Avalon (2001)

After a six-year hiatus following the release of Ghost in the Shell, anime legend Mamoru Oshii returned to directing with this utterly remarkable live action film.

During that break, he’d godfathered the production of Blood:  The Last Vampire as a test bed for new CG animation technologies that allowed him to bring dramatic movie lighting to animated film.  While he created Blood as a sort of dry run for his intended Ghost in the Shell sequel, he first used his new toys on Avalon, to give his live action footage a truly unique look almost unachievable using traditional cinematography.  While in the past, directors had to use a risky and unpredictable combination of filters and special printing processes to tint their footage, Oshii could now create a truly unreal and unworldly look that leaves the film looking remarkably like the animated imagery of Blood and Ghost in the Shell:  Innocence.  But almost as much of that unworldly feeling comes from yet another of his eccentric choices:  Oshii chose to film in Poland, using Polish actors (who were unknown in the West) – and even shot it in Polish.

Avalon, an illegal immersive MMORPG virtual reality wargame, is one of the few escapes available for those trying to eke out an existence in a crumbling world in some not-too-distant future.  The best players can actually make a living playing the game, and some of the most successful teams are now legendary.

But there is something wrong:  a number of players have lapsed into comas and there are strange rumors about a secret level and a mysterious “ghost” that seems to have some connection with it.  One of the best players, Ash, encounters the ghost and becomes obsessed with finding the mysterious “Special Class A” level.

While most films set within virtual reality games – like Nirvana or Existenz – fail to give any real sense of actual gameplay within their virtual worlds, Avalon seems quite believable, with a lot of detail given to the mechanics of the game.  Apparently, during his stretches of unemployment during the 90s, Oshii spent a lot of time playing the Wizardry MMORPG games, and he brought a lot of that experience into the film.

Those unfamiliar with Oshii’s work might be expecting some sort of non-stop action film:  instead, this is a deliberate and thoughtful, even meditative, work, more focused on ideas than on spectacle.  Mind you, with Oshii onboard, we get plenty of that as well (I particularly like the explosions in the world of Avalon, which, when our perspective on them shifts, are revealed to be made of layers of 2-D elements).

Again, while this will not surprise Oshii’s fans, casual viewers probably won’t know what to make of Oshii’s deliberately ambiguous ending.

Or in other words, for many viewers, Avalon will be slow, confusing and ultimately left unresolved.

But those who can grasp what Oshii is trying to do will find this a stunningly beautiful and poetic work which lingers with the viewer long after he’s forgotten other, more accessible films.

(For more about Mamoru Oshii, see here).

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