Judge Mike Pinsky is our tour guide through an underappreciated corner of cyberspace.
"Ash, don't let appearance confuse you. This is the world where you belong."—Murphy (Jerzy Gudejko)
Avalon: the promise of redemption after the apocalypse, the realm where the king lies in wait, the place where death is transcended. Avalon: an illegal virtual reality game played by the losers of society. Taking cues more from European art cinema than the Hong Kong action films that inspired the Wachowski brothers, director Mamoru Oshii wants his Avalon to remain something of an enigma. Fair enough: Ghost in the Shell and his Patlabor films explored philosophical territory within their genre conventions that bordered on the opaque, yet never seemed to overwhelm Oshii's strong visual compositions. Avalon, the closest Oshii has come in his live-action filmmaking to capturing the feel of anime, is no exception to this tradition.
In the near future, a beautiful question mark named Ash (played by Malgorzata Foremniak as if she just wandered out of a Krzysztof Kieslowski movie) has become a legendary ace at the game of Avalon. As you would expect, she feels pretty empty about this, since her days consist of meandering through the monochromatic streets of Warsaw until it is time for her to enter the monochromatic world of the game. She has no friends; she has no teammates. Occasionally, she bumps into a fellow player on the street or has a chat with her game master (Wladyslaw Kowalski), who might be a virtual character himself. Soon, Ash finds her sense of purpose, as she teams up with a "bishop" (Dariusz Biskupski) to search for the Avalon's hidden level: Class Real.
In Ghost in the Shell, cyberspace was a conduit through which human evolution could be jumpstarted and new cyborg identities formed. In Avalon, cyberspace is a dull means of escape from the dullness of reality. We are trapped in Kansas, looking for a way to get to the Technicolor land of Oz. Avalon's game scenarios seem repetitive: gun-toting players fighting helicopters and tanks among ruins, over and over. Sure, the special effects are great: Oshii maximizes his budget limitations by using computer graphics sparingly compared to a Hollywood production. Most notable are the ways in which Avalon players disintegrate when killed out of the game. But Oshii saves most of his computer run time to play with the film's cinematography, pulling down the color and tweaking the luminosity so that when we do finally visit Class Real, reality looks like the most impressive special effect of all.
After a long delay (three years), Miramax finally released Avalon on DVD in the United States, where it landed with a thud of indifference by fans. It does not deserve that. Skip the English dub: It fills time with lame exposition when Oshii would rather just point his camera and let the audience figure it out. Imagine bad film noir narration cluttering up a Tarkovsky or Kieslowski film. The original Polish language track sounds more natural anyway. The anamorphic transfer captures the strange, often deliberately fuzzy coloring effects, although Miramax has chosen to frame the film in 1.85:1 rather than its original 1.66:1 shooting ratio. The Japanese Oshii admits in an interview included on the disc that he shot the film in Poland (with a Polish-speaking cast) because he wanted to create a "borderline cinema." To fuse European art films and Japanese anime, virtual and real—Avalon suggests a cyborg cinema consistent with the very themes of cyberpunk.
Avalon has an ethereal, elegiac quality that makes its vision of virtual reality more of a religious experience than the act of rebellion normally seen in cyberpunk tales. The washed-out color palette of both Ash's reality and the Avalon game reinforces our sense that access to the mysterious Class Real is really an act of transcendence, an idea that The Matrix sequels looked for a few minutes like they were going to pursue, before copping out with a big battle and narrative incoherence. If The Matrix devolved into a great big video game, Avalon shows us the sort of people who play that game—and the transcendence they are really searching for underneath it all.
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Scales of Justice
• "Special Effects of Avalon" Featurette
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