September 16, 2007
Film: VEXILLE
Country: Japan
Director: Sori (Fumihiko Sori)
Length: 110 minutes
Rating: 14A
Distributor: FUNimation

Watching Vexille is a lot like going on a date with that hot airhead from high school: five minutes in, you wonder what excited you so much to begin with.

Vexille is the story of Vexille Serra (or Serra Vexille, if you live in the West), a member of a UN Special Forces unit called S.W.O.R.D. that monitors the advance of robotics and cybernetics technologies. The year is 2077, and for ten years Japan has lived behind a veil of electro-magnetic cloaking, building up the Daiwa Corporation robotics empire and refusing to allow real communications or travel in or out. Now the world fears that Japan has developed an android capable of passing as a human being, in violation of the same international treaties that caused Japan to withdraw from the UN years ago. And you guessed it: they have, and only through a chain of explosions, pseudo-scientific explanations, and thunderous Paul Oakenfold club anthems can the world be saved from a Bodysnatchers-like plot of android replacement.

Vexille has serious problems that render it more suitable for a late-night pizza-and-beer DVD rental than a twenty-dollar film festival movie ticket. But it's not all bad: Fumihiko Sori was the visual effects director for Appleseed, and fans of that silken, motion-capture-against-digital-vistas style will not be disappointed. The environments, particularly the slums of Tokyo and the toothy, glittering expanse of Los Angeles, are lovely. Tiny details, like snowflakes hitting a windscreen or grit kicked up by a tire, are well done. And the mechanical designs are fabulous. The aforementioned Oakenfold soundtrack keeps pace with the action. And the actions scenes themselves are good -- Sori knows how to execute a chase scene, if not how to inject one with any tension or suspense.

From frame one, the film plays like a bid to the Bubble-era "Techno-Orientalist" anxieties that Toshiya Ueno attributed to the West. It's all there: the threat of individual humans being replaced by human automatons as a result of Japan's technological superiority, Japan's hubris eventually becoming its downfall, Japanese people nobly sacrificing themselves en masse so that their virus cannot spread... The trouble is that the Bubble popped years ago. America has other fears now in China and Iran. Vexille might be an acknowledgement of those fears, or a parody of them. And if the film were smarter, it could have worked as the latter.

But the film is not smart. Every interesting plot point (the replacement of world leaders with "bio-metal" androids, or the giant, metal-eating desert sandworms borrowed from Dune) gets dropped in favour of yet another chase scene. And the titular character, Vexille, is just plain boring. Although the audience is supposed to believe her as a member of an elite fighting force, she does not behave like a well-trained or functional soldier. Yes, she pilots a mechanized suit very well, but so does everyone else on her squad. She seems to have no special skills to bring to the table, and frequently screams at the camera, bemoaning the fate of androids and humans alike instead of doing something useful to help herself or others. After watching a younger, more capable, smarter heroine in Terra, seeing Vexille Serra scream, cry, and follow secondary characters around causes no small amount of yawns and eye-rolls. It's telling when a titular character's most interesting plot development is learning via flashback that her boyfriend was in love with someone else ten years ago.

I saw only four films this Festival, but the other three audiences were loads more enthusiastic than this one. They laughed. They cheered. They held their breath. At the end of Vexille, the audience stood up and filed out quietly, more inspired by the need to find the night's last subway than the film they'd just seen. If you're an anime fan and you want good news from this year's Toronto International Festival, listen to this: Takeshi Miike and Quentin Tarantino are anime fans, and they've worked together on a live-action film called Sukiyaki Western Django. It's violent, funny, and plays like a lusciously-coloured manga flip-book. And there are anime in-jokes. Do yourself a favour, and wait for it instead.

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