Expelled From Paradise

One of the biggest transitions the anime industry is currently experiencing is the rise of CG animation. While in America 3D CG animation is remarkably commonplace (and almost the only option when it comes to feature length animation) it's much younger in Japan, a less mainstream way of approaching the art form. The technology has previously been used mostly as backup touches for 2D animation, for scenes and objects that would be too pricy or at the least more difficult to do with traditional animation. For example: vehicles, dance sequences, or large crowds. Shows or films done entirely with CG animation were rare, but lately they've been on the rise. Expelled From Paradise is a recent example of these new anime films that's done entirely with CG animation, and with an art style that heavily emulates 2D animation to boot. I've never been the biggest fan of CG animation that tries to take this route, but I kept an open mind going into it. The film's impressive staff did help to get my attention, being directed by Studio Bones veteran Seiji Mizushima, and written by the acclaimed writer of Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Psycho Pass Gen Urobuchi. So does Expelled From Paradise make a compelling argument for the use of CG in anime? Well, sort of.

In the future, a large chunk of humanity no longer lives on the earth itself, but instead on a massive space station orbiting it known as DEVA. But the people aren't technically walking around living their daily lives within this space station, but instead their minds are digitalized into a virtual reality utopia where there is no war, no sickness, and your place in the world is determined by your own hard work and determination. Constant cyber attacks have been inflicted on DEVA by a mysterious hacker known as the "Frontier Settler" who DEVA has determined is hiding out somewhere on the planet earth, now a barren wasteland populated by the the last dwindling remains of (physical) human civilization. In response, DEVA sends down agents to investigate the Frontier Settler and eliminate any threat to DEVA. One of these agents, named Angela Balzac (no, really, that's her name) enlists a guitar playing gunslinger named Dingo (no, really, that's his name) in order to help her navigate the treacherous lands of earth, and hunt down the Frontier Settler once and for all.

Expelled From Paradise did catch my attention right out of the gate by introducing some interesting concepts. While it's hardly the most unique idea in the world, the new virtual reality spin on a futuristic utopia was visually and conceptually interesting, and raised some intriguing questions. Unfortunately, only about one eighth of the film actually takes place there. Instead most of the film takes place on a post apocalyptic earth, which compared to DEVA is a visually uninspired world that doesn't even tap what little potential it had. The film doesn't really go very deep into the world's lore or inner workings, only scratching the surface of what exactly human society has become with the complete destruction of advanced technology on earth (an event they barely even touched on). Plus, as a whole the world of earth just looks bland and hackneyed, lacking any visual flare or new ideas to make it stand out against the countless other post apocalyptic landscapes in fiction. The story itself is solid, but unfocused. It throws a lot into the mix: the virtual reality world of DEVA, the dilapidated world of earth, the relationship between Balzac and Dingo (hehehehe those names, man), the morality of DEVA as a society, what it means to be human, and a some other stuff I can't really bring up without spoiling major elements of the plot, and as a whole it just came out feeling unfocused. It tries to touch on all these elements without putting anything at the core of it all and it resulted in the film feeling overly busy and empty at the same time. There's some talk about whether or not DEVA is immoral, some moments between Dingo and Balzac, but none of it is expanded on enough to really reach any sort of meaningful conclusion. Instead it's a barrage of promising concepts, none of which leave any impact.

Another set of issues are the characters, or should I say the lack thereof. Throughout the entirety of the film there really are only three characters with actual personalities and screen time, which contributes to the film's feeling of overall emptiness. I'm not saying a story can't be carried with a small cast but the characters need to be strong enough to carry the it on their own, and the characters in Expelled From Paradise simply aren't. They're not bad characters by any means but only decently written at best, which isn't enough when there isn't a more expansive cast or focused story to pick up the slack. Balzac and Dingo are both pretty one note, having straightforward personalities that don't bring much in the form of character development and are mostly boiled down to traits that have already been done to death before. Balzac does change some throughout the story, but mostly her ideals rather than her actual character. Dingo, though, has some interesting thoughts on the question of humanity and the morality of DEVA touched on throughout the film, and is overall a likable character ...but on the other hand, for a writer like Urobuchi who usually seems to to be fairly progressive and distinct, it was disappointing to see Dingo was written as such a typical example of pure concentrated manly idealism without any flaws.

Not to mention that thanks to the film's incredibly contrived excuse to put the mid-twenties of age Balzac into a sixteen year old's body (because appealing to otaku tastes is of utmost importance), the heavily implied, and honestly pretty forced, romance between the two comes off as uncomfortable. My favorite character was the third unmentioned one, who I can't really talk about much without spoiling things. What I will say is that he was a lot of fun, while still staying an interesting character throughout. The strongest aspect of the cast was not so much the characters themselves, but how they interacted. The banter between them was well written and had a surprisingly well executed humor, a pleasant surprise from a writer usually known for doing soul crushing tragedy better than anything. I genuinely laughed throughout the film, and did feel that there was a relationship building between all of them. So despite each character very well developed individually, as a whole I did grow to like them even if I didn't really care that much about what they were doing or whether or not they succeeded at it.

And then there's the complicated topic of the film's visuals. As I established earlier on, the film uses CG animation instead of the traditional 2D animation, while simultaneously adopting an art style that emulates the look of typical 2D animation in anime. The result can best be described as "mixed". The art style itself is good, an neat mix of cyber punk and western-post apocalypse that comes out pleasant too look at. It didn't blow me away, but it kept my attention with some cool designs (the stuff on DEVA and the very one of a kind look of the mecha especially were especially nice) and and decent looking environments (when they're not out in the middle of empty deserts, at least). The animation itself is at its worst in the slower, simpler scenes. More specifically, the dialogue scenes of just characters talking and interacting without much happening on screen. It's here when the stiffness of the CG is most clear and jarring, with characters often looking awkward or almost robotic in how they move. The faces of characters were also lacking diverse range of emotion, even by the standards of anime (and especially by the standards of film animation). In addition, I couldn't help but feel that, as a whole, the visual style looked like a step back from previous film budget Japanese attempts at CG animation (Short Peace, Space Captain Harlock) when it came to polish and presentation, as if it was trying too hard to mirror 2D animation rather than doing something interesting with the 3D space.

The place where Expelled From Paradise did fully utilize the advantages of CG to make something great, was during the action scenes. Although it wasn't as present as I wish it was, essentially being one giant action scene at the end of the film, the big climax of the film was flat out enthralling. Dozens of mecha gather to duke it out in an abandoned city and it was a sight to behold. The CG animation allowed for far more in the form of dynamic camera movements, with cuts following around the action constantly rotating and moving in ways that wouldn't be possible with 2D animation (without spending a massive amount of money and expending a ton of staff, at least). It was still apparent they were often trying to stay true to the roots of traditionally animated anime action, but here it felt more like they were pushing it forward instead of trying to be something it wasn't. The climax as a whole was simply a blast to watch, helped greatly by the film's stellar fight choreography and with a terrific soundtrack. The loud, pulsating electronic score fits perfectly with the relentlessly fast pace of the action.

When I see people expressing interest in Expelled From Paradise, it's usually because of the involvement of Gen Urobuchi. The film is mostly well written, it doesn't do anything particularly special and lacks the writer's usual creative stamp. The picture keeps your attention with some solid humor and intriguing concepts, but its story lacks focus and didn't develop its characters well enough for them to carry a film with such a small cast effectively. The CG animation is awkward and clunky for most of the film, but makes up for it somewhat with one of the most exciting mecha action sequences I've seen in a long time, which is a shining example of CG action animation done right. Expelled From Paradise is an underwhelming, but fairly entertaining film. Not must see, but a solid way to kill some time.


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