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• Avalon

Avalon was released in 2001, so given its similarities to The Matrix it’s all too easy to write off as one of several rip-offs hoping to ride the coat tails of that film.  Actually, it’s only fair that Mamoru Oshii took some ideas from The Matrix as payback, since many elements of that film were inspired by Oshii’s version of Ghost In The Shell.  Shot in Warsaw, Poland, the film’s sepia-drenched scenes paint a bleak portrait of gritty urban city life.  Ash, the heroine, is a single woman with not much of a life making a modest living by playing a futuristic massively multiplayer online shooter called Avalon.

Players enter a totally immersive digital world via helmet-like BCIs that look like they could suck your brains out – and sometimes do.  Rumors of a secret level inaccessible to all but the highest ranking players leads Ash on a mission to find one of the game’s star players, who has disappeared from the regular game.  She joins a group of other high ranking players to find the way in, but rumor has it that when you cross over you have only two options: finish it, or die for real.

Avalon, like a poor man’s Matrix, asks the audience which is better: to live in a stifling reality or in an imaginary world where nothing is real.  But while the Matrix is controlled by sentient machines, Avalon is much more down to earth in an art mimics life sort of way.  We’ve all heard about the Korean gaming cafés where people literally play video games to the point of exhaustion (and in some cases, death); about shameless parents who neglect their children to play popular MMORPGs (with tragic results); gold farmers in China selling digital currency for real money; or “professional gamers” who earn upwards of $150, 000 at gaming competitions.  The world presented here isn’t so far-fetched.

James Cameron called it “the most artistic, beautiful, and stylish sci-fi film”, and while I’m not prepared to echo that statement, the visuals, particularly inside the game but also the general urban atmosphere are very well done – shot on a shoestring or not.  He lavished similar praise on Ghost in the Shell, so perhaps Cameron will one day produce Oshii’s dream project using some of that Avatar cash (commenting recently on Avatar’s Japanese release, Oshii seemed a bit envious of Cameron’s toy box of special effects).  I think what Avalon has to say about video games and video game addiction is worth checking out if you’re a gamer, especially considering most game-to-movie adaptations have been downright awful and have had nothing to say about the medium at all.

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