Turgid Seventh Seal - Counterstrike hybrid bores more than it entertains.

Released in 2001, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 08 Jan 2003 by Scott Morris
Avalon image

Having heard nothing about this film before going to see it save that it was directed by Mamoru Oshii and written by Kazunori Ito, both of classic anime Ghost In The Shell fame (amongst others, Patlabor, many Urusei Yatsura episodes and OVA's), I was rather expecting an anime. The fact it was live action came as a bit of a surprise to me. I was rather more surprised after watching for ten minutes and noticing it was a film trying to be an anime.

First, a warning - this review is somewhat spoilerific. If you're definitely going to see this soon either in the cinemas or are eagerly awaiting the arrival of your DVD copy, perhaps hold off on reading until after you've seen it. If you're just interested in what this film is, please read on.

The story follows Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak) as she takes part in a virtual reality military combat game, Avalon, not a million miles away from the mechanics of Counterstrike. Bullets fly, tanks shell, attack helicopters bomb, dogs of war are let slip. It soon becomes obvious that Ash is good. Damn good. She easily dispatches her opponents, who shimmer and disappear in a puff of pixels. The end of level boss, if you will, is one of the aforesaid gunships, which proves to be no match for Ash's skill with a sniper rifle. The mission is over, the game ends.

At this point Ash is returned to the real world, and at this point you'll notice something strange, as everything seems a touch yellow. All of her world is in this bizarre tint, for no readily explicable reason at this point. It perhaps reflects her life, which is terribly mundane. She cashes in her points earned during the game and takes the tram home, a tram filled with people who never move. She walks up the steps past people who never move. She sits at her computer, motionless as we have nice long shots of her doing nothing. This may be a great technique for emphasising how dull her ordinary world is, with it's poverty and food little better than slop. However, it achieves this by being dull in itself. There are a few sequences such as this as Ash moves between her reality and her virtual reality, and they are all equally pedestrian.

It's also clear that Oshii seems to be applying the same techniques that work so well in his anime to this film. The framing of shots, the long tracking sequences, the way the actors lines are delivered just scream anime. The results are less successful than I would have hoped, proving to be jarring more than anything else, hurting the atmosphere rather than adding to it. To me it seemed a continual reminder that this is a film, stopping me from becoming absorbed in Oshii's world. I wonder how this looks to someone who has watched little to no anime, however. What seems to me to be strange and atmosphere draining may be the opposite to others. The plaudits this film has gained may well point at that.

During her joyless existence in the real world she meets an old friend from a now defunct team, Stunner (Bartek Swiderski). He gives a bit of background about her old days and relationship with the team's leader, Murphy (Jerzy Gudejko). He tells Ash Murphy is now in hospital, little more than a vegetable, apparently one of the people who retreated so far into the game he never returned. He also gives some cryptic information about a hidden level somehow accessible once her character has 'levelled up' enough and cleared all the missions. This piques her interest, and she tries to find out how to get into this secret area, aided by her computer. Computer technology apparently grows so powerful in this world that at least four keyboards are required to control it. This does not go to plan as she is duped by a gang of miscreants masquerading as the 'nine sisters' she seeks. She escapes this situation by the equivalent of Ctrl-Alt-Del, hitting the Reset. This now has some bonus physiological effects as well, inducing nausea and vomiting.

Avalon image

After meeting with Stunner again, he has found out that the area is accessed by following a 'ghost' of a child, the catch being the ghost only appears when the party includes a high level Bishop character. We have been introduced to one in the film before, handily enough named Bishop (Dariusz Biskupski). Ash is spared the bother of tracking him down when he shows up on her doorstep. Ash figures out that something is unusual about this guy, and he certainly isn't playing the game the same way as the rest of them. However, she agrees to join with him to form a team to try and explore this strange new world.

It all sounds intriguing on paper, but the way it unfolds is just too dull to build any real empathy or understanding with these characters. I feel I am doing an injustice to this film, as some of the scenes are quite mesmerising and beautifully framed. Yet some how still dull. I was trying hard to like this film, but I could not connect with it on any particular level. It's occasionally spellbinding, it's just quite a boring spell.

After another battle against a fairly impressive machine inappropriately called a citadel, Ash finds the ghost and chases her into the next level, which is essentially reality as we know it. It looks unsurprisingly like Poland, that being where it was filmed and all. The strange colour tinting is replaced with our usual garish colour scheme that haunts our everyday existence, with its flashing, distasteful soft drink ads. Perhaps our world could look better being toned down a little, it certainly shocks the eyeballs when exposed to it again after the hour's deprivation from it. The plot, as is explained by the games master (unfortunately not played by Patrick Moore), is to find the rest of the players in this level, those who had not returned, and kill them, while taking care not to harm the many NPC characters wandering about such as you or I. She is informed of a starting point, the opera house. On arrival, she meets with Murphy. After a heart to heart about the nature of reality and of the game, she ends up killing Murphy. Who bleeds for a while, suckering us perhaps for a while into believing this is reality. Not so, however, as he vanishes in a puff of pixels. The ghost reappears, taking her to another level, Avalon, saying this is where Ash belongs.

All of this raises more questions than it answers, on purely a plot level even before attempting an examination on a more metaphysical level. Murphy's death and subsequent vanishing says that the reality which may or may not be what we live in is a game, and Murphy has returned somewhere. That would most likely be the tinted reality that Ash is familiar with, however as Murphy is currently unplugged and lying in a hospital, how can he return? If it was a game, how could he exist inside the game having been unplugged? Has his consciousness been somehow uploaded, perhaps making him a ghost in the machine rather than the shell? Where the hell does Ash go? Is going to Avalon returning to her world, which certainly isn't the implication from throughout the film, and would indeed render the film a tad pointless if it ends up back at the start. Is Avalon a strange digital world of mists and apple groves, as spoken of in the songs throughout the film? Something else entirely? Little to no details are given out about it during the film. Is it some kind of ascension to another plane of existence, or a purely digital being, or godhood, or one of another hundred options? Why are people rewarded in this fashion for being good at killing people, albeit digital representations of them? Is this the film's basic message, killing = good? Surely not.

This nonsense aside (and nonsense it is, because it simply cannot make sense) it could be interpreted on a more mundane level of to what level do we play games to escape reality or search for reality in games, and the dangers of becoming more immersed in a game persona than your real one. The cautionary tale is duly noted, but blindingly obvious. It feels as though Oshii was striving for more than this. Like parts of his anime, Ghost in the Shell in particular, a high emphasis is placed on the visuals, which has long been an arthouse tradition from the likes of Bergman. However in this cast it's simply stylish visuals for the sake of stylish visuals, there is no additional understanding given to the subject. This hurts the film, as the plot then cannot be supported by the minimal exposition given in the dialogue.

Avalon image

This has been hailed by many as thought-provoking and complex, however the only thoughts it really raised with me are how it cannot resolve it's own internal story, so how can it send any greater message about our own stories, or rather the collection of which we call life? With this aspect removed the film then actually becomes shallow and vapid, a series of swish visuals with no greater meaning. It may yet be seen that I have totally misinterpreted the film's intentions and on a second viewing could appreciate it more, but I found the film itself to be so inherently dull for most of the first hour that I have little to no inclination to watch it again. It certainly felt longer than its 109 minute running time.

I seem to have avoided talking about some on the more mundane aspects, so a quick word on them. The film as mentioned is set in Poland, using Polish actors who understandably speak Polish. My standard foreign language disclaimer applies, it is difficult in many cases to distinguish a mediocre performance from a good one when you can't understand any of the meanings of the tone and inflection given to the dialogue. Bad acting normally stands out though, so I'll assume everyone here is competent - certainly no complaints from me on that score. The score has been hailed as masterful, I'd go more with derivative. It sounds rather like the playstation game Metal Gear Solid, I think. This is unusual, but works well enough. The combat scenes inside the game are reasonably well done, doing all that's intended of them.

Enough people have been raving about this to make me worry I've missed the point somewhat, but I can't really think how. It certainly doesn't fall into the masterpiece category some people have placed it in. I have the strange feeling that if this had been made as an anime, I would have enjoyed it a lot more. The conventions that are generally accepted in the world of animation would probably have made this a stunning work in terms of scope and cinematography, but when filmed live action in the real world it loses something, coming across as trite, conceited and, well, dull. I can't recommend this film, but if the review has intrigued you it may be worthwhile seeing it. You may well fall into the category of people who think it's a work of genius, but there seems to be no middle ground in the love/hate spectrum for this.

Cronenberg's eXistenZ has a similar sort of plot, but it's ultimately medicore. In terms of style and to an extent plot it mirrors Dark City, which is worth watching. I still have to say Ghost In The Shell remains Oshii and Ito's opus. The many flaws in this film just drag it down too much for it to be anything meaningful.

The fact I've managed to find so much to write about it should probably count in its favour, but nonetheless I can only give this 2/5 Tippymarks, with half that on style alone.

Mamoru Oshii
Cast list:
Malgorzata Foremniak (Ash)
Bartek Swiderski (Stunner)
Jerzy Gudejko (Murphy)
Dariusz Biskupski (Bishop)