Appleseed: Ex Machina (film)
Warner Home Video
DVD Release Date: March 11, 2008
Run Time: 104 minutes
I approached Appleseed: Ex Machina with expectations set admittedly too
high, in the hope that the sequel would get beyond the silly premise of the
original. Instead, the sequel only left me appreciating how much better a
film the first one was. Yes, the plot was incoherent at times, but better
structured and more interesting overall.
The Matrix proved that carried along by a sufficiently complex and ingenious
plot, an idiotic science fiction premise (starting with that business about
the batteries) can be stretched out for ninety minutes. Appleseed managed
that. Appleseed: Ex Machina doesn't (and neither did the The Matrix
All the eye candy and video game shoot-em-ups makes the movie an
entertaining-enough diversion. But Appleseed did such a good job proving
what a really bad idea it is to create an authoritarian society with utopian
pretensions run by a bunch of genetically-engineered androids and a
And then Appleseed: Ex Machina proposes that the answer to all those
inherent problems are MORE dispassionate androids and a BIGGER mainframe,
with even more TOTAL control of everything. We're even treated to crowds of
mainframe-controlled zombies, looking as cornily Roger Corman as it sounds.
As economist Donald Boudreaux puts it:
"A far greater danger to Americans' prosperity than a President with a poor
speaking style and a penchant for standard-fare political shenanigans is the
spread of the belief that economic salvation lies in having someone 'in
But back during the 1960s, the mainframe was the only way to harness enough
computing power in one place to do anything useful. By the 1970s, the Cray
supercomputer had further cemented the metaphor of the super-smart,
centrally-located, all-powerful electronic brain, generously time-sharing
out its intelligence to us mere mortals.
If anything, Appleseed is a tribute to a bygone era, when despondent
Marxists could dream of@benevolent dictatorships putting a chicken in every
pot and making the trains run on time. But run by computers, which would
make it all totally cool. Yet by the 1990s, Cray Computer Corporation was
The Internet was instead about decentralized, distributed computing using
But the Star Trek universe is still ruled by mainframes. The Matrix universe
is run by mainframes. The Star Wars universe is run by mainframes (all
conveniently located in one location, without redundancy or backups).
Hollywood has mainframes on the brain.
Recall that every other episode of the original Star Trek had one of these
Edenic societies blowing a major fuse. At least they got that part right.
"One Ring to rule them all" became "One mainframe to rule them all." It does
give the protagonist and easy objective: toss the ring into the volcano. Or
nuke the mainframe.
And then rebuild the blasted thing all over again, exactly the way it was
before. A never-ending public works project to beat all public works
projects, I guess.
One notable exception is Ghost in the Shell, created by Masamune Shirow
after he wrote Appleseed. Second time around, Shirow got it exactly right: a
decentralized, distributed, chaotic world where nobody can be in control of
everything, and the worst problems are caused by people trying to be in
control of everything.
It becomes the contradictory job of the good guys in Section 9 to exert
authoritarian force in resisting that authoritarian impulse (ditto: Jack
Bauer). But good premises make good stories precisely because the conflict
is built in and perfection is elusive. Not surprisingly, every Ghost sequel
has equaled or exceeded the original.
Take seriously the notion that a technological, utopian paradise is possible
in the here and now, and like all socialist realism art, the essential
conflict can only boil down to evil (capitalistic) forces trying to destroy
Eden. It sounds high concept at first, but it'll always end up as high camp
in the James Bond/Austin Powers/Star Trek vein.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the end of the world (not again!) was turned
into a running joke. The underlying plot devices in Ghost in the Shell, by
comparison, are surprisingly mundane. But stop aspiring to perfection, and
the challenge of wrestling with ordinary human desires and frustrations
opens the door to transcendence.
Consider the original and its four sequels in terms of the primary plot
Ghost in the Shell >> Industrial espionage
Innocence >> Prostitution
Solid State Society >> Medicare funding
SAC: I >> Corrupt medical drug trials
SAC: II >> Terrorism and separatism
To be sure, Solid State Society is a tad deeper than that, but the questions
raised by a high-tech society with an aging population and a low birth
rate--also explored in Katsuhiro Otomo's comic Roujin Z--are questions about
the value of life itself. It makes sense why the various players would be
driven to a murderous crime wave.
I thought the free-wheeling world of Star Trek: Enterprise made it the best
of the series, though the Orwellian U.N-in-outer-space meme still hovered
there in the background. In Serenity and Firefly, Joss Whedon created the
best space opera series to date by getting back to a messy, libertarian
world that was recognizably real.
Naive and idealistic politics, however well-intentioned, make for bad
movies. Imperfect people battling an imperfect system make for good movies.
As novelist Richard Russo puts it, "unrelenting virtue is not just
unrealistic but uninteresting." Appleseed: Ex Machina takes on the task of
making an uninteresting idea interesting. And mostly fails.