie looks? Because it really, really does.    

I honestly wanted to love this latest outing for Deunan and Briareos. But, while it’s perhaps not as bad a movie as my comments might suggest, it’s certainly not something I’ll rush to watch again enthusiastically. It’s not a product I feel has earned its place on my shelf alongside Aramaki’s other Appleseeds, and marks a disappointing decline in story values. Yes, it’s a staggering visual achievement, and I can’t help but wonder after watching it what any future movies taking the same approach might look like. It’s a giant step forward in terms of animation quality, as big a leap from 2007’s Ex Machina as that was from the first 2004 CG movie… but an equally giant step backward in just about every other area. It’s just not nearly as satisfying as the other movies. Heck, even Appleseed XIII, with all its ropey animation and heavy-handed referencing of mythology, has more soul than this. In fact, if this were any other movie that didn’t bear the Appleseed name, or feature Deunan and Briareos, or even look as good as it does, that final score would assuredly be a point or two lower.    

If you can stomach the limp storytelling and lap up the spectacle of the animation, I reckon you might eke more out of Appleseed Alpha than I did. But I also suspect that if you come to it as I did, with an ounce of enthusiasm for the brand name, you’ll expect more than it reasonably delivers.      

Please, guys… do better next time.

6 / 10