Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. With Tomb Raider in theaters Friday, Ready Player One screening at SXSW, and Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle now on home-viewing platforms, we’re looking back on “video game movies.” The catch: None of them are based on real games.
If your only familiarity with Mamoru Oshii is the terse, cool, and massively influential 1995 anime Ghost In The Shell, you will be on solid ground with Avalon, his live-action 2001 film. Well, relatively speaking: It’s still a very strange film, with the rhythms and art direction of an anime but a setting and cast all pulled from Eastern Europe, thanks to the film’s joint Japanese-Polish production. But, like Ghost, it centers around a hard-ass female operative, at once sexless and sexualized; it lavishes attention upon futuristic tanks and weaponry and user interfaces; and it tells a surprisingly terse story that dabbles in post-humanism, with meditative, balletic action scenes scattered throughout. Also there is a basset hound with big ol’ floppy jowls. Oshii loves basset hounds.
This time, the emotionless warrior-cyborg is Ash, a player in a futuristic military role-playing game called—you guessed it—Avalon. A handful of references to Arthurian legend lead her on a journey to a mystical final level buried deep within the game called Super A; it’s said that the nine sisters who can take her there are the game’s designers, or some digital echo of them. Oshii manages to turn the mechanics of the game into something like a police procedural. Ash meets up with former co-op players to discuss builds and skill-point re-specs, and much attention is paid to grinding out experience points in the most efficient manner possible. Unlike most other movies about games, it takes this quest as seriously as Ash does; there is nothing even remotely funny or fun about this. Like Existenz, there is zilch in the form of high-octane thrills or gee-whiz score-chasing, but it replaces that film’s eschatological drive with a keening emptiness. It feels, as a result, much more like playing an actual RPG, with long, melancholy forays into sparsely populated ruins, one quest ticking into the next. Everything is saturated in a baleful sepia hue, turning the bombed-out factories and fallow, spotty fields into a weirdly convincing real-world recreation of PlayStation 2-era video game textures, equal parts Stalker, Pathologic, and Shin Megami Tensei.
Indeed, while Oshii proves himself familiar with and fond of the mechanical feel of games, the film provides a less optimistic view of their effect on our shared humanity. Numerous shots of dead-eyed young men gaze on at flatly rendered military atrocities; later, more are shown keeled over in wheelchairs, brain-dead with gamer ecstasy. Ash’s daily train ride home starts to resemble an Edward Hopper tableau of disaffected, distanced urbanites. The film is all building toward Ash’s entrance into Super A, a “twist” that Oshii accompanies not with any sense of spirited revelation but increasingly mournful choral music, as if to underscore the futility of winning the game in the first place. (“What do you think is the best,” she’s asked at one point, “a game you think you can finish, but never do, or a game that seems impossible to win, but isn’t?”) But then, this very seriousness is what makes the film interesting in the first place, despite its made-for-Syfy production values and oppressively brown color palette. It evinces a very real love of and familiarity with games as a medium, but takes seriously their ability to trivialize violence and isolate people. When it all starts to feel a little much, well, there he comes again: that big ol’ basset hound, who, by the end of the film, takes on almost godlike qualities. Oshii really loves basset hounds.
Availability: Avalon can be obtained on DVD from Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library.