Shinji Aramaki’s previous Appleseed movie was much more than met the eyes. On the surface, it was an ultra-flashy, CG-powered anime movie that utilized motion capture and facial imaging to give the animation — and the countless explosions and mecha battles — a greater degree of realism.
Below the surface, however, was a surprisingly engaging storyline that blended tragedy and melodrama with the exploration of some thorny ethical issus such as cloning. In other words, you could enjoy it simply for the mechanized mayhem, of which there was an awful lot, but there was no need to call it a guilty pleasure on that part.
Appleseed Ex Machina, on the other hand, is a completely different kind of film. And no, that’s not a positive thing. Not at all.
It’s the year 2133, and the world is still recovering from vast global warfare. The most advanced city on Earth is Olympus, which is governed by artificial intelligence and bioroids, human clones whose emotions are largely suppressed via genetic engineering, which provides a stabilizing influence on the city.
Olympus is protected by E.S.W.A.T, a highly advanced special forces unit. Deunan Knute — who was introduced in the previous Appleseed film — is one of its most elite members. Which comes in handy when she and her unit are called in to deal with a group of cyborg terrorists holding hostages in a church on Olympus’ outskirts. In one of the film’s coolest sequences, she takes out almost all of the cyborgs singlehandedly before being joined by her partner Briareos, a highly advanced cyborg who just also happens to be her lover.
In the ensuing firefight, however, Briareos is seriously wounded while saving Deunan’s life. While he’s on the mend, Deunan is given a new partner: Tereus, a bioroid based on Briareos’ DNA, and who bears a striking resemblance to a pre-cybernization Briareos. Doubly pissed at her superiors for not only replacing Briareos, but replacing him with someone so similar that it stirs up conflicting feelings, Deunan nevertheless accepts the change.
Which, of course, couldn’t have come at a worse time. Not only is cyborg-related crime and terrorism on the rise, but Olympus is also in the middle of critical negotiations with the rest of the world to create an Olympus-controlled global communications network intended to combat terrorism. Throw in a shadowy arms manufacturer that might be backing the agents of terror, an unexplained and potentially harmful communications device that has been embraced by the public, a shadowy figure named “Halcon”, and an awkward romantic triangle between Deunan, Briareos, and Tereus, and you’ve got nothing less than a real cinematic mess.
All told, there are about five or six subplots going on throughout the course of Appleseed Ex Machina, and none of them coalesce at all into a cohesive whole. The movie constantly shifts its focus between them, spending hardly any time to build one up and make it convincing before suddenly shifting gears as soon as it’s possible to do something even cooler with the next subplot.
Adding to the frustration is that almost all of the characters become lost in the shuffle. Deunan, who was so compelling in the previous film, just fades into the background as an angst-ridden, romantically confused, and consistently pissed off sub-heroine. Tereus could’ve been compelling as a clone trying to find his own way, to come out from under the shadow of his archetype, but the film never goes there. As for the rest of the returning characters — Hitomi, Commander Lance, Athena, Nike, Yoshitsune — they all utterly fade into the background as well.
The only character who gets any sort of development is Briareos, who spends a good deal of the movie on the run after becoming a victim of whatever conspiracy is causing cyborgs to run amuck, and a murder suspect. Which could’ve been a good thing, dramatically speaking. I’ve always thought that Briareos, with his eight eyes and rabbit ears, was a far cooler and more compelling character than Deunan, but even he eventually gets lost amidst the constantly shifting plots, and his particular dilemma loses much of its urgency and drama.
But based on the previous film, I’m fairly certain that most of the folks coming to Appleseed Ex Machina are looking, not for great drama or storytelling, but for lots of kick-ass action and mechanized mayhem. Indeed, while the CG-assisted visuals sometimes cause the characters to wander into the “Uncanny Valley” in both films, it works wonders when it comes to the battles and action sequences.
But while there is certainly a great deal of action in the movie, even that proves disappointing. For one thing, the lack of real drama and convicting storytelling does takes it toll on even the most seemingly mindless action sequence. It’s difficult to be thrilled by characters’ bullet-riddled escapades when they themselves have been rendered rather dull by the film’s proceedings. Also, the movie is extremely front-loaded: none of the other action sequences hold a candle to the opening 10 – 15 minutes, as Deunan and Briareos pull out all of the stops — which is doubly odd, seeing as how the legendary John Woo was onboard for this sequel.
Finally, the movie’s soundtrack provides a less than thrilling backdrop for the film. The previous movie’s soundtrack featured the likes of Paul Oakenfold, Carl Craig, Basement Jaxx, and Boom Boom Satellites, providing it with a pumping electronica heartbeat that propelled the action scenes forward. That is largely gone from Appleseed Ex Machina, which opts for a more atmospheric and standard score courtesy of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Haruomi Hosono, and other artists. Which is fine by itself, but I really missed the original’s harder, more driving and adrenaline-packed sounds.
As for the eye candy, Appleseed Ex Machina is certainly very pretty to watch, which should be obvious to anyone who has seen the trailer. Indeed, the filmmakers have pulled out all of the stops, upgrading the technology, and pushing the visuals to “11”. But there are times when the film looks too good. If the previous film was sometimes hampered by its visuals, in that the characters looked too plastic-y, the same is even truer of this film. It’s distracting at times, but the fact is that there’s no way the filmmakers could’ve pulled off some of the more jawdropping visuals without the aid of CG and other technologies such as motion capture.
In the end, Appleseed Ex Machina is primarily disappointing because it squanders so much of the depth and potential that existed in the original. While the film could’ve become a surprisingly relevant film that discussed terrorism, military-industrial complexes, and the hazards of unquestioned technology in the guise of a mindless action film, it tackles too much, and its deeper points become so muddled that it ends up not even being enjoyable as a mindless action film.
Shortly after the previous Appleseed film was released, Shinji Aramaki announced that he would be making a trilogy of Appleseed films. Here’s hoping that the third time’s the charm, that the final film builds on the strengths of the first film while learning from the second film’s mistakes (e.g., muddled storylines, weak character arcs). Briareos deserves it.