Appleseed: Ex Machina

It's rare for an old manga to get a new lease on life. Occasionally you'll see one of the greats get an older manga converted, but usually it's because name recognition can guarantee an audience. In manga terms, Appleseed is ancient, as it ended over 20 years ago. You would think that the lousy 1988 OVA based on the property would have sunk it into the grave. But as with Masamune Shirow's other major work Ghost In The Shell, Appleseed was ahead of its time. Its story about two soldiers living in a pseudo-utopia was compelling, as was its visionary look and feel. Appleseed's lease on life was renewed with a computer animated film in 2004 which, while exciting, was also frustrating to watch both for its shortcomings and its lack of connectedness to its origins. Interest in the property kept it alive, though, and the sequel -- Appleseed: Ex Machina -- is a step in the right direction. It has significant shortcomings, but the storytellers begin to realize that the heart of Appleseed isn't the technology at all but the chemistry between its two leads.

As Ex Machina opens, Briarios is wounded saving his long-time partner (and one-time lover) Deunan from an explosive device as they save hostages taken by a group of cyborgs. As Briarios recovers, Deunan is assigned to work with a bioroid named Tereus. He's a constructed individual who's in essence a copy of least before he became a cyborg. Talk about a conflict of interest! Meanwhile, the nations of the world grudgingly agree to unite their satellite systems to protect themselves against cyberterrorism and other threats. The only problem is, unification makes screwing with all the technology in the world that much easier.  When an evil genius decides to use a new technology to make humanoids and cyborgs alike into virtual zombies, the ESWAT team leads the charge to end the madness before Olympus (and the rest of the world's major cities) descend into total chaos. Deunan is already torn by her loyalties to Briarios, but things reach a head when he unwittingly becomes a part of the scheme to control the world.

Many of the animation issues with Appleseed (2004) have been corrected in this second CGI go-round. While it rates rather poorly on the uncanny valley scale, it still is pleasant to watch, and the layering problems that pulled me out of the first film are thankfully absent. We've all seen better computer animation, but it wasn't distracting. There are some notable sequences that reminded me of the beauty of Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence, though it lacks that film's stunning score. The direction by Shinji Aramaki isn't bad, and he makes some good choices along the way; for example, during a short sparring session between Briarios and Tereus, we get to see the action rather than a bunch of quick cuts, standard for most action films today. On the other hand, he uses a few standbys that have grown tired, such as the slow-motion bullet. His work is capable and certainly competent, but not extraordinary.

That thought also extends to the plot of the film. Aramaki has done a lot of mechanical design over the last 25 years, and most of it is quite good. However, his efforts as a writer and director show smart ideas but not a lot of followthrough. As the screenwriter for the original Bubblegum Crisis OVAs and the creator of the Megazone 23 series, his concepts are better than his execution. The playground of the Appleseed universe is vast and the political intrigue a key component of it all. So why does this film play out as a standard action technothriller? The plot points and potential reveals are telegraphed; there are points at which I wanted to shout at the clueless folks on screen, "Haven't you put it all together yet?" The plot is incredibly straightforward and takes no risks, not even so much as an interesting B-plot. Everything on screen is about the central storyline, which isn't all that interesting in the first place. It's pretty to watch but nothing to think about, standard issue all the way. It's not boring or dumb but predictable, which might be worse.

Then why do I still think it's better than the first film and even worthy of a B+? Deunan and Briarios. This film brings their growing relationship front and center, and that's where it should be. The perfunctory plot is brought to life because these two are interesting characters who risk their lives time and again for each other. Should they be partners considering their history?  Probably not. But their curious dynamic makes Appleseed tick. While Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex brings to life the complexities of Masamune Shirow's writings, it lacks the heart that has always made Appleseed the better overall story, in my opinion. Deunan and Briarios are Appleseed, really. And while their characters aren't quite as winsome in the movies as they should be -- Briarios is still played far too seriously -- they still make up for the deficits in the narrative.

One more point for folks to consider...the dub is reasonably good, nothing wildly great but certainly listenable, and I watched the show primarily in English. There are two subtitle tracks, one that follows the dub exactly for the hearing impaired and one following the Japanese track. Sadly, the rewrite by Steven Foster and Todd W. Russell is considerably more talky, even in places where there are no lip flaps to dub. Are Americans really so stupid as to need everything explained a dozen times before they get it?  (Don't answer that...I don't really want to know.) The subtitles for the Japanese track are more nuanced and less explanatory, and so I would encourage you to try the Japanese version first.

It's uncertain if and when we'll see more of Appleseed in the future, as an abortive attempt at creating a television series has ended in a series of lawsuits back and forth amongst creative types.  It's unfortunate, because I think that there's a growing realization that there's plenty within this universe to explore. It may be hard to forgive Ex Machina its clunkily obvious plot, but I'm glad to see Deunan and Briarios' relationship given the coverage it deserves, and it gives me hope that someday, someone might get Appleseed just right.

Appleseed: Ex Machina -- violence, profanity, rated PG-13 by the MPAA -- B+