Back in 2004, when the sci-fi anime “Appleseed” was released, Studio Ghibli president Toshio Suzuki told me that it was the “future of animation.” Not so much for the story, which was a retread of a Shirow Masamune manga about a half-human, half-bioroid (biological android) future society, as for the animation, which was a groundbreaking mix of 2-D and 3-D, with dazzling action sequences made for, by Hollywood standards, a pittance.

Three years have passed and “Appleseed” has sold 300,000 DVDs in the United States alone — a small marketing miracle — but Suzuki’s revolution has yet to arrive. Advances have been made, of course, but the Japanese animation box office is still dominated by the same low-tech series for kiddies, while boundary-pushing anime of the “Appleseed” sort have been slow to break into the theatrical mainstream. “Appleseed” producer Fumihiko Sori intends to change that with “Vexille,” an SF animation that tries to pick up where “Appleseed” left off. Here, there is more high-speed, visceral action that would make for a terrific arcade game, not to mention an eye-popping experience with the latest hi-def DVD players (as I discovered myself at this year’s Tokyo Anime Fair).

Meanwhile, the “mecha” — the various robots, vehicles and other mechanical stuff — are designed in such realistic detail that I could imagine the obsessed animators making blueprints for every last drive shaft and gear. Their design coolness quotient is also high, though the dune buggies reminded me of similar contraptions in the “Mad Max” series, while some of the bots gave me “RoboCop” flashbacks. Finally, the huge “sandworms” that threaten the heroes are visually striking as they slither like dragons, twist like tornadoes and crash to Earth like huge, dirty waves — but David Lynch used similar ones in “Dune.”

Director Fumihiko Sori
Run Time 109 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Aug. 18, 2007

The story, an original written by Sori and Haruka Handa, is likewise on the derivative side, beginning with its standard action premise of a mission that, for whatever reason, has to be completed in a short period of time, by a small squad of heroes. All that’s lacking is a digital clock, with red numbers ticking backward.

“Vexille” begins with a lengthy opening sequence in which we learn that Japan in 2077 has again shut itself off from the rest of the world as it did in the Edo Period (1603-1867), but this time with a force field instead of samurai swords. (Significantly enough, the acronym for the new barrier is RACE.) Japan, we are told, had developed new robot technology that threatened the world order — but, when asked to cease and desist, it refused. Instead, 10 years before the movie’s action begins, it closed off all contact with foreigners.

Naturally, the international community, led by the United States, wants to penetrate the RACE barrier and find out what is really going on. An American commando force, SWORD, rudely interrupts a conference called by Saito (voiced by Akio Otsuka), the coldly brilliant android executive of an evil corporation called Daiwa Heavy Industries, but Saito proves elusive.

Soon after, the sole female member of the unit, the indomitable Vexille (Meisa Kuroki), leads an unauthorized mission to Japan together with her commando boyfriend Leon (Shosuke Tanihara), but Saito gets wind of their incursion and meets them with deadly force.

Vexille survives, just barely, but when she awakens after the firefight, she is in a shantytown, under the protection of local resistance fighters. One is Maria (Yasuko Matsuyuki), a haughty beauty who once had something going with Leon — and regards Vexille with an expected mix of dislike and suspicion.

Both women, as well as their hard-bodied male colleagues, soon shift their focus to a daring raid on the Daiwa headquarters on a heavily defended artificial island in Tokyo Bay. This involves the aforementioned dune buggies and sandworms, as well as long tunnels, each with a series of massive doors that shut when an invader is detected.

Haven’t we all been on this mission before — and not only in anime? This familiarity wouldn’t matter so much if the film’s execution was more imaginative, but the various plot tropes (two tough chicks put aside rivalry for a higher cause, etc.) feel mechanical. One problem: The main characters are called on to express stronger emotions than the SF anime norm (tear-stained embraces, etc.) but look rather stiff, blank and unnaturally smooth, like talking Barbie dolls.

For fans fixated on mecha in motion this lack of acting chops may be only an annoyance. I, however, was mentally casting real actors in the roles as I watched the film. Angelina Jolie, for instance, would be perfect as Vexille, with far more than the three standard expressions of Sori’s creation. Too bad she’s not making action movies any more. Perhaps there’s a way to rotoscope her?

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