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Review: Avalon

The recent Ghost in the Shell remake reignited my desire to seek out more of famed anime director Mamoru Oshii’s work, particularly Avalon, his live-action, Polish-language sci-fi thriller. I believe the film is currently out of print, but I managed to find a copy of Miramax’s DVD release for a reasonable price.

In many ways, Avalon feels like Oshii’s response to The Matrix, which explicitly drew inspiration from his adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. Both movies revolve around the concept of virtual reality, though the eponymous Avalon is not a prison (initially, anyway), but a multiplayer war simulation. Participants complete generic “missions" (destroy a battalion of tanks, shoot down a helicopter, etc.) to earn experience points, which can then be traded for everything from in-game items and upgrades to cold, hard cash. Some, however, are in it for the sheer thrill, going so far in their pursuit of the ultimate digital high that they lose their minds, leaving their bodies empty, bed-ridden husks.

Oshii’s world-building is immaculate, utilizing just enough recognizable lingo—D&D-inspired character classes (Warrior, Thief, Mage) and attributes (Strength, Agility, Wisdom), the existence of PvP griefing, and even an entire set piece built around lag—to craft the most authentic cinematic depiction of gamer culture I’ve ever encountered. And while the CGI hasn’t aged gracefully, many of the visuals—for example, when the camera pans around to reveal that an explosion is actually a two-dimensional render—remain clever and creative. Of course, Oshii rarely stops at surface-level pleasures; Avalon offers yet another compelling meditation on the nature of consciousness and the soul in the age of computerization. In one of my favorite scenes, the protagonist asks the “Game Master” that supervises her gameplay sessions whether he’s a human administrator or a sophisticated A.I. His reply: “Does it really matter?”

Not even the shoddy subtitles (which seem to transcribe the dub track—including voiceover narration that doesn’t exist in the original Polish audio!) could dampen my enjoyment of this masterpiece of transhumanist fiction. With so much of Oshii’s work currently unavailable in the U.S. (most notably Angel’s Egg, his surreal collaboration with Final Fantasy artist Yoshitaka Amano), I’m glad I was able to scratch this one off my list.

[Originally written May 24, 2017.]

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