The unknown gem in the Walter Reade’s ambitious sci-fi show, Avalon is a “live-action” feature by anime maestro Mamoru Oshii—acquired by Miramax at the 2001 Cannes but never released in the U.S. The movie, which was shot in Poland, begins with World War II-era tanks rolling across a sepia battlefield. The CGI effects are sensationally evocative—explosions freeze and then separate into two-dimensional layers. The action shifts to Warsaw where casualties similarly stop dead, shatter, and atomize. It’s only a virtual-reality war game: A soldier’s helmet goes up to reveal a comely young woman. “You’re not ready for Class A,” she remarks to the player she’s just incinerated.

Oshii’s 1995 Ghost in the Shell—an anime elaborately set in a noirish total-computer world where cyborg agents interface online or download simulated memories into hapless humans—anticipated both The Matrix and eXistenZ; Avalon further elaborates on their computer game aesthetic. The protagonist, Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak), is a grave, elegant creature who plays the illegal game solo after the implosion of her old championship team—it fell apart after someone called for a “reset.” She is, however, spooked when she discovers that an old teammate has gone “unreturned” from the game (and catatonic in a mental hospital) after chasing a mysterious phantom child who is the portal to Avalon’s ultimate level, Special A.

Ash has almost no life outside Avalon. Nor, in a sense, does Avalon. The game represents a yearning for some sort of redemption (as a choral group sings, “Avalon, when will that day come?”). The movie offers it—somewhere beyond anime. Oshii has admitted that using a Polish cast gave him license to digitally manipulate their facial expressions in post-production. Special A is supposed to be “realer than real,” and in the movie’s final movement, Ash makes a breakthrough from her drab, near-monochrome environment into a new world of color and advertising. Among other things, Avalon may be the first movie that uses contemporary Poland as a special effect.

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