Dir: Fumihiko Sori. Jap. 2007. 109mins.
Opening Locarno with the world premiere of a new Japanese CG anime feature might have been a shrewd decision in this era of animation popularity. But, technical achievements aside, even a Japanese anime is ultimately judged by what it is attempting to say and how he does it - and in this respect, Fumihiko Sori, who previously directed the live action Ping Pong and produced the anime Appleseed, falls short.
Using a script that has liberally looted the shelves of sci-fi libraries - pillaging everything from The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers to Blade Runner, The Terminator to Escape From New York - Sori sets his story 70 years in the future with a plot that tries yet again to play on the classic fear of mankind from the machines it is so dexterously producing to do its work.
The result is serviceable enough to please the genre aficionados and deserves full credits for its technical prowess. But this does not quite look like the dreamed-of crossover that will finally draw larger audiences to the anime credo, although it should satisfy those who enjoyed the likes of Appleseed.
The storyline telescopes first to Japan in 2067, when a breakthrough in the science of robotics has already put it years ahead of the rest of the world. But development of androids has reached a dangerously advanced stage, and the nation refuses to accept the limitations imposed by the UN on manufacturing machines that might rebel against the authority of the human race.
Instead, led by a mighty mega-industrial concern called Daiwa, Japan cuts itself off from other nations - a reminder of a separatist attitude in centuries past - and installs electronic surveillance to make sure nobody breaks in and no one gets out. Life continues like this, unhindered, for the next 10 years.
By 2077 news of an impending danger to mankind reaches SWORD (a combination of SWAT and CIA), the America's top secret service agency. It decides to break into the secret Japanese realm and find out what is really going on there.
The unit is headed by its two top agents - Leon, who has already been to the country once before; and Vexille, his colleague and girlfriend - and warned that, if they are captured, then they will not be acknowledged by their superiors.
Whatever they discover there would have delighted the late Philip K Dick, who always thought the robots were not as bad as some humans. But before this comes out there is plenty of room for a couple of breathtakingly exciting chases, the introduction of some pretty photogenic inventions - such as metal-guzzling wasteland tornadoes - and lots of melodrama, handled with less aplomb than any of the aforementioned sources of inspiration.
On a philosophical level, it turns out that the machines, wanting everything to become as mechanical as they are, have laid the country bare and ravaged nature. It reflects what Man is doing to Earth right now, long before the robots have their own way - or maybe the already have and we don't know.
As CG animation goes Vexille is strong, swiftly drawn, energetically edited, never missing a chance to introduce yet another special effect, and with a soundtrack that keeps the decibels pouring out, massive heavy rock seamlessly inserted between mind-blowing explosions and other disasters.
But its underdeveloped characters and tentative plot fall short. It also leaves the audience wondering why it has been drawn by a computer at all, given Sori's comment that the idea behind the animation is to lend them as wide a range of expressions as humans have. Why not use humans instead - or else stay with the stiffness and take the film in a different direction'
Vexille Film Partners
Main cast (voices)