Manga may comprise a relatively new and profitable chunk of the comic book industry in the US, but these fascinating graphic novels have been an increasingly crucial component of Japanese culture since the end of World War II. In Japan, manga publications gross more than $4 billion annually and appeal to fans of all genres and readers of all ages. You may even be surprised to learn that some legendary manga artists enjoy the same level of fame that movie stars generate in the States. Author Masamune Shirow is one such manga icon. He's responsible for several popular manga properties that have subsequently been adapted for the big screen. Fan favorites like 'Ghost in the Shell,' 'Dominion: Tank Police,' and 'Appleseed' can all trace their origins to his pen.
'Appleseed: Ex Machina' is director Shinji Aramaki's sequel to his 2004 CG-animated feature, 'Appleseed' (neither of which should be confused or connected with Bandai Visual's 1988 OVA of the same name). The film continues the 22nd century story of a female E.S.W.A.T. officer named Deunan and her partner and lover, Briareos. A veteran of the great war, Briareos became a metal-clad cyborg after his body sustained massive, life-threatening injuries in the line of duty. As Deunan struggles to adapt to her relationship with Briareos, she's forced to take on a new partner, a bioroid (genetically engineered humanoid) named Tereus that's being tested for active combat. Problem is, the bioroid has been developed from Briareos's own DNA and subsequently looks and sounds exactly like him. But Deunan doesn't have time to get caught in a pseudo-love-triangle -- it seems a series of mysterious mobs are attacking targets across the city, forcing Deunan, Briareos, and Tereus to uncover the source of the strange violence and face an enemy more dangerous than anything they've encountered before.
'Ex Machina' is packed with tense action scenes that make the CG-animated utopia a feast for the imagination. Mechs, robots, cyborgs, bioroids, humans... it's all a bit complicated to follow the first time through, but the fighting factions help the filmmakers create an intriguing story packed with conspiracy, tragedy, and political ambition. The presence of executive producer John Woo also seems to have inspired the animators. 'Ex Machina' surpasses 2004's CG-animated 'Appleseed' without looking back -- slow motion leaps, intricate battle choreography, and exciting gun ballets truly invigorate the action.
Alas, as a fan of Shirow's original manga, I couldn't help but feel a bit bored by the characters in Aramaki's computer generated world. 'Ex Machina' is populated with dead-faced models that lack the humanity of traditionally animated characters as well as the expressiveness of other CG characters from larger 3D animation studios (i.e. Pixar). Deunan and Tereus are loaded with the same limited emotions regardless of the situation -- their faces stretch in surprise, soften in smiles, and tense in anger. Unfortunately, it all looks too artificial for its own good, leaving the film to rely on its action scenes alone. As a result, watching 'Ex Machina' is a lot like sitting through a series of action-packed videogame cutscenes. When the film erupts with missile firing mechs, it works, but when it settles down to explore the characters and their struggles, it lacks soul.
All in all, 'Appleseed Ex Machina' is a stirring piece of feature-length animation that has a lot to offer fans of hyperactive anime. I'm sure anyone who enjoyed Aramaki's original CG-animated 'Appleseed' will be enraptured to see how he's upped the ante with this sequel. Unfortunately, if you're looking for genuine characters in your futuristic anime, you may find that this one comes up short. I really wanted to enjoy 'Ex Machina,' but in the end, it just felt too empty and shallow.
I may not have fallen in love with the flick itself, but I was more than willing to put aside my personal misgivings to soak up 104 minutes of glorious, 5-star animation. Unfortunately, just like the problematic transfer on the Blu-ray edition of 'Appleseed Ex Machina,' this HD DVD release was host to a series of visual flaws that made this title one of the more average animated experiences I've reviewed.
In my estimation, the 1080p/VC-1 transfer featured on this Warner Blu-ray release is merely a descendant of its immaculate digital source. The picture lacks the refined detailing and crisp resolution I've come to expect from high definition CG -- the picture is consistently hazy, random nighttime scenes are a bit blurry, and several shots are completely out of focus. As it stands, linework and edges are dull, clothing textures lack definition, and smaller objects look only marginally better than they do on the standard DVD side of the disc. While daytime exterior scenes are vastly improved, they still exhibit a mild softness that robs the transfer of the three-dimensional pop found in top tier releases like 'Ratatouille' and 'TMNT.' The transfer's flaws smack of overindulgent DNR and compression inadequacies.
Less problematic (but equally distracting) are a series of light artifacts, minor aliasing issues, and heavy color bands that litter the image from beginning to end. Look no further than the opening assault on the cathedral to catch a dozen examples of each (as well as the rampant softness I mentioned earlier). The banding becomes so brazen at times that it stretches across the entire width of the screen -- some shots are plagued by rows of bands that shoot through the sky, lay across the character models, and drape along every element in the foreground. The effect is bizarre to say the least and occasionally makes the image look as if it's being projected on a set of closed window blinds.
Thankfully, the experience isn't an absolute wash -- a vibrant palette and a fine spread of bold colors keep the image lush and lively. Despite its issues, the HD DVD transfer still has the clear stability and swagger of a high definition release, boasting a fresh image and a healthy bit rate. Even the squishiest details are more crisply rendered here than they are on the underwhelming standard DVD side. At the end of the day, the high-def editions are the version to beat. Just be warned that a proper 1080p transfer straight from the digital source would make this current high-def release irrelevant.
My Blu-ray review of 'Ex Machina' stirred up quite a bit of disagreement between readers who agreed with my findings and those who thought I was being too harsh. However, keep in mind that a CG tranfer doesn't have the same hurdles to overcome that traditional films do when they're minted for a high-def release. In my opinion, a flick like 'Appleseed Ex Machina' should look virtually perfect. Yet if you compare any scene in 'Ex Machina' to any scene in 'Ratatouille,' 'TMNT,' or other CG anime features like 'SOS! Tokyo Metro Explorers: The Next,' the shortcomings of this average transfer become all too apparent. If you ask me, Warner really dropped the ball on this one.
Anime enthusiasts can breathe a sigh of relief. Despite the information presented in the tech specs on the back cover, the HD DVD edition of 'Appleseed Ex Machina' features two surround tracks -- an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a Japanese language Dolby Digital 5.1 track. While they aren't the pair of TrueHD mixes Warner promised fans once upon a time, the results are nonetheless impressive.
Dialogue is clean, spread across the central channels, and well prioritized within the soundscape -- explosions and screeching thrusters never overwhelm mid-action character banter. Better still, LFE support is heavy and aggressive, imbuing the mechs that frequently populate 'Ex Machina' with a convincing sense of weight. The rear channels are busy as well, providing more than the usual background ambiance of other anime titles. The sound designers launch objects across the well-defined soundfield and manage to create a sense of genuine space. Surprise gunfire came from over my shoulder, doves flew over my head, and ships rumbled through my home theater. The entire experience was deeper and more satisfying than most high-def anime releases.
My lone complaint? I could actually hear the compression limitations bogging down the crowded soundscape -- the entire experience begged for a TrueHD track. The Dolby Digital mixes sound great, but they lack the clarity and fidelity of a lossless mix. Voices could have been crisper, effects could have had more punch, and ambiance could have been richer. I wish Warner would really embrace the possibilities and tap into the power of high definition. What could easily have been a pair of 5-star lossless tracks is merely a pair of cutting edge standard mixes.
(Note the quality of this audio package is identical to the Blu-ray edition of 'Ex Machina.' However, the standard definition side of this HD DVD combo disc features Spanish and Portuguese audio tracks and subtitles that aren't included on the Blu-ray edition.)
The HD DVD edition of 'Appleseed: Ex Machina' packs in all of the extra features that appear on the 2-disc Special Edition DVD (minus a few trailers from other unrelated Warner films). While the supplemental package occasionally leaves finer points of the production to the imagination, it definitely offers up more information than many other anime releases. Both the commentary and the featurettes are English language productions and light on on-screen subtitles.
'Appleseed: Ex Machina' may be brimming with ambitious CG animation, but it lacks soul. The HD DVD edition is even more of a mixed bag. While the video transfer bests the standard DVD, it suffers from softness, banding, and compression issues. The standard audio tracks are quite impressive, but lack the refined clarity of lossless tracks. To top it all off, the supplemental package, while informative, lacks the input of key players like Shirow, Aramaki, and Woo. There's quite a debate on message boards between people who are happy with Warner's effort and those who find it underwhelming. I would strongly suggest that you give this one a rent and decide for yourself.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.