Action Animation

A Bioroid's Blu-ray Review: Appleseed: Alpha

July 28, 2014Ben MK

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Olympus has (not) fallen...

Appleseed is a title that’s near and dear to the hearts of diehard manga fans everywhere, but its popularity may escape those who are only acquainted with the oft-mentioned Akira and Ghost in the Shell. Created by the man who brought the world Ghost in the Shell, Masamune Shirow, and first published in 1985, it has since gone on to spawn spin-offs in film, television and videogames. And now the latest entry in the Appleseed franchise, Appleseed: Alpha, is upon us, just in time to celebrate the manga's thirtieth anniversary.


The Film Arriving ten years after director Shinji Aramaki’s first Appleseed film, which was released in 2004, Appleseed: Alpha marks Aramaki’s third foray into Masamune Shirow's post-apocalyptic, futuristic universe. But unlike 2007’s Appleseed: Ex Machina, Alpha is a prequel — one that takes place before the story’s two main protagonists, Deunan Knute and Briareos Hecatonchires, came to be the defenders of Olympus, a utopian city that's risen from the ashes of the death and destruction caused by a Third World War.

Scripted by Marianne Krawczyk, whom some viewers may recognize from her work penning the stories behind Sony’s bestselling God of War videogame series, Alpha is a film made first and foremost with Western audiences in mind. In fact, the movie features no Japanese voice acting whatsoever — a first for the franchise. Instead, the primary English voice cast from the first two films — Luci Christian as Deunan and David Matranga as Briareos — reprise their roles.

Dispensing with much of the mythology established over the course of the earlier films, Alpha sets things back to square one, joining Deunan, a soldier, and Briareos, her cyborg partner and former lover, as they navigate a decimated New York City, carrying out jobs for its de facto leader, a cyborg warlord calling himself Two Horns (voiced by Wendel Calvert), to whom they are indebted. Tired of doing Two Horns’ bidding, Deunan is seriously considering leaving their current line of work behind them and seeking out the fabled city of Olympus. However, during their last assignment, she and Briareos encounter a mysterious girl named Iris (Brina Palencia) and her cyborg protector, Olson (Adam Gibbs), and become embroiled in a conflict involving a villainous organization named Triton, its cold-blooded leader, Talos (Josh Sheltz), and a dangerous prototype weapon — a massive, walking fortress — capable of laying waste to an entire city.

Although Alpha’s story serves as a precursor to 2004’s Appleseed, its visuals are leagues ahead of that film’s cell-shaded CG art-style, bringing the franchise into the same realm as Aramaki’s recent directorial efforts, 2013's Space Pirate Captain Harlock and 2012's Starship Troopers: Invasion, with a sleek, videogame-inspired look-and-feel. And given Krawczyk's work in the game industry, it should come as no shock that the film unfolds very much like a series of videogame cutscenes as well.

But while that means viewers can expect fairly thin character development, it's not entirely a bad thing, as the movie functions quite well as a svelte sci-fi actioner. Aramaki and Krawczyk keep the action exciting and inventive, avoiding repetition throughout the feature's brisk 90-minute runtime by putting a different twist on each of the film's numerous action sequences: from hand-to-hand combat and gunplay to mech-inspired mayhem, culminating in a climactic battle with an epic scope worthy of Akira. It all adds up to an entertaining standalone adventure and — considering that the film requires no preexisting knowledge of series lore to be enjoyed — makes for an excellent entry point for newcomers to the beloved franchise.

Audio/Visual Fidelity Appleseed: Alpha hits Blu-ray with an A/V presentation that mostly does justice to the film’s direct-to-digital presentation, though sharp-eyed viewers are sure to take issue with certain aspects of the hi-def image. First, the good news: the film's art style translates into plenty of photorealistic environments (the grimier, the better), textures (including metal, stone and fabric), colors (featuring drab military and earth tones, punctuated with more vibrant hues like that of a bright blue sky or the reflective gold surface of Talos’ visor) and effects (such as explosions, fire and smoke), all of which are rendered with exceptional clarity and richness. And it's always easy to pick out the most miniscule of mechanical details of the movie’s cyborg characters and the most delicate of facial features on its human/bioroid characters. On the downside, the image suffers from a moderate amount of aliasing; and while it doesn't often detract from the picture, it's especially noticeable in scenes bereft of fast movement, manifesting as jagged, sometimes shimmering, edges.

Thankfully, there are no such qualms when it comes to the disc’s action-packed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, which is sure to make an impression on viewers, especially during the film’s many heated battles. The sound of automatic gunfire, ricocheting bullets, explosions and the like is consistently bombastic and engrossing, and the European-inspired score by composer Tetsuya Takahashi — which is supplemented by pulsing tracks from international electronic recording artists like Skrillex — comes across loud and clear.

Special Features Sony’s Blu-ray release includes an UltraViolet digital copy of the film, as well as a feature-length audio commentary by director Shinji Aramaki, producer Joseph Chou and Tony Ishizuka of Sony Pictures. The centerpiece of the disc’s special features, however, is the 52-minute documentary, The Making of Appleseed: Alpha. Divided into eleven chapters (The Beginning, The Backstory, Design, Characters, Modeling and Backgrounds, Motion Capture, Animation, Facial Capture, Effects, Compositing and Music), this comprehensive making-of documentary touches on everything from the film’s conception and the design of its visuals to the factors that contributed to its realistic look and the composition of its music, and features behind-the-scenes footage, film clips and interviews with the filmmakers, including a number of staff members from SOLA Digital Arts, the computer animation studio behind the movie.

The Bottom Line While Appleseed: Alpha doesn't come close to delivering the same depth of story and character as its manga inspiration, it's still a worthwhile and entertaining romp, bolstered by eye-catching visuals and exhilarating action. Fans of the franchise and newcomers alike should find value in the film, just as they should find value in Sony's Blu-ray release, which boasts an impressive (though not quite perfect) A/V presentation and insightful bonus features. And in the end, that makes Appleseed: Alpha on Blu-ray ripe for the picking.  Ben Mk

Disc Breakdown
The Film  —  
Audio/Visual Fidelity  —  
Special Features  —  

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