It doesn't come as a huge surprise that "Vexille" is from the people who brought the world "Appleseed" and its even better sequel "Appleseed Ex Machina."
And in "Vexille," the cyberpunk flavor, the big mecha, and the futuristic world full of political and technological conflict are all firmly in place, along with some pretty slam-bang action sequences and a darker, grittier feeling. While it lacks some character development and feels rather bleak at times, it's still a pretty entertaining story -- now if only it had fleshed out the main cast a little more.
About seventy years in the future, the world is worried about the advancement of robotics technology. So the UN orders them restricted, and Japan decides to cut itself off from the rest of the world.
But ten years later, a biomechanical leg shows the UN just what has been going on in Japan. So the American tech police known as SWORD are sent into Japan to find out if the isolated country has been doing illegal robotics research, which no other country allows. They aren't, and the movie ends there. Seriously, the Daiwa Corporation has decided to guide mankind's evolution through machinery, and the the SWORD agents are met with a very warm, nasty welcome.
After being rescued by the rebel Maria, Vexille finds that the biorobotics Daiwa Corporation has reduced the once-proud Japan to a vast, barren slum devoid of truly human life. Even worse, a nanotech "vaccine" transforms the Japanese into mindless machines. Vexille's only hope of saving herself -- and her lover Leon -- is to join forces with a small band of rebels before Japan is completely destroyed by Daiwa.
"Vexille" is a very different animal from the "Appleseed" movies. While it has the nimble shiny mecha and exploding buildings, the focus is on political machinations and evil corporations whose morality makes your hair stand on end. There's no utopia here for our tough heroine -- it's more like one of the outer circles of Dante's Hell.
The scenes in Vexille's home are colourful and streamlined, set in a futuristic city. But things get darker soon, taking us to the sickly yellow light and shabby shanty town of Japan, and things don't lighten up. And that devastated Japan is a pretty brilliant creation, both in its decayed misery and in the bleak future that its few remaining "fragments of humanity" have. The big flaw: the characters spend loooooong stretches of the movie just grimly talking to each other, with too little action.
Fortunately when there IS action, the fight scenes are top-notch in quality -- it has exploding buildings, missiles, battling mecha and chases through a marketplace. The fight scenes grow in intensity as Vexille and Maria reach the climactic confrontation with the Big Bad Guy. And the semi-apocalyptic finale is both shocking and inevitable -- as well as a helluva way to end a movie.
And then there's the jags, which are also quite cool -- giant wormlike masses of technology and metal that devour anything they come across. Not only are they wonderfully freaky, but they come across as a sort of cyber-sandworm from "Dune." Lovely.
And the animation is pretty astounding, though it has an oddly rotoscoped look in some action scenes. It's detailed and gloriously vivid, despite its grimy, shadowy look. And that includes exquisite details like snowflakes being individually swept from a windshield, or a reflection in a transparent helmet -- or even a smooth-skinned, nimble mecha exploding into a building with almost stunning speed. This glorious look almost makes up for the stretches of relatively action-free plot.
Perhaps its biggest weakness is in the characterization. It feels like they put a lot of effort into creating lifelike-looking characters. But despite the spunky Vexille and some touching moments from the Japanese cyborgs, the characters never quite come alive. Call it the "Final Fantasy: Spirits Within" effect. The best-rounded character is probably Maria, the tragic rebel leader who also provides a little romantic tension for our elf-faced heroine.
"Vexille" is a flawed little semiprecious gem -- brilliant animation, a tough heroine and mildly horrific Japan. Flawed, but has plenty of chills and explosions.