Review: Appleseed Alpha (2014)

appalphatl;dr summary: Appleseed Alpha is lovely to look at and beautifully rendered, but the story is lacking, the characters are unappealing, and the film’s emphasis on staying in the “badlands” manga scenarios is a disappointment.

I picked up a rental of Appleseed Alpha last night. I was on the fence about this movie to begin with after seeing the trailer online and not liking the character design for Deunan.

The apple(seed)s are falling very far from the tree these days. It seems to me that every incarnation of the Appleseed concept after the original animated OAV conversion in 1988 has gotten it wrong in some significant way. Appleseed Ex Machina (2007, also dir. Aramaki) suffered from an excess of attention given to invented characters that did not exist in the original manga and a lack of respect for the primary partnership of its central characters or the original manga’s world-building; these are both problems shared by Appleseed Alpha.

Alpha is actually really great to look at – the rendering is top notch. Although there are still problems with hair movement, the clothing, backgrounds, armors and all the mechanical animation on the various androids, bioroids, drones and mechanical walkers are exquisitely detailed. There’s also some stunning ruin porn settings of decayed, post-apocalyptic New York, so visually, the film is beyond reproach. Director Shinji Aramaki loves his mecha, and he’s been a fine mecha director for years – he just falls down when something more subtle or more human is required.

Appleseed Alpha draws very loosely on the original manga by cherrypicking a narrow number of scenarios from the storyline and shuffling them around to present them out of context. The tank battle in the first couple of issues of the manga is extended and its context changed. The spider tank battle that formed the critical end point of volume two, capping a debate about Olympus and bioroid technology in the original, is lifted and placed into the ruins of New York and stripped of its political contexts. These important sequences, put out of order where they don’t belong, don’t work as homages (except to irritate the long-time fan) and they don’t work as set pieces on their own. Alpha‘s action is bland and colorless, with no narrative heft and no real sense of danger, because we don’t care about the bickering pair in the middle of all the shooting and explosions.

In the original manga, Deunan and Briareos are experienced ESWAT combat partners as well as lovers, who absolutely relied and trusted on each other (and no one else) to survive in a dangerous, politically difficult post-apocalyptic world. In Appleseed Alpha, the characters seem to be content mostly sniping and bitching at each other, while the sense of trust is completely absent and the chemistry is completely nil. What we’re left with is a rather tedious shell of a set of characters we have no reason to empathize with. These characters yammer on about the importance of hope, and the like, but they feel dead inside thanks to the botched writing.

The film posits that Deunan and Bri are working as mercs for the lord of New York, a fat, irritating new invented character named Two Horns (who was not present in the original story) who runs the city. Nobody trusts anybody, of course. Deunan has heard of this place called “Olympus”, but Briareos doesn’t believe in such a place. This is a new invention for the movie; in the manga, Deunan and Bri were aware of Olympus but deeply wary of it, and part of the overall story involved their struggles as trained, somewhat feral soldiers to adapt to a society that seemed peaceful on the surface, but was actually full of dangerous political currents ready to explode into violence. Characters in the manga struggled with the notion of Olympus (and by proxy civilization itself) as a ‘cage’ or ‘trap’ – in the movie, it’s played off as some kind of urban legend.

The characters are doing ‘jobs’ for Two Horns to pay off some unspecified debt, which is implied to be the ongoing repair and fueling of Briareos, the cyborg of the pair. While cleaning out some rogue drones they encounter two strangers – a girl, Iris, fulfilling the original role played by Hitomi in the manga, and her companion, who blunder into the scene by accident while trying to get to another location to stop some kind of mobile weapon platform. These individuals are also being hunted by agents from “Triton”, which the film never bothers to explain to the uninformed is actually a political branch of “Poseidon”, one of the surviving nation-states that opposes Olympus. Anyone not familiar with that little detail from the manga will completely lose the point of the plot here, as we are never told inside the film that such a place as Poseidon even exists, or what its relevance is to anything in particular. The sheer coincidence of this meeting is even called out by Iris at the time. Then a bunch of shenanigans follow, the weapons platform is discovered and activated, Two Horns has a more intricate plot arc than either Deunan or Bri (who don’t change at all in the course of the film except to get a couple of small power-ups; they react to events rather than drive them.) Things blow up, the bad guys are stopped, everything is forgiven, and we never get to Olympus. Perhaps Aramaki thought we saw too much of Olympus in the last movie, so now we don’t get to see it at all in this one.

This is the kind of movie where idealists get shot in the face and tossed out of moving airplanes, and where the “tough” characters try to protect the “innocent” ones, and it’s all thinking it’s very deep, but it’s that kind of bland nihilism that isn’t even challenging, just boring. It does no service to the original concepts it’s cutting and pasting, and fails to embrace the real core of Appleseed‘s story: the struggle to balance mankind’s weakest urges with our noblest urges and the question of whether we lose or gain more by banding together as a ‘civilization’, or whether the individual, with its violent and selfish urges, is still more valuable and more necessary to human progress than the idea of ‘orderly society’.

To be fair, even Shirow himself couldn’t answer these questions, and the work has been abandoned in mid-stream for something like 20 years now. Maybe it’s not so much that the apple(seed) is falling too far from the tree, it’s that the tree itself is dead.

“Either you accept the world as it is, or you work to build a better one,” say the characters to each other at one point in the film. But in the case of all of Appleseed‘s fruits, it’s better to go back to the original, which even in its incomplete state is still the better world of all available choices.