['Cinema Pixeldiso' is (supposed to be) a bi-weekly column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that takes a look at movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with a focus on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week’s selection is a foreign co-production that tells a familiar tale a bit better than most.]

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/avalon1.jpg

First off, Cinema Pixediso is back after a brief hiatus! So it's time once again to take a look at video game as viewed and depicted on the silver screen, most of which you've probably never heard off. And some for good reason...

For for this particular installment, we once look elsewhere in the world... actually, two foreign lands. Avalon, produced in 2001. It’s both an Asian and European production. The movie was produced and directed by the Japanese; the director, Mamoru Oshii, is actually well known in certain circles, that being those who follow anime (among other things, Oshii was the man behind the groundbreaking Ghost In The Shell). But the rest of the film was co-produced and filmed in Poland. Plus the entire cast is Polish as well, with all the dialogue spoken in their native tongue.

Though what really sets it apart from the rest of the pack from others is how, for a video game movie, its decidedly un-video game-y for the most part. Often, the best films of its kind will make you forget that they are even about games in the first place. Not sure what that says about the medium... perhaps its because the best filmmakers can touch upon conventions without exploiting them and relying on cliches (unless its intentional, of course). But that's an point of view that might be best reserved for another time...

Avalon

Right off the back, the story does seem admitted quite clichéd. In the future, the young are sick and tired of the harsh realities of everyday life, so they all turn towards a VR war simulator called Avalon. This highly popular game happens to be outlawed, in large part due to its extreme addictive quality; those that get in too deep become lobotomized for the rest of their lives. These poor saps are called the Unreturned. But playing well definitely has its rewards, and not just in game; expert players can cash in their earnings for actual currency and make a living.

Enter Ash, the star of the story and one of the game's top players. The film kicks off in the middle of the game, with players facing off against each other with guns a blazin' and tanks a blown' up, in a wartorn environment that looks like any wartorn city in the Communist bloc. The action looks very real, but the explosions are made fake-looking on purpose since, after all, the graphics can't be that good. And when folks are killed, they turn into pixelized dust. Again, its just a game.

Everything is presented in a sepia tone, and the action in the beginning, with all the military vehicles and armed troops roaming crowded city streets, reminds one of the first trailer for Metal Gear Solid 4 - one also has to wonder if Hideo Kojima ever saw this movie...

Anyhow, Ash is a total badass, one-woman army, easily taking out less skilled players (one has to wonder what the Polish equivalent of the term "noob" is) and even taking down a futuristic looking helicopter single-handily to win the level. We are then transported to the real world, where we meet the real Ash... with just a game helmet on and her undies. Naturally, to play Avalon, one must be in their underwear (much like today with any video game, really).

A Gamer's Life

But outside, she's no less of a badass, nor is she any different than her in-game's persona (and her world doesn't look any different either, with everything still looking sepia). Ash is a solo player; most players work in teams; its explained early on that the forces behind the game strongly encourage team play because solos are harder to keep track and "make them nervous". But not her, at least when we meet her; Ash has no interest in working with others because she used to, with Team Wizard, the greatest team of them all - til they broke up of course.

Aside of being a virtual army of one, Ash's life is pretty boring. She lives my herself in a studio apartment, though she does have a pet dog. When she's not playing, she's just at home, sitting around, reading books, and maybe checking email (naturally, there's nothing good). Or she's out buying groceries, riding mass transit. Because Ash makes her living playing the game, Avalon is basically her job, and she appears to treat it as such, with seemingly very little excitement or passion. Though this boring lifestyle is far from ugly; the movie is absolutely gorgeous. Every frame, every shot is wondrously illustrated. Ultimately, the movie does feel like a slick music video, but at least its a good looking slick music video.

Anyway, everything is business as usual for Ash, until her blood begins to boil once she notices another player making waves, whom she even believes is taunting her.

She tries to get info on this new, hot-shot player, but is unable to, which makes him an obsession of hers, and the impetus to push harder, be better, to surpass him. Around this point of the story, Ash runs into Stunner, one of her old teammates from the back in the day. They have lunch, and he bums come cash off of her, but also reveals some info on another ex-teammate, Murphy. She learns that he became yet another poor soul who never came back from the game, primarily from chasing a special character that no one knows the real deal about. Some say she's an Easter Egg, others believe her to be a glitch. She's a little girl, known as the Ghost, that's the gateway to a super, secret level, one that's impossibly hard, but also worth a jillion points if completed - one that Murphy reached but failed.

Naturally, we next begin to see bits and pieces from the past via flashback form, of when Ash apparently dropped the ball for the team, ending their legendary run. Meanwhile, back in the real world, using her new acquired info, she finds info on "The Nine Sisters", who invite her to the game grid for a chat. And along the way, the Game Master, who is the head administrator or AI or whatever that runs the show and communicates to Ash (and who appears to be a grizzled, drunk clergy man) tells her to stay alert...

Even Better Than The Real Thing

Ash ignores this warning, which she really shouldn't have, since it was an ambush after all. Before being blasted to bits, she is forced her to call for a reset and be booted out the game, which aside from making her throw up, is highly embarrassing for any player, especially for one of her caliber. After this, she decides to rest up by making a nice home cooked meal for her dog. The entire sequence is so calm and serene... and something you just don't see in any video game movie. Amidst all the action and drama, having Ash take a step back to realize and appreciate the simple pleasures in life, that which cannot be found in a video game, but also not just stating it but showing it in fine detail is something unprecedented in the annals of video game cinema. Unfortunately, the dog is nowhere to be found once his meal is ready.

Shortly afterwards, Ash runs into Stunner once again, who convinces her to buy him another meal. He reveals more info on the Ghost, specifically the means of spotting her, but as interested as she is, Ash can't help but be distracted by his eating that is expressed via a bizarre, yet exquisitely shot sequence that's 30 solid seconds of extreme close-ups of him shoving eggs and sausage into his mouth.


Stunner explains that the Ghost only appears when a Bishop, a certain class in the game, is present, and a high level one at that (that's what Murphy was, btw). Ash is a Warrior, also a high level player, and could switch classes, but points would be lost in the transition, so it wouldn't work. But later that evening, wouldn't you know, the expert player that's been bugging the hell out of Ash, who also happens to be a bishop, as well as a man of the cloth in real life, shows up at her place! He reminds her of that fateful day when things fell apart, and she proposes they form a team, which he agrees to.

On her way to play, Ash gets further warnings about not going too far, and as expected, questions are also raised as to what she'll do when she gets to where she wants, as well as what is real is and what is not. And once in the game, Ash finds out that the super Bishop is actually the caretaker of Avalon and wants her to join in, plus the film gets even poses even more philosophical questions. It isn't long before Ash finally encounters the Ghost, and is propelled to the special stage.

Here, Ash's mission is to track down an Unreturned player and eliminate him from the game. This special part of the game is called "Class Real" and it’s real all right; aside from having better color, the game even features actual product placement. Just like in those EA games!

Final Score

Okay, so aside from various clichéd aspects, it’s also pretty predictable. Gee, any guesses who the Unreturned that Ash has to snuff might be? Also, what about her missing dog? Yet despite all these flaws, the movie is still like no other video game movies out there. Primarily because it just feels so genuine. Though the (compared to most others) sophisticated manner in which it is delivered certainly helps. Once again, it simply looks like a million bucks, with top-notch cinematography and art design, and true sense of care and cohesion (even if some visual elements look Matrix-y, which btw is not one of this particular reviewer's favorite films, but given when it came out, its somewhat forgivable). Also worth noting is the excellent music. Plus the acting is simply stellar.

These are real actors... with a real story, and real music, and real art design. In the end, the movie just feels real, and legit, and you can't say that about a lot of films that deal with such material, unfortunately. Which is why when it tries to do the whole "is this real or not?" angle, its not totally laughable.

Anyway, here's another movie that you probably haven't seen but most definitely should.

[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]