A futuristic, live-action sci-fier centered on virtual-reality warriors, "Avalon" falls uncomfortably between two stools. Neither an out-and-out actioner nor a fully realized study of the psychology of games-playing, pic is still reasonably diverting. The movie was shot in Poland (and Polish) and looks to have a long lifespan among video buffs.

A futuristic, live-action sci-fier centered on a group of virtual-reality warriors, “Avalon” falls uncomfortably between two stools. Neither an out-and-out actioner nor a fully realized study of the psychology of games-playing, pic is still reasonably diverting and has a curio value coming from Mamoru Ishii, director of cult Japanese anime “Ghost in the Shell” (1995). But this first — and quite possibly last — movie ever shot in Poland (and Polish) by a Nipponese helmer looks to have a longer life among video buffs than as a theatrical item in the West.

Set in a junk-dystopian “near future,” when bored youth in an unnamed Central Euro country entertain themselves with illegal virtual-reality war games, pic kicks off with an entertaining enough tank battle. Subsequently, in the streets of a city, super-warrior Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak) is introduced, a fearless “Class A” fighter who’s clocked up almost enough credits to move to the next level of playing.

Beyond her VR sessions, Ash lives alone, her only interest preparing gourmet meals for her dog. Her Games Master (Wladyslaw Kowalski) suggests she form a team, but Ash decides to fight on solo.

Ash learns from a former team player, Stunner (Bartek Swiderski), that their onetime leader, Murphy (Jerzy Gudejko), is an invalid after trying to break into the ultimate gaming field, “Special A.” The field is accessible only in a rare set of circumstances and, once in, a warrior can only exit the game by winning. Ash can’t resist the challenge.

Shot in a fairly high-contrast monochrome with an overall ochrish tint, pic has a very Central Euro feel which is a refreshing change from the usual Japanimation sci-fiers . Plotting and compositions, however, recall run-of-the-mill cartoons, with gaps in the narrative that are more acceptable in a magazine than with real actors and settings. Action sequences are only OK by the standards of the genre, though digital f/x are good.

Compared with Oshii’s classic “Ghost in the Shell,” the movie is signally short on heart-turning leaps of imagination and the kind of quasi-religious philosophy that elevates the best of Japanese anime. And though there’s a genuine surprise at the start of the third act which moves the goal posts on the whole movie, the script never plumbs the depths of why players become obsessed with VR games and what “real life” truly is.

Foremniak makes a passable heroine in her goggles and combat duds, and handles her artillery with ease. The men are all standard macho grunts.

Best contribution on the tech side is Kenji Kawai’s barnstorming orchestral-choral score, in Carl Orff mode, which deserves a separate release on its own. Pic’s title refers to the name of the game, supposedly a “legendary island where the souls of departed warriors come to rest.”

Avalon

Japan

Production

A Miramax release (in U.S.) of Des Films, StudioCanal, Miramax Intl. presentation of DEIZ production for Bandai Visual Co., Media Factory, Desitsu, Nippon Herald. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Atsushi Kubo. Executive producers, Shigeru Watanabe, Tetsu Kayama, Toru Shiobara, Naoyuki Sakagami. Directed by Mamoru Oshii. Screenplay, Kazunori Ito.

Crew

Camera (color), Grzegorz Kedzierski; music, Kenji Kawai; art director, Barbara Nowak; costume designer, Magdalena Testawska; sound (Dolby Digital Ex/DTS Digital), Shuji Inoue; visual effects supervisor, Nobuaki Koga; digital art director, Hiroyuki Hayashi. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (non-competing), May 19, 2001. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Ash - Malgorzata Foremniak Games Master - Wladyslaw Kowalski Murphy - Jerzy Gudejko Bishop - Dariusz Biskupski Stunner - Bartek Swiderski The Ghost - Katarzyna Bargietowska (Polish dialogue.)
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