I had never seen Avalon prior to this DVD screener. Neither had I heard much about it other than that it was “worth watching” and “by the guy who did Ghost in the Shell” (which I also have not seen). In fact, reading the back of the DVD cover was the most preparation I had afforded myself. My comments, therefore, are from the context of someone seeing this film without any prior allegiance to Director Mamoru Oshii or with any developed sense of expectations about the subject matter.
Avalon is something like taking the premise of matrix, mixing in overtones of George Orwell’s “1984” and visually filtering everything giving it the surreal tonal texture of Dark City. The result are not only stunning visuals that dance and morph in the spirit of a true art-film, but also that of a story that is intelligent and thought-provoking. Avalon may considered on the edge of being profound – losing stamina in this regard mostly from the shadows cast by other contemporaries (such as the Matrix) which share similar themes.
That basic story centers around the real and imagined lives of players involved in an illegal virtual-reality battle game at some (intentionally vague) future date. It is an Orwellian world of crumbling brick and arcane, yet sophisticated, electronic devices. As with the Dictaphones and seeing-telescreens of Orwell’s 1984, the electronic landscape of this world presents a technological irony in this society otherwise void of even basic luxuries. Players of an illegal game “Avalon” find escape through the virtual lives they lead in the binary universe, and the promise of increased challenge and reward causes many to risk real physical and mental harm. That’s about all I want to say about the story. The less you know the better, and personally I would have found the film to read more powerfully had Oshii chosen not to include the brief title-card introduction at the beginning of the film intended to help guide the less discipled viewer (so I don’t want to make the same mistake myself by giving too much plot exposition and lessening the sense of discovery for those of you who will be seeing this film for the first time after reading this review).
What is most powerful about this film is Oshii’s lush and enveloping visual language. No image escapes untouched — virtually (pun intended) every frame of this film is carefully manipulated to express more than the literal; his visual imagery becomes more meaningful than the raw content it contains. The strange, murky world of this future place is presented in sepia tones with careful, occasional bursts of color penetrating through the mist of film-grain and muted haze. Edges are blurred, gradients dulled, and contrast altered to produce an other-worldly sense of imagery that is haunting, macabre, and at the same time strangely beautiful. This sense of paradox is one key to the strength of this film -- the world that Oshii creates (both that of the “real” world and that of Avalon) is simultaneously grotesque and sublime. Brilliant!
Avalon is a remarkable, beautiful film.
Not having seen this film projected theatrically I can only make assumptions about the signature that DVD mastering imparts to the picture, so bear this in mind.
Avalon is a visual art-film and offers challenging material for a compressed MPEG2 format like DVD. Images are constantly in motion and often shift rapidly in a surreal montage that is perceived to be more than what is literally displayed (reminds me of Moulin Rouge in this way). The color pallet is intentionally altered and contrast is artificially manipulated to create the other-worldly atmosphere that beautifully characterizes this film. Film-grain is also used artistically to create a course, dynamic texture. Clearly one cannot criticize “flesh tone” accuracy or gripe about the presence of film grain with any legitimacy regarding Avalon.
The DVD renders the film’s unusual tonal gradients and misty-film-grain-filled images with surprising deft. Sadly, I had not yet been able to screen this DVD on my friend’s projector (will as soon as possible and post back here) but on my direct-view 480P monitor, contrast gradations seem smooth and continuous and I didn’t find any distracting banding. When I pull my seating position up to within two screen-widths distance of my monitor (trying to replicate front-projection proportions), some scenes do exhibit some digital noise which I will assume results from MPEG compression. The video bit-rate on Avalon is consistently high (higher than your average DVD) so I will assume that the Miramax folks gave a good effort and doing their best within the bandwidth confines of the DVD. Overall the DVD image is quite impressive, especially given the challenging content this film puts forth.
Two minor areas where I find fault. I think I may have noticed the slightest signs of some mild edge-enhancement from time to time. Clearly, to have phrased it that way indicates that in no way was the offense enormously distracting, nor did it give rise to a “pull me out of the film” event. It seemed to be rather benign at worst, but I’d like to hear from those of you with large rear or front projection systems which are normally revealing of these fine-level issues to find out what you think. The other issue (and again, I have not seen this projected theatrically) is that I couldn’t help thinking that the image appeared just a tad lacking in fine overall detail. I wouldn't characterize the picture as “soft”, but just that it seemed to leave me wanting for a little more detail in mid-far shots of faces etc. Again, I invite your discussion especially for those of you who have a memory of the theatrical presentation and who have video systems capable of revealing this level of subtle comparison.
So, despite a couple of caveats that are likely only to be noticed by the most critical viewers (and mostly likely won’t impede their ability to engage with this visual masterpiece), I’d say that the DVD earns a “very good” label (were I to follow my usual pattern I’d give the image 4.5 out of five stars--but I’m trying to leave some headroom in scoring for really exceptional transfers.)
Picture: 4/ 5
Just as Oshii uses visuals to create a surreal sense of atmosphere and “place” in Avalon, so does he use audio. This is reference 5.1 film recording. Not quite the ATOTC type of reference 5.1 (your subs won’t be vibrating your couch to quite the same degree), but a reference in *quality* where subtle acoustics, ambient cues, and musical score are masterfully interwoven and collaborate with the imagery in transporting you into this virtual world. The use of the “rear” channels in the 5.1 mix is seamless and perfectly integrated. That is extraordinarily unusual for most modern films (which seem to have the surrounds “tacked on” for “effects”). The soundfield of this film presents a dramatic and realistic (believable) 360 degree aural world comprised of full-bodied and robust lows, airy and non-fatiguing highs, and lush, sweeping acoustics. Remarkable. This may be one of those films that helps convince your S.O. just why all that “surround sound” is so important.
Battle scenes don’t play out in front of you...you are placed in their very midst. Orchestral musical scores sweep effortlessly and gracefully across a broad range of dynamics and sounds dissolve into subtle decays that would please any audiophile. And what always make me happy...even “normal” scenes like Ash eating lunch in a public dining hall are opportunities where Avalon engages full 5-channel use (where most audio-mixing engineers do not) to convey an astonishingly believable soundfield that involves you as a listener and invites you...rather seduces you into becoming a participant in the virtual world on the screen.
Some noteworthy items to consider before launching the 107 minute Avalon DVD experience in your HT. There are three 5.1 audio options: English, French, and Polish. “Polish” is original language track for this film and has the best sounding 5.1 mix of the bunch, and the English and French sound virtually identical to each other in terms of mixing quality. I started out my review by listening to the English 5.1 mix and then decided to switch mixes during the film to get a taste of each track’s presentation...
Switching from English to French produced no real discernable shift in level, tone, or general mix (other than dialog obviously now being in French). However, switching to Polish not only produced a clear increase in volume, but it also produced a more dynamic and robust-sounding presence that could not be dupliated by the English track even when its volume was raised in an attempt to level-match. Also, ambient cues and acoustic decays seemed more clearly rendered on the Polish track. The effect sounded to my ears like DD dialog-normalization was being applied to the English and French tracks but not to the Polish. If any of you can shed light on the particulars I’m sure that I and others at HTF would appreciate the knowledge.
Another important aspect of the Polish track is that dialog in the film is recorded preserving many of the natural acoustic cues of the “space” that you see visually on screen, whereas the two alternate-language tracks (English/French) have dialog that tends to sound more “studio dubbed” in nature. Switching languages (the DVD permits you to do this on-the-fly) while any dialogue is being delivered will make what I’m talking about abundantly clear. I found it more emotionally compelling to hear the actual actors’ voices preserving this sense of context in the acoustics of the Polish dialog while reading subtitles versus listening to the more sterile sounding English mix.
In any case, the bottom line is that the Polish track sounds the best and should be utilized for this reason above and beyond the simple fact that it is, after all, the film’s sound mix of origin.
[b]Sound (Polish 5.1 Mix): 5/ 5
(English and French 5.1 mixes: 4/5)
Extras are worthwhile, if not in excessive in quantity. The most interesting IMO was a rather long (good thing) featurette (4x3) detailing the digital wizardry behind many of the special effects in the film. Content is in-depth and engaging. Specific scenes are selected and we’re walked through the complex creative process that brings each to life in the finished film. I found it astonishing how much effort and care even the smallest, most minor-seeming details underwent. This feature will certainly please any fan and help to increase the appreciation of the film for those who may view it more casually upon their first watching. While the special features of this disc do not contain any “deleted scenes” per-se, you do see some very interesting bits of scenes that were ultimately deleted from the final film in this feature (too bad they couldn’t have been integrated back into the film for the DVD). Oh! I should mention that audio of this featurette along with the following special feature are presented in their native language (Japanese?) with French and English subtitle options.
The other feature is an interview (really more of an exposition) with Director Mamoru Oshii. Also generous in length (though not as long as the making-of feature), this is a special feature sure to please fans. Oshii discusses his own personal inspirations and film-journey outside as well as relating to the scope of this particular film. I didn’t find this feature to be as engaging as the “making of” featurette, but I think that’s due more to the fact that Oshii’s speaking style and personality don’t click with me personally and is not a reflection of the value of the content of this feature.
I think that fans of Avalon or Oshii devotees will find the special features on this disc to be worthwhile (though doubtless some may have hoped for a 2-disc SE with more plentiful extras). Considering the limited bit-space on this 2-layer disc, I think Miramax has managed to provide quite a good deal of quality extras while maintaining a quality feature picture/sound presentation.
I can absolutely recommend this DVD to any Avalon or Oshii fan, and equally do so without reserve for anyone who enjoys science fiction films/stories the likes of the Matrix, Blade Runner, 1984, or Dark City. If you’re a fan of sci-fi and haven’t had the chance to see Avalon, I encourage you to rent or purchase the DVD (listening to the Polish audio track, of course). Also, those of you who also engage with films that are artfully visual in their style, even if you don’t consider yourself a science fiction or fantasy-film fan, owe it to themselves to give Avalon a try.
Avalon is a magnificent work of visual art that is haunting, discomforting, and seductive.