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the best movie you've never heard of

A few weeks ago I was talking with Patroklos, a fellow NTRGer, about Matrix Reloaded, when he said, "have you seen Avalon?"

I said: Avalon?

Patroklos then proceeded not only to tell me about it ("It's The Matrix as it should have been" was one of the things he said), but also helped me procure a copy. :-)

And finally yesterday (or, more accurately, early this morning) I had some time to sit down and watch it.

So what is Avalon? It's a fantastic science-fiction movie that is, as far as I'm concerned, a worthy heir to the kind of cinema defined by 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Bladerunner, although probably slightly more introspective than those two. Created by a (largely) Japanese crew, a well-known director of Anime who nevertheless opted for live-action, shot in Poland, with Polish actors, with dialog in Polish.

The director is Mamoru Oshii, who also directed Ghost in the Shell, one of the best Anime movies ever made (There is an official a website for the movie, with minimal information and a good trailer). As the movie begins, we get the following introduction:

The near future. Some people deal with their disillusionment by seeking out illusions of their own - in an illegal virtual reality war game. Its simulated thrills and deaths are compulsive and addictive. Some players, working in teams called 'parties' even earn their living from the game.
The game has its dangers. Sometimes it can leave a player brain-dead, needing constant medical care. Such victims are called 'unreturned'. The game is named after the legendary island where the souls of departed heroes come to rest: Avalon.

The comparisons with Matrix are inevitable but a bit regrettable. It's a different, and in many ways, better approach to the subject. The special effects don't get in the way. There is no grandstanding on the part of the characters, no overarching proclamations, and no explanations in the Hollywood style (as in most Anime, or as in Bladerunner and 2001). No need for a character like "The Architect" in Reloaded, in fact, a character like that would be completely out of place in Avalon.

In a sense, Avalon reminds me of ExistenZ, the David Cronenberg film that was released in 1999 close to The Matrix. More introspective, less in-your-face pyrotechnics that left you with more questions, and a greater sense of unease.

Sadly, Avalon hasn't been released yet, neither in theaters or on DVDs in English (although there are DVD versions in Polish of course, as well as others with Japanese and subtitled in some European languages, such as German). Apparently Miramax has acquired the distribution rights to it, so there could be a release soon. I'm not holding my breath though... I guess that with all the Matrix-related hype it would be difficult to release Avalon and not see it swallowed by it, or compared unfavorably to it by critics that would deride the ambiguous ending or the introspective nature of the movie. This is sad though: The Matrix didn't invent anything in terms of visual style, or in terms of story. All those themes already existed, obviously in literature, but also in movies and Anime. As I've mentioned before, there are many, many, many, "similarities" both in terms of visuals and in terms of story between Matrix and Anime classics such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell, and maybe this fact is what drove Oshii to give his own live-action take on the genre.

Anyway, an instant classic. I'll be eagerly awaiting a theatrical or DVD release. :-)

Posted by diego on July 16 2003 at 1:17 PM

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