Vexille is a CGI demo reel that didn’t know when to call itquits. Sure, anyone with even a passing interest in digital filmmakingwill be absorbed by it, and there are countless frames that more thanpass the Desktop Wallpaper Test. But for all the countless CPU cyclesthey burned up to generate those yummy texture maps and volumetriclighting sources and particle effects, you think they could have alsospared a couple of brain cells to bash together for a decent script.
Isthis doomed to happen whenever Japan pumps up the visuals for one oftheir prestige projects? Probably not all the time, but enough for itto be annoying. For every Casshern or Tekkonkinkreet that comes out of Japan—movies that are full of wild, uninhibited invention and more than a little soul—there’s three or four Vexilles or Appleseeds.It’s impossible to look this movie in the eye and deny they sweatedblood over it, but it makes the mistake of thinking it has more on itsmind when it just doesn’t.
The movie is set some decades into the future, when Japan’s cybernetics industry has expanded to the point where it is essentially the sum total of the country’s economy. The U.N. has passed stern regulations about what is and isn’t permissible with such technology, and Japan has become the lone holdout against such restrictions. To the shock of the world at large, they withdraw from the U.N. entirely and follow a policy of “high-tech isolation”. The entire country’s shielded behind an electromagnetic barrier that makes surveillance impossible, and nothing—save for cargo from Japan’s massive robot-making zaibatsu Daiwa Industries—enters or leaves the country. (No more charity visits from Doraemon, I guess.)
Ten years pass. The United States is obviously uneasy about what’s going on, and on the basis of a tip relayed to them on a Japanese fugitive’s dying breath, their covert ops team SWORD arranges a night strike at a villa in a snow-covered mountain range. One of the troops is the title character, Vexille, a young woman cast in both the same character and visual mold as Deunan Knute from the CGI Appleseed production we also got from Japan recently. There’s a big, splashy fight, during which Vexille’s opponent hacks off his leg to get away from her and she and her hard-suited comrades survive any number of explosions, shootings and droppings from airplanes.
The scientists at SWORD HQ take one look at the leg and get bad vibes: If the Land of the Rising Sun is this far along with robot technology, who’s to say what else they’ve achieved? To that end, they plan a covert mission: Sneak a team inside, set up a transmitter to pierce the electronic cone of silence surrounding the country, and find out what’s going on. And so Vexille and her compatriots, among whom is her would-be-boyfriend Leon (their “conflict” is this movie’s flimsy stab at characterization), suit up, steal their way through a border checkpoint, pierce the Great Firewall of Japan, and get into far more trouble than they can tally up at a glance.
This whole Japan-goes-black-box idea actually makes for a nice parallel to the isolationism that Japan itself employed for a couple hundred years during its feudal era. Too bad the rest of the movie is just a plodding retread of too many other middlebrow animated and live-action productions. This isn’t to say the action itself isn’t fun—the opening raid, a shoot-out and chase in a loading dock and the penultimate buggy race are all beautifully put together. But because none of this stuff is happening to people we care about except as tokens of the plot, it’s all video-game dumbshow. Vexille’s function, when she’s not shooting at things, is to look at the camera and emote in a way that a CGI figure is still incapable of pulling off. (They’re getting better, but it still looks like Barbie Dolls On Parade for the most part.) Most everyone else is a plot marker whose job is to stand around and explain stuff on cue.
Another problem with the movie, and I think this goes hand in hand with the story being such a cold fish, is something I can only sum up by using a word that might be misleading: humorless. This doesn’t mean there needed to be a joke every two minutes to lighten things up, but that the general attitude of the movie towards its own material is so leaden, so incurious that the mindlessness of the action scenes actually comes as a relief. Ghost in the Shell had humor both high and low about its material, and a genuine sense of wonder. The closest thing Vexille comes to that is the “Jags”, huge all-consuming monsters that are like a cross between Dune’s sandworms and the living junkheaps at the end of Tetsuo: The Iron Man. But there should have been much more.
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