Pumped to the max visually but saddled with a shopworn story about futuristic man-machines threatening to overrun their human creators, “Appleseed: Ex Machina” should keep anime geeks entertained. But this third feature derived from Masumune Shirow’s 1985 manga will face a much stiffer task drawing in newcomers. Arriving with the heavyweight attachments of producers John Woo and Terence Chang, helmer Shinji Aramaki’s action-packed entry can expect plenty of fest invitations and limited theatrical engagements en route to rosy DVD biz worldwide. Pic opened in Japan Oct. 20.
Knowledge of Kazuyoshi Katayama’s basic 1988 original and Aramaki’s hotted-up 2004 remake is not required to enter the “Ex Machina” world. Screenplay by Kiyoto Takeuchi smartly establishes the state of play in post-apocalyptic haven Olympus in 2138. It also posts key catch-up info concerning protag Deunan Knute (voiced by Ai Kobayashi), a fashionably dressed femme security agent, and her hunky human-turned-cyborg-fighting-partner-cum-b.f., Briareos (Koichi Yamadera).
Badly injured by rebels in a Woo-esque shootout — two-handed gunplay, doves flying around a church — Briareos is replaced on the team by Tereus (Yuji Kishi), a lookalike “bioroid” (less aggressive than a cyborg) created from Briareos’ DNA. Relations turn tense when it becomes clear the new guy has also inherited his donor’s romantic inclinations.
So far more emotionally engaging than many in the Japanese anime sci-fi stable, the story gradually shuffles human (and semi-human) dramas to the side as exhibitions of the latest 3-D software take precedence. When anti-government cyborgs attempt to shatter the fragile peace in Olympus by turning citizens into zombies, the city’s regal leader Athena (Mara Takashima) orders the troops in, with much spectacular butt-kicking performed by Deunan, Tereus and the now-recovered Briareos.
Pic cannot be faulted for its splendid visions of cityscapes that are almost as realistic as photographs, and its stunning rendering of fabrics by the production’s “Cloth Simulation Unit.” But much of the movie seems too familiar. Auds exposed to the recent string of big-budget Philip K. Dick adaptations won’t be as amazed this time by a smiliar range of gadgets, gizmos and utopian-dystopian discussions taking place in Athena’s inner sanctum. Ditto much of the fight-scene choreography, which has been enacted “for real” in franchises such as “The Matrix.”
Staying true to their roots, Aramaki and his team wisely stick to the distinctly plain and simple facial design of first-generation anime and don’t attempt to ape the ultra-fluid body movements of Pixar and DreamWorks toons.
Highly marketable soundtrack features a host of electronica well-knowns, including Yellow Magic Orchestra alumni Haruomi Hosono, Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Involved for the first time in film, noted fashion designer Miucci Prada receives prominent credit in press materials for creating two of the arresting ensembles worn by Deunan.