July 1, 2001
Starring: Malgorzata Foremniak, Wladyslaw Kowalski, Jerzy Gudejko, Dariusz Biskupski, Bartek Swiderski, Katarzyna Bargielowska, Alicja Sapryk, Michal Breitenwald, Zuzanna Kasz, Adam Szyszkowski, Krzysztof Szczerbinski, Marek Stawinski, Jaroslaw Budnik, Andrzej Debski, ,
When trailers for Avalon first appeared on the Ain’t-It-Cool-News website in 2001, it generated a moderate buzz. Beautifully choreographed, sepia-toned action sequences in the style of The Matrix (1999) certainly piqued a certain level of curiousity. It was also directed by the same person responsible for the landmark anime film, Ghost in the Shell (1995). Miramax bought the North American distribution rights and promptly sat on the film for three years (they are still sitting on Hong Kong sensations, Shaolin Soccer and Hero). They have finally released this movie quietly on DVD.
Avalon is set in a future where disillusioned people escape a bleak, dystopian world by plugging into a virtual reality war game (called Avalon) where players compete against each other either in teams or by themselves as they try to advance levels and avoid going brain-dead as a result of dying in the game. Ash (Foremniak) is an ace player who has been rapidly advancing through the levels of the game by herself. An anonymous player (Biskupski), who is clearly her equal, appears mysteriously in the game. Intrigued, she tries to find who he is but to no avail. Ash hears of a secret level in the game that cannot be escaped by resetting—you have to play it until the end. The degree of difficulty is extremely high but so are the experience points if one succeeds. So, Ash forms a team in an attempt to access this secret level and find out what lies beyond.
The film opens with a stunning action set piece that establishes the game world. A massive tank rumbles through a crumbling, decayed city while a huge flying warship bombs a city. Explosions are captured in slow motion, then frozen and dissected almost like the layers in a tree trunk. The way that this sequence is composed and rendered is obviously influenced by The Matrix and its groundbreaking visual effects. Unfortunately, it is such an impressive and exciting opening that the rest of the film is unable to equal it and comes across as anti-climatic as a result.
Every frame is beautifully composed, like a painting. There is some truly breathtaking imagery in this film—particularly the sequences that take place in the gameworld. The almost monochromatic look is quite striking. However, the visuals aren’t the only thing that Avalon borrows from The Matrix. The film’s notions of reality vs. virtual reality also seem to be influenced by the Wachowski brothers’ movie.
While there are only two extras included on the DVD, they are quite substantial in nature. “The Special FX of Avalon” is an hour-long, in-depth look at how the eye-popping visual effects of the film were created. For those who like these kinds of extras, this is definitely worth a look.
More cerebral in nature is the “Interview with Director Mamoru Oshii” that clocks in at just over 20 minutes. He talks at length about his childhood, his influences, working with actress Malgorzata Foremniak and his love of dogs. It provides some interesting background into Oshii’s motivations and influences while also allowing him to muse philosophically but doesn’t really provide any meaty info on the making of his film.
Avalon contains some striking visuals—even if, at times, they echo some of the imagery in The Matrix. While the style does tend to take precedence over the substance, there is a particular mood and atmosphere that is captivating if one is receptive to it. After three years and several dodgy regionless (and other regions) copies on DVD, fans of this movie have been rewarded with Region 1 DVD, complete with a pristine transfer and a couple of decent extras.