skip to content or skip to search form


Rose and I have seen two Mamoru Oshii movies lately: Avalon (which I have sought for months and finally found through Netflix) and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.

Avalon is certainly the most convincing rendering of a virtual-reality video game I’ve seen. (The others I can think of are eXistenZ, sort of The Matrix, and the strange William Gibson-penned episode of The X-Files.) The question then is what makes a fictional game for a science-fiction VR platform “convincing,” but I think the answer is simply that it looks like a logical development from current real-life games. The squad-based multiplayer, class-based military action games are a popular genre in real-world games of the last several years. The half-baked tactical play also seems realistic—I’m thinking of the way the players alternate between acting sensibly, running around like mad, and just standing around stupidly while shooting.

Unfortunately, the English subtitles on the DVD seem to have only a tangential relationship to the dialogue. The basics of the plot seem to have survived the translation, but very little else. Actually, there’s a lot of what seems to be subtitles for voiceover narration laid over the otherwise silent parts of the movie, for no discernible reason (maybe somebody thought American audiences would need extra exposition to figure out what’s going on).

I was expecting a plot twist in which what appears to be the real world (the future one, not the secret level of Avalon) is revealed to be another layer of the VR, since both Avalon and the real world are filmed with the same sepia-toned, hazy visual effects. There seem to be unsettling connections between the real and VR worlds: Ash’s dog disappears in the real world and returns in Class Real as the poster ad for an orchestra concert. The real-world scenes have just enough repetitive looping to make them feel like a not-quite-realistic simulation — the exterior shot of the subway train that plays every time Ash goes home was especially reminiscent of a computer-game cut scene, I thought.

I expected that Ash would have to choose between reality and escapism, or that escape into the video game would become a means of transcending space and time or something (two of the major themes of the Matrix trilogy, it occurs to me), but the movie knocks both those concerns off balance with the introduction of Class Real. The secret level certainly looks real compared with the two sepia-toned worlds, but it still has the death animations and the weird little girl. Is Murphy a cataleptic in a hospital bed, or is he a guy living in modern-day Warsaw? The scene-selection menu calls the final chapter “Real Choices,” but what will Ash choose? What choice is she deciding, anyway?


  1. Dave says:

    The subtitles in Avalon seem to be for the English language dialog track; f’rinstance, there are voiceovers in the Enlish track and the subtitles that appear match up with those. I suspect that the English track is a rather loose translation of the real dialogue.

    — 21 October 2004 at 7:39 pm (Permalink)

  2. Rose says:

    What was a lot more annoying is that it was clear there was just some loose translating going on. I know almost no Polish, but it’s not hard to follow the nouns, especially when they’re proper names, and it’s just bizarre when the translators choose not to bring those across.

    The strangest version of this I’ve seen was in La Femme Nikita, in which the translator just chose to translate all numbers as totally different numbers, and I have no idea why. It wasn’t as if they have significance, but when I hear “9″ and see “7″ it’s just jarring. Avalon was definitely not that bad, but it was still strange.

    — 21 October 2004 at 7:53 pm (Permalink)

  3. Dave says:

    Not only that, but I thought that the voice acting in the English language track was rather poor; it was devoid of any emotion, as if they were sleepwalking through their lines. If you watch (or rather listen to) the final confrontation, there’s emotion and energy in the Polish dialogue that is not there at all in the English version.

    — 21 October 2004 at 8:41 pm (Permalink)

  4. Rose says:

    We watched it only in the subtitled Polish, because I assumed that would just be better than spoken English. I considered going back and watchin in Polish-only to see whether there had been any verbal communication during the “voiceover” parts, but I keep noticing a shortage of time of late, and this was just another victim. I’m hoping to write about my own impressions this weekend, assuming time shows up.

    — 22 October 2004 at 10:12 am (Permalink)