AVALON. Polish cyberpunk from the director of GHOST IN THE SHELL
Avalon – the legendary island where the remains of the mythical King Arthur, ruler of medieval England, are said to rest. In Mamoru Oshii’s (the director of a superb masterpiece Ghost In the Shell) film, it becomes a symbol of escape from reality, a substitute in the form of a better, simpler world where only one rule applies – kill or be killed. This pseudo-reality drawn from computer games becomes a substitute for real life for many, but also a source of income and the sole form of entertainment.
Ash (Małgorzata Foremniak) is a skilled player, one of the best warriors to have ever played the virtual war game Avalon. She is also a former member of the elite clan of professional gamers – Wizard. The legend of Avalon states that the highest level of initiation is completing the game’s final level – Class Special A, which can be accessed through special gates known as Ghost. Only a few return from the last level, while others are condemned to a vegetative state similar to plants. One of those who didn’t return is Murphy (Jerzy Gudejko) – Ash’s former partner and friend. Tempted by a stranger she encounters in the game named Bishop, Ash decides to delve into the secrets of Special A.
Avalon is a hybrid that combines two forms of entertainment that were previously distinct but have started to intersect more and more: film and computer games. The merging of these forms seems to be inevitable. Interestingly, it is the games that are evolving towards film. In the case of Mamoru Oshii’s film, however, the game becomes a part of the storytelling. But is it about providing the viewer with the sensation of participating in the gameplay? Probably not. In the film, virtual reality is as real as the physical world. One can die or get injured in it. However, it’s not the body that’s involved, but the mind, or rather the player’s self-image. Everyone can become who they want to be. In the game, Ash is a warrior, while in the so-called “real” world, she’s a nobody – just another boring person on an almost empty tram. Avalon the game seems like an escape from the grayness of everyday life, from the sepia and gray-toned, dirty and deserted streets of Wrocław where the film was shot (the movie was shot in Poland). It provides excitement and a touch of imagination in a mundane world.
The film depicts a stark contrast between the eerie “real” world – the external world (depicted, rather fittingly, as Poland in the mid-1970s) – and the thrilling reality of the virtual game, full of shootouts and chases. So, what is the purpose of the game’s highest level? After all, achieving it means returning to the drudgery of everyday life. Which true gamer would willingly choose that? Probably none, as often the pursuit of a goal is more important than its attainment. Unless… unless the final level is a sanctuary, a reward for the chosen few, a paradise. This notion is confirmed within the film. Special A is referred to as “Class Real,” a colorful world filled with people who, using gaming terminology, could be called NPCs (Non-Playing Characters – neutral characters not participating in the game). But in the virtual reality, aren’t they as real as any of us? This imagined paradise seems like a joke from a malicious Demiurge, embodied by the character of the Game Master (Władysław Kowalski), standing on the sidelines, leaving the player free will – the choice to play or not to play. His role ends with creating reality – the game world. On the other hand, the player is initiated into the highest level by Bishop – a mysterious superplayer, tempting Ash with the allure of the unknown. Only a select few are allowed into this paradise, under one condition: they must eliminate all the other players. What irony, to enter a paradise where you become the only person who knows. Equally ironic is the way to reach it. The gates are opened by Ghost – an unarmed girl whom the newcomer must shoot to unlock the passage. Something doesn’t add up here. The viewer senses a growing disharmony between what is seen and what is sensed.
So, maybe it’s not a passage to paradise after all?
If the Game Master is a watching deity, then who is Bishop?
Avalon is filled with references to literature and film, including The Matrix by the Wachowskis, the famous “virtual” trilogy by the father of cyberpunk – William Gibson, and the timeless Arthurian legend. One of the film’s strongest points is its music by Kenji Kawai, performed by the Warsaw Symphony Orchestra, with notable choral parts sung in Polish. Despite its merits, Avalon is not a fully successful film. The attempt to transplant Japanese symbolism and style from a computer game into the context of Poland results, if not in failure, then at least in a partial success. However, the most significant flaw lies in the convoluted, unreadable plot that simply hinders a comprehensive understanding of the overall message. The involvement of Polish actors and their impact on the film’s reception remains debatable. On the other hand, the script didn’t offer significant acting challenges, and that doesn’t seem to be the focus. The only standout in the cast is the dependable Władysław Kowalski in the role of the Game Master. Although he doesn’t physically appear on screen, only his face is shown, his gentleness combined with indifference makes it easy to believe in his absolute impartiality.
Mamoru Oshii, armed with a strong concept and substantial technical capabilities, came close to delivering a story with a deeper layer, one that’s both old as the world and timeless, reflecting the challenges arising from changes in the mentality of a postmodern society. Unfortunately, the result is a mediocre science fiction film, which is a shame.