Avalon (2001) / Sci Fi-Fantasy
aka Gate to Avalon

MPAA Rated: R for violence
Running Time: 106 min.

Cast: Malgorzata Foremniak, Jerzy Gudejko, Bartek Swiderski, Dariusz Biskupski, Wladyslaw Kowalski
Mamoru Oshii
Screenplay: Kazunori Ito
Review published January 31, 2003

When one character in the movie Avalon is asked if he is real or not, his response is, "Does it matter?"  With video games becoming more and more realistic, and players able to interact for hours in a virtual world, it's becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between reality and an online reality.  When so many people share an experience, whether it is real or imagined, it is still, nonetheless, a shared experience.  If everyone spent most of their lives interacting with each other in a virtual world, wouldn't that world and whatever happens in it become the reality?

Avalon marks longtime anime director Mamoru Oshii's (Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor) first venture into the world of live action films, bringing a other-worldly vision to what might have been pedestrian fare in the hands of most other directors.  For all of its high-concept theories about what is real and what is simulation, Avalon actually scores more points as a unique visual experience much more so than as a richly detailed story.  I'm not normally one to praise eye-candy over good characterizations, but Oshii's brand of storytelling is inherently visual, utilizing symbols, icons and atmosphere to allow the viewer to piece together what's really going on. 

Thematically, it will most likely remind many viewers of The Matrix, with its virtual reality backdrop and the real world vs. the simulated world comparisons.  In truth, it would be disingenuous to knock Oshii or screenwriter and longtime collaborator, Ito, for ripping off the Wachowski brothers, when the Wachowskis utilized several ideas from Oshii/Ito's previous works when creating their own high-concept VR thriller.  Cyclical cannibalism notwithstanding, Avalon is actually much more thematically tied in with another computer simulation fantasy, The Thirteenth Floor, which blurred the lines in a similar way regarding virtual worlds that seem like the real world, and vice versa. 

Most interesting, although a Japanese production, Avalon features a cast, crew and locales in Poland, marrying the two different cultures in a way that makes the film unique in look and design.  The main story takes place someplace in Central Europe itself, although with it all being a game simulation, its unclear if that's reality or just part of this particular game's design.  It's the near future, where people plug into an online game, gaining experience points that translates to things like wealth, fame and social position for the players, both in the game and in the "real world."  The heroine of this story is Ash, one of the best players of this game dubbed "Avalon".  Although many players team up for strength in numbers, Ash likes to play solo, and the game represents an addiction and an exhilarating release for her, constantly trying to get to the next level and be better than the rest.  Although a simulation, there is also danger, as some players who have tried to progress further fall out from the high stakes of the advanced levels, causing the players to become mentally damaged to incapacitation.  Ash soon learns that there is another level to the game that may unlock secrets and put her among the elite of the virtual world, but getting there requires her to build a team, while also not being able to turn back in this "kill or be killed" scenario.

The Avalon of the film's title is an allusion to the mystical island told about in Arthurian legends, where the best of the best warriors eventually go when they pass on from the world, watched over by the nine sisters of Morgan Le Fay.  The same theory applies in the game, where the best players get to go to Avalon, theoretically becoming one of the main components of the game itself, and this passage is also guarded by Nine Sisters.  Unlike The Matrix, the allusions to other works is kept to a bare minimum, although the audio and visual themes do bolster the rather scant storyline with a layer of depth without much exposition necessary.

Avalon is a marvel of cinematography and graphics design, shooting much of the film in sepia tones, although the use of full color in certain key ways to produce a wonderful effect on our perceptions of reality.  While the writing and direction are from the Japanese faction, the cinematography and production design comes from the Polish team of Grzegorz Kedzierski and Barbara Nowak, both of whom worked together on the 1996 WWII flick, Colonel Kwiatkowski.  The look and feel of a Poland in the throes of war are accurately replicated here, and although supposedly depicted within the confines of a game, there is an authentic European quality to the battle sequences.  Meanwhile, the Japanese action pacing and unique art design gives the war-torn streets a science fiction quality that is essential, perfectly marrying the two very different cultures without losing the integrity of either one of them.

For as much as one can praise the technical elements of Avalon, the story is on the lean side, sticking with barebones plotting and minimal character interaction.  Although it's an intelligently conceived film, the story and dialogue itself stays in the realm of the superficial, and with all of Oshii's assets when it comes to bringing an anime look to a live action vehicle, he also keeps the characters at anime depth as well.  Of course, Avalon's main thrust isn't about the characters, merely using them as vessels which bring forward the concepts, and the philosophies behind them.  Depending on your theories as to what the film is all about, the one-dimensional outlook and lack of humanism among the characters can be easily explained away.

Avalon will probably be heralded as a great movie by the geek culture crowd, as it features lots of technology, role playing elements, abstract theory, and anime, which are all staples in any true geek's diet.  It should also pique the interest of science fiction fanatics, particularly those who enjoy films that dabble in a more philosophical approach to virtual reality type action, a la Tron and The Matrix.  With a bit more richness in context and a higher complexity in plot, Avalon could have had a chance to appeal to a broader base of viewers, but all things considered, it probably would have lost some of its hardcore following, as cult films are far more beloved when largely ignored by the masses. 

Avalon remains a thought-provoking curiosity, so beautifully rendered and technically brilliant, it's a like a video game come to life.  Or is life really just one big video game...?

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo