The most popular video game for the PC right now is a game called The Sims, where people get to play people doing ordinary things in ordinary settings — instead of fighting monsters or conquering countries, they're battling with leaky faucets and going out on dates. With a premise like that, one wonders what you need the video game for in the first place. Or maybe that is precisely the point: We can use the simulation to be vicariously ordinary, to feel more real than we might normally feel.
I find myself frightened by such an idea. Many friends of mine are fairly heavy video-game addicts; they spend a great deal of money and time in on-line games that are huge, elaborate multiplayer simulations featuring tens of thousands of people at once. For the truly hard-core, their real life is nothing more than a holding action until they can get back online again. I can hardly say my own hands are clean, so to speak — one of my major side projects is an on-line gaming community I designed from scratch. I definitely understand the allure of a simulated world that threatens to replace or supplant the real one.
Avalon is about that allure, the need for something to replace our world or augment it. It takes place in a grim-looking future, or maybe a parallel present, where thousands of people are playing an illegal virtual-reality war game called Avalon. The game is simple enough to understand: you can play alone or in groups, and you fight various predetermined scenarios to rack up points and advance your character's skills and budget. If you get killed in the game, you don't die for real, but you do get dumped back into the real world with a nasty case of real-world nausea. This kind of game gobbles up not only your sick days but your insurance copay.
Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak) is one of the star players of the game, a beautiful dark-haired woman with eyes that always seem to be holding something back. She always plays alone, and the under-the-table money she makes from playing Avalon goes towards supplanting her squalid lifestyle — a single-roomed apartment somewhere in Poland, with a basset hound as her only companion. The dog and the game, and the game's attendant trivia, are the only things in her life that seems to have any attraction for her: she has no love-life, no ambitions, no intellectual passions, no family, no friends (except for other gamers), no hobbies other than the game itself.
Inside the game, Ash is a hero; outside the game; she's only interested in getting back into the game.
The game itself is presented in beautiful, startling images, a combination of live action and CGI produced by TV Tokyo. It captures perfectly the feel of a game come to life, right down to the messages that flash across the sky (in lieu of a screen) when someone dies or finishes a level. The real world is shot in sepia-toned soft focus, where only a spot of color here or there on the screen — a plate of eggs, or a weapon — draw the eye. Ash's fellow gamers are pale, hollow-eyed people slouched limply in couches, congregating in grimy underground enclaves, either waiting for their turn at the console or passively watching playback from other gaming sessions.
Ash slowly learns that there may be a whole realm of the game which has been kept secret from the players — a game within the game, which is theoretically accessible if you know what to do. Anyone who has played video games will no doubt smile at this plot element: it's right out of the "hidden room" from the old Atari 2600 Adventure and dozens of other games with similar Easter eggs. Ash fixates on this possibility and is soon training herself and a cadre of other gamers to get to the hidden level and find out what awaits them therein.
And anything beyond that I should not breathe a word of, because the final quarter of the movie is a real head-spinner on the level of the last act of 2001. I will say that they do find Avalon's hidden level, but what they find, and why the level is there in the first place, I will not speak of here. I will say that it turns the film into one of the most daring and brilliant things I've seen in ages, easily a match for The Matrix without being derivative of it.
Avalon was directed by Mamoru Oshii, although it's not his only live-action film (he's directed several others that have been reissued on video thanks to Bandai). It is his newest film as director since his mesmerizing Ghost in the Shell (although he wrote Jin-roh), another movie that dealt with the human personality as the interface between the real and digital world. A lot of people complained about Ghost being too slow and deliberately paced to be interesting. I did not find it slow; I found the audience to be impatient. Those same audiences will probably hate Avalon, since it is also paced slowly, to allow us time to reflect on what's going on rather than just experience it vicariously as entertainment. The game scenes look terrific, and you could easily build a whole movie around such slam-bang entertainment, but that's not their reason for existing here, and so there are relatively few of them. Oshii uses them as a way of showing us that what we build up as real in our own minds is nothing more than a sustained delusion, and that delusion can be yanked out from under our feet without too much work.
There is a scene about halfway through the movie, possibly the movie's keynote scene, which has almost nothing to do with the game but says a great deal about what the movie is trying to accomplish. Ash has saved up a fair amount of money from playing Avalon to buy groceries, evidently a luxury for her, and she lovingly boils up a beef and cabbage stew — not for her, but for her dog. When she turns around from the stove, however, the dog is no longer there ... and is never seen again. Did he run off? Was he abducted? The movie does not say, but Oshii teases us with the possibility that the dog embodies a good deal of what Ash was looking for through the game, and indeed the dog seems to haunt her through the rest of the movie. (Oshii's use of the dog is actually a recurring symbol through his movies of the impermanence of memory; in Ghost in the Shell, a man with a wiped memory shows off a picture of his dog and claims it to be his wife.)
"Hollywood films about virtual reality always end with a return to the real world," he said in an interview. "However, because those real worlds exist inside film they themselves are lies. Reality is a questionable thing, I didn't want to do a movie where the characters returned to reality. The [reality] we experience is an illusion inside the heart of each individual." I wonder if he has also read Philip K. Dick, another fellow obsessed with what was real and what wasn't, and father of a quote that seems to say a lot about this film: "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."