Avalon by Mamoru Oshii (Review)

Its depth and visual style makes “The Matrix” look like little more than a student project.
Avalon, Mamoru Oshii

If you ever begin discussing Avalon with your mates, it’ll be hard not to keep The Matrix from popping into the conversation. Both deal with topics like virtual reality and cyberspace. Both feature stunning visual effects. Both feature labyrinthine plots that teem with existential questions, themes, and dialogue. And it’s pretty apt to label both films “visionary.” But as much as I love The Matrix (and believe me, I really do), it’s essentially a mix of anime, Hong Kong, video game, and comic book references thrown into the blender with religious and metaphysical elements, and splattered across the screen with a hefty F/X budget.

Avalon, on the other hand, truly deserves the title “visionary”; its depth and visual style makes The Matrix look like little more than a student project.

Of course, I wouldn’t expect anything cut and dried to come from Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell, Jin-Roh), who wrote and directed the film. While most anime seems little more than buxom babes with big guns, his works delve into complex technological and psychological themes more intent on making the viewer go “Huh?” than throw them a little fan service. Even if you don’t always get his films, and believe me, you’ll scratch your head more than once through them, they’re not easily forgotten. And Avalon is no different.

In the distant future, people are addicted to a virtual reality combat game called Avalon. In Avalon, players progress through battlefields, trying to hone their skills, either in teams or solo. The game is so widespread that the best players can make their living playing Avalon. Ash (Foremniak) is one of the game’s best players. Once a member of “Wizard,” one of the best teams around, a horrible mishap in the past has left her solo. Other players marvel at her talents, but as she progresses, the game begins to lose its challenge.

That is, until a former teammate tells her of a secret level that one can only get to under special circumstances, a secret level that imprisons her former leader from “Wizard.” Ash becomes obsessed with finding out more about this level, ostensibly to rescue her old comrade. Although she has always been a lonely type, she grows more and more isolated, her only source of companionship her basset hound. Eventually, Ash gets her chance to find this secret level, accompanied by a mysterious stranger who promises to reveal Avalon’s truths upon completion.

To really go into more detail would spoil the movie for you. Not because I might reveal some spectacular twist ending, but because I might spoil your interpretation. That’s the true beauty of Avalon; it’s ending is truly open to interpretation, to look back at the viewer and force them to decide what’s happening based on what they’ve seen so far. Its ambiguity is not some cheap ploy, nor is it laziness on Oshii’s part. Avalon feels too carefully constructed for that. When the final credits roll, you’re left with the notion that the true puzzle is about to begin.

But even if ambiguously existential virtual reality flicks aren’t your cup of tea, Avalon is still a stunning and ambitious film. Do yourself a favor and peruse the stills from this movie. Yes, the movie really does look like that, though those JPEGs really don’t convey how beautiful, how otherworldly this movie feels. For whatever reason, Oshii decided to shoot the movie with a muted color palette that consists mainly of browns, muted greys, and sepias.

The result is a distinctive look that has to be seen, but one that feels like a far cry from other “cyberflicks,” with their William Gibson-esque visions of virtual worlds (a la Johnny Mnemonic or God forbid, Hackers). If anything, Avalon feels much closer to Blade Runner in this regard. Both movies present stunning visions of fairly dystopic futures that don’t resort to visual clichés. When Ash logs into Avalon, you don’t see a vapid electronic rush of swirling datastreams, neon networks, floating 3D operating systems, and glowing avatars.

Avalon looks rusty and vintage, a world on the verge of fading out of existence. The buildings look like they’ll fall apart as soon as the camera looks away, the streets like ghosts alone walk down them, the machinery like it was left over from some more advanced age. The whole movie looks like faded photographs, something dreamlike and wistful. Ash’s faded apartment mirrors the emptiness of her life; outside of Avalon she’s really nothing, her only routines are checking her mail for clues and feeding her dog. When real color is introduced, something as simple as a green apple jumps off the screen. And when Ash finally reaches the secret level, the visual shock is as disorienting for the viewer as it is for her.

Adding to the movie’s look are the effects. Whereas most special effects scream “Look what we can do with a room of SGI workstations and a couple million dollars!,” Avalon is remarkably restrained, though much more intriguing. When people are killed in Avalon, their bodies flatten and shatter like stained glass windows, or simply unravel. When the ghost holding the key to Avalon’s secret level appears, she is truly haunting and eerily out of place in Avalon’s rusted world.

These days, most effects are meant to leap off the screen, to dazzle the crowd and make them feel like they’re getting their $10 worth. Avalon is different. You’ll notice the effects, simply because they look pretty darn cool, but the movie never lets them become the centerpiece. It doesn’t grind to a halt just to make sure you notice how big the budget was. Rather, Avalon uses effects the way they should be, to enhance the movie’s world, to underscore its reality (or surreality, as the case may be). There’s a reason why James Cameron hailed Avalon as one of the most beautiful films he’d ever seen.

Also adding to Avalon’s distinctive flavor was Oshii’s decision to shoot the film entirely in Polish. One can imagine the logistical headaches that might’ve arisen from the cross-lingual hurdles, but kudos to Oshii. It’s yet one more element that adds to Avalon’s exoticness. And Foremniak is perfect as Ash, all business in the game, but almost painfully awkward and empty in the real world.

Oshii’s movies have never been mere entertainment. Although his films are sometimes bogged down with too many questions and ambiguities, or simply too much monotonous dialog (as was the case with Patlabor 2), Avalon stands head and shoulders above his other works. Visually stunning and mentally puzzling, it’s an intriguing movie, and a very beautiful one to behold that just gets richer the deeper you go.

Read more reviews of Mamoru Oshii.
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