Review: Avalon (2001)

The deluge of reviews continues.

I have an enormous net-flix queue with something like 164 DVDs waiting to be seen. This is probably because any time something vaguely interesting pops on the screen I queue it. At this point I’ve figured that if I’m going to be watching all these things I may as well solidify a few thoughts on the subject, tout the things I love and warn others away from garbage. And here’s this handy blog-type-thing that might be of use in that capacity, so what the hey?

This week the question is asked, “Avalon (2001): Poor man’s Matrix or cyberpunk noir classic?”

The answer to this is mostly rhetorical, pretty subjective and at least in my case “a little of both”. But having answered this question I’m going to go ahead and expound on it for a few more paragraphs anyway.

Synopsis with complete spoilers (what else?):

In some near future Europe (apparently Poland in particular) there’s a somewhat illegal, underground community dedicated to playing the immersive virtual reality game called Avalon. The virtual environment is generally a war-torn WWI or WWII kind of place with rare but occasional exaggerated features or slightly anachronistic vehicles.

Apparently there are specific “roles” you can take on as well although their specific contributions aren’t well defined. Of these only warrior, bishop, and thief show up much in the movie. Warriors are straighforward killers, Bishops have something to do with controlling information, and Thieves have more to do with scouting ahead (both in and out of game) and gathering information.

Playing Avalon costs money (partly for virtual ammo, equipment, etc.) but if you win scenarios consistantly you can actually make money playing. A large number of players take teams in the game to better their odds. If a scenario is going badly you can call a “Reset”, but aside from losing face it’s also a bit traumatic and induces a good chunder. And that isn’t the worst: some folks called “non-returners” go permemantly catatonic from exposure to the virtual environment.

The protagonist is a woman named Ash who used to be with a team called Wizard years ago. But the team disbanded and she now spends her days mulling over the past and making a living as one of the best solo Warriors in Avalon. She mentions that all it takes to split up a team is one person calling “Reset” at the wrong time. From a few flashbacks we’re led to believe that she might be the person who called “Reset” on one of Wizard’s missions.

In the game (and later in the real world) some mysterious Bishop is watching her now and then from a distance. Later she bumps into an old teammate, a Thief, who is not doing so well on his own (apparently Thieves work best on a team). She buys him lunch and he tells her about one of their former teammates who is now a non-returner.

The Thief also tells her about some mysterious ghost girl who’s been seen in the game on occasion. It’s rumored this ghost is a gate to some deeper level the developers have been working on, a level where you can’t “Reset” or refuse a mission. And apparently every time folks see this ghost girl there’s always a high level Bishop around somewhere.

The Bishop approaches Ash in the real world and sort of invites her to the mystery. It turns out he’s one of the successors to Avalon’s creators. Apparently she can get access to the ghost if she gets a certain number of points. He arranges it so that they’ll take a team (including her Thief comrad and a bunch of ‘bots) and fight some giant war-machine in a warehouse. The scenario plays out well except that the Thief gets killed at the end.

She sees the ghost, tracks it down, and gets it. Ash then wakes up on an interface-chair in a drab little room like the ones she normally wakes up in. She’s now in the deeper layer and is given a mission to kill a rogue guy who’s body is comatose in a hospital, but whose mind is still wandering Avalon. The deeper layer seems more real than normal life and there are motifs here and there from Ash’s personal life in the real world.

Unsuprisingly it turns out that the rogue-mind she’s hunting is her non-returner former teammate. It turns out he was the one who called Reset all those years ago because he wanted to break up the team, knowing you could earn points more quickly as a solo than on a team and he wanted to get to this place as fast as possible. When he got to this level it was so much more real that he wanted to stay.

There’s some existential questioning and “what is the nature of reality” stuff. Could this be the real reality and the other world is just an illusion? All this is questionable and up in the air until she kills him and he de-rezes.

Thoughts: I liked Avalon alot personally, but I can see how it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

There was some action, but it’s quite a long way from being the wire-fu fest that The Matrix was. I suspect this was probably due in part to budgetary restrictions and partly a choice to focus on stuff other than action and effects (junk like plot and characters and stuff).

The clothing, sets, and props, especially in the virtual Avalon sequences were pretty cool: modern or slightly futuristic but evoking decay and various historic eras as well.

Also the use of color was pretty nice. In Avalon things were generally monochrome. In the real world colors were also mostly subdued except for the occasional shot of food or something. But even those only stood out slightly (not like Sin City or even Pleasantville). On the other hand the deeper level of Avalon was actually rendered as normal color footage. Somehow the effect was less like The Wizard of Oz where you think, “Wow! The movie magic of Technicolor.” Instead the contrast seemed more natural and made you realize that there was some vigor or life that was missing throughout the rest of the film.

Shots ran a little long, sort of in the way that some of the shots for anime like the Patlabor movie tend to. Probably this was intended to add to ambiance or something. It did have the desired effect, but things still seemed to drag on a little long at times.

Even though the movie had alot of stylized and artsy aspects I got the impression that it was really capturing some of the mundane and gritty details of the setting well.

For example, they show Ash in her underwear lying in the interface-chair a couple times. Now she’s a pretty attractive woman, but she’s just wearing regular, probably comfortable, but not especially flattering underwear. If this were a typical Hollywood movie I’d more expect them to either give her some sort of sexy, curve enhancing undergarment, or make some attempt to find vaguely futuristic looking neglige.

It’s the same thing with the more realistic deeper layer of Avalon: the people there are in color. There are more of them and it’s less drab than reality, but they aren’t all professional models or perfect. It just looks like a more prosperous time and place in the our world than some idealized or stylized reality. For the most part Ash looks overdressed and out of place walking down the sidewalks in the cocktail-dress costume she’s been given for the mission.

Related Material: While watching this a bunch of other films and series kept comming to mind. I don’t know if they’re influences, but they certainly have some similar elements to them. List commences below:

The Thirteenth Floor – This movie came out the same year as The Matrix and was largely dwarfed by it. It also deals with nested layers of virtual realities, but focuses more on people spawned of the virtual world than those merely immersed in it.

Wild Palms – The original series (maybe?) about too much immersion in a virtual reality. Also had strong elements of corporate takeover and addiction.

Ghost in the Shell (especially 2) – Alot of the shots reminded me of the first Ghost in the Shell movie. But one element in particular, Ash’s dog, has almost an exact analogue in Ghost in the Shell 2. Now that the internet feeds the information to my brain these coincidences could be due to the fact that Mamoru Oshî directed Avalon and both wrote and directed Ghost in the Shell 2.

Incidently the bonus material features an interview with Oshî in which he says that when they were taking certain things, like the army tanks, off the set after shooting he wanted to run after then and beg them to bring the stuff back. Apparently he felt that way when they had to take the dog too. In fact he almost seemed about to tear up even talking about the dog.

Stray Dogs & The Red Spectacles – You know, I’m an idiot. Because it turns out every japanese movie I’ve mentioned as having some common elements of tone or theme with Avalon turns out to be directed and/or written by Mamoru Oshî and until just now I’d entirely missed that. These two are no exception.

If anything both Stray Dogs and The Red Spectacles are both more tedious, less action oriented, and less exciting than Avalon. Both deal heaviy with trying to evoke a tone and recapture the dirty details of a fallen future era. Personally I found Stray Dogs had a slightly interesting exploration of disused places, while The Red Spectacles was too farcicle for my tastes and only had a couple of dream-like elements toward the end that drew my interest.

Odd Things: There were a couple slightly odd things about this movie. For one it was advertised as a Japanese movie, but was made in Poland with all polish cast. In fact the dubbing language options (Polish, French, & English) excluded Japanese. Since it was originally in Polish I went with that language.

Another odd thing was it seemed like some narration track was missing. Occasionally there would be subtitles for minutes at a time when no one seemed to be talking. Also I’m a little curious as to how accurate the sub-titles were. I don’t feel like I missed any exposition or anything, but at one point a character seems to speak the word “Avalon” twice in a sentence and the sub-titles don’t mention it.

Rating: I liked this movie alot over all. Although it was slightly on the artsy side and a little long in spots it’s nearly a breath of fresh air compared to some of Oshî’s other live action movies. I’d give it 4 out of 5 stars.

About Peter

This guy lives in Boston MA with his beloved wife and two kids. You can get some idea of his likes and dislikes from posts on this website or elsewhere.

One thought on “Review: Avalon (2001)

  1. Wow man, you’ve got 10 more movies in your cue than me! That is impressive. Avalon sounds like a pretty interesting movie… I guess this means that my cue will now only be 9 off of yours.

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