(director: Mamori Oshii ; screenwriter: Kazunori Ito; cinematographer: Grzegorz Kedzierski; music: Kenji Kawai; cast: Malgorzata Foremniak (Ash), Dariusz Biskupski (Bishop), Bartek Swiderski (Stunner), Jerzy Gudejko (Murphy), Wladyslaw Kowalski (Game Master); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Atsushi Kubo; Miramax; 2001-Japan-in Polish with English subtitles)

The techno thriller is more boring than thrilling.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Famed Japanese animator Mamori Oshii (“Ghost in the Shell”/”Assault Girls”/”Angel’s Egg”) helms one of his rare live-action films. Kazunori Ito pens this lethal near-futuristic military video gamer sci-fi film, that was shot in the bleak war-torn landscape of Poland with an all Polish cast (the language spoken is Polish) while the film crew are all Asians. The techno thriller is more boring than thrilling and its pacing is listless, though its visuals are stunning, its CG special effects are indeed special, its high-concept philosophical ideas are mildly engaging and its stolen concepts from The Matrix are somewhat enticing (even if not original).

Virtual reality gaming is illegal in this nameless Eastern bloc country, but is pursued by desperate youth, mostly in teams, as they are looking for an escape from their grim reality. The war game was founded by the “Nine Sisters” and is named Avalon, after the legendary ancient island from the Arthurian myths. It’s played in a cyberpunk wasteland. One of the best at it is the fierce loner woman warrior Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak), living alone with her pet dog, who is ready to advance onto the next solo level. After Ash learns from former team member, Stunner (Bartek Swiderski), that former game master Murphy (Jerzy Gudejko) went solo and vanished to become ‘unreturned’, brain-dead and comatose in a hospital. Nevertheless the brave warrior seeks out that Class A spot despite her one flaw that she is rumored to have pushed the ‘reset’ button–a gamer no-no. As the neutral game master (Wladyslaw Kowalski) explains, once admitted access to Special A there’s no exit–you either win or lose. How Ash advances to that level of higher consciousness keeps us in suspense until the climax.

My problem is that I never cared about the outcome, as I found the whole gaming film experience a bit of a drag. I was also dismayed by its unfinished ending, where its thematic message is spelled out to mean ‘reality is what we choose to believe.’ I thought that was hardly earth-shattering news.

Avalon (2001)