Masamune Shirow’s manga never seems to make a graceful transition to animation, no matter how many times people try. While some productions may get close or manage to be interesting works in their own right, none of the animated adaptations really manage to capture the essence of the originals. That doesn’t stop people from trying though, as Shinji Aramaki attempted to do with the second feature film based on Shirow’s first professional published work, 2007’s Appleseed: Ex Machina.
Despite CG visuals that are legitimately impressive, Ex Machina manages to disappoint on nearly every other level. Not only does it commit the error of failing to live up to its source material, or even really resembling the source material, but fails as a compelling film in its own right. Ultimately it will leave you wondering: why the hell did they call this Appleseed?
As you’d expect, Ex Machina’s plot focuses on Deunan Knute and her cyborg lover/partner Briareos Hecatonchires. Both are members of ESWAT, near-utopian city state Olympus’ elite counter-terrorism squad. Things start off with a hostage rescue in an old cathedral, where the film wastes no time in showing off the involvement of producer John Woo by throwing in a shootout with a lot of dramatic leaping, jumping through stain glass windows, double-wielding guns and all the other goofy shit that Woo likes to throw into his films.
Not only does this go against the fundamental Appleseed idea of Deunan and Briareos being members of a tactical counter-terrorism squad, but flies in the face of the original, which featured actual tactics and logic in its shootouts. It attested to Shirow’s penchant for actual research and his firearms-and-militaria fetish. Clearly, Ex Machina was intended to be an over-the-top action film in the vein of Woo’s “classics,” its creators apparently oblivious to the fact that Woo’s gaudy style of gun play was played out a decade ago.
Though of course, Woo didn’t direct this. The director was Shinji Aramaki, whose past directing credits include small time OAVs like MADOX-01, Genesis Surviver Gaiarth and Megazone 23 Part III. Suffice it to say, his influence on this film is largely transparent, as it struggles to survive on a mix of Woo-isms (although it’s worth mentioning that the doves in Ex Machina do play a very small part in the plot–which may be a first for a Woo film) and science fiction cliches, as I’ll soon explain.
After the hostage rescue in the cathedral, Briareos suffers some serious injuries. While he’s recuperating in the hospital Deunan is partnered up with ESWAT’s newest member, Tereus, a clone of Briareos. This particular plot point is worth criticizing for a number reasons. First off, cloning a person who suffered extensive injuries and now has to use an almost entirely cybernetic body is kind of a dick move, as you’re basically rubbing his lack of humanity in his face and reminding him what he’s lost. Secondly, sending him to work in the same organization where he works, and partnering that clone up with his girlfriend isn’t just a dick move, it seems like you’re begging for some problems for all of those involved.
Surprisingly, no one really seems that bothered by it, certainly not Briareos. Deunan makes a few comments about her discomfort with the situation, but gets over it soon enough, and everyone else just seems completely oblivious to the fact that such a situation might be really fucking weird for her and Briareos. It’s also worth pointing out that in the original manga Briareos was black. Tereus certainly isn’t. Whether or not this was a deliberate choice or just an oversight, I have no idea.
With the Tereus side story playing in the background (very far in the background), the rest of the hackneyed story gets started by introducing the Connexus, a personal holographic media device that looks like a cross between a Bluetooth cell phone headset and virtual reality goggles. As the Connexus skyrockets in popularity among the population of Olympus, crazed people start doing random, violent acts, and, as you’d expect, the Connexus has something to do with it.
Turns out a group of scientists designed the thing as a brain control device for reasons never really explained, just that they want to bring everyone into one worldwide consciousness. Of course, the main antagonist behind this devious plot commits suicide shortly after Briareos figures it out, so what he was hoping to accomplish is hard to say. It’s a lot like that one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation with a bit of Neon Genesis Evangelion thrown in there for good measure. There’s also zombies, as once the Connexus mind control is triggered users turn into brain-dead, foot-shuffling zombies.
Deunan, Briareos and Tereus find out that the only way to stop the mind control and save Olympus is to destroy an abandoned factory in the middle of the ocean used by the cabal of scientists for reasons that are (as you guessed) never really explained. What follows is a finale that feels a lot like the ending of the Patlabor movie, with a dash of Matrix: Revolutions and ALIENS thrown in. The final boss (which really is the best way to describe the character they face at the end of the movie) looks like she walked out of a Final Fantasy game and feels out of place with the rest of the film’s aesthetic.
While I’d be far more inclined to excuse this kind of unoriginal plot in just about any other movie, it does absolutely no justice to the kind of complex political story lines found in the original Appleseed manga. Ex Machina is the equivalent of intellectual strip mining: they’ve taken the names and the designs from the comic and completely ignored anything else of value from the original source material, turning it into a mindless action movie that vaguely looks like Appleseed, but feels nothing like it.
A big part of what makes Shirow’s manga so great is its depth. It’s clear (often painfully so) that he uses a lot of real world reference material when building the settings for his stories. He crafts a definitive logic behind each world he creates. The amount of work and preparation is readily apparent in the fact that works like Ghost in the Shell have footnotes and extensive world notes in the back of each volume. Reading a Shirow comic is very similar to reading an actual book, but Ex Machina displays none of that kind of depth.
There’s nothing wrong with an adaption differing from its source material, assuming that the adaption is interesting or worthwhile in its own right. Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell is a particularly good example as it ignores or changes large parts of the Ghost in the Shell story while still standing on its own as a worthwhile film. Unfortunately Aramaki is no Oshii, and a trite film like Ex Machina leads me to believe that he’s better off sticking to designing transforming motorcycles rather than tackling feature films.
With Ghost in the Shell, Oshii brought in his own style and interpretation of the series, which helped it stand as a worthy, albeit different, take on the original comic. Aramaki fails to do this, as any individual character he might have imparted on the film is buried under an avalanche of cliches and borrowed ideas with a heavy dose of aformented John Woo-isms, obscuring anything of value that might have been taken from the manga.
It’s a real shame that Ex Machina‘s story disappoints, because visually the film is amazing. Perfecting the 3D computer graphics used in the first film, Ex Machina’s visuals are impressive in a way that Japanese animation rarely is. Everything is spot on, even the faces, the place 3D-generated films typically stumble when trying to reproduce the anime aesthetic. There’s a slight hint of cell shading that works really well, but isn’t overdone or distracting. It reminds me of a Pixar film, not that it’s of equivalent quality per se, but the visual quality is so transcendent that you are not constantly reminded that you’re watching a 3DCG movie.
The action is equally impressive, even if I’m not a fan of the style or its place in a film called Appleseed. It’s dramatic, well shot and exciting in a way that, again, Japanese animation rarely is. But there’s no reason the action couldn’t have been just as exciting without the Woo style gun play, although I expect that John Woo’s name on the DVD box will do more to sell copies than any other aspect of the film.
In the end, all I can do is lament the inability of the Japanese animation industry to properly adapt Shirow’s work and recommend you not watch Ex Machina if you’re looking for any sort of decent film. On the other hand, if you’re looking for an anime title that will visually blow any other Japanese animated film of the last 15 years out of the water, Ex Machina is probably the best that you’ll find. Just don’t go in expecting a decent storyline, or any similarity to a manga titled Appleseed