Friday, August 3, 2007

Review of Renaissance

[Image: Paris 2054]

I felt bad about missing the B/W animated French sci-fi neo-noir “Renaissance” (2006) in theaters last year, but not too bad considering that Miramax unceremoniously vomited the innovative film into a two theater opening weekend and let four weeks go by before chucking the film off the edge of the planet. Thank god for DVDs, because the brutal treatment is utterly undeserved. “Renaissance” ranks as one of my belated picks for best 2006 genre films and stands up well (although under) the year’s other notable science fiction outings (“Children of Men,” “The Fountain” and “The Prestige”) though for very different reasons.

The adjectives that I mentioned in the first sentence above go a long way in describing what makes it so interesting; particularly in how seamlessly and intriguingly multiple genres and modes of presentation are blended. You can derive many of its influences by manipulating these elements like so:

Sci-fi + Neo Noir = “Blade Runner”
Sci-fi + Neo Noir + Animated = “Ghost in the Shell”
Sci-fi + B/W = “Metropolis”
Neo Noir + B/W = “Sin City”
France + Neo Noir = Jean-Pierre Melville
France + Animated = “The Triplets of Belleville”(The last one is a stretch as an influence, but the rhyme was irresistible.)

[Image: Layers upon layers.]

The film has a good plot at its core although it takes about half an hour before the disparate threads start to weave into a whole more interesting than its individual parts. The story follows Karas, a former hoodlum who has grown into a hard-bitten cop of the typical renegade variety. He sports a dark wardrobe, an ice-cool cyberpunk attitude and a pistol, needing little more to navigate the humming metropolis of near-future Paris.

[Image: (lower) Karas lives in a stark roof-top hovel that he populates with the holograms of his suspects. No wonder he has nightmares.]

Recent tradition for action movies has been to start the show with the protagonist wrapping up an unrelated case. It provides a chance to prime the audience’s adrenaline pumps and establish the character’s abilities. “Renaissance” begins with Karas going kill-crazy on a child-hostage situation set inside a warehouse packed with casts of Rodin’s The Thinker. Consider yourself warned: this is action fare for the thinking man and the artist in you.

The presence of the child is just one of director Christian Volckman’s many pieces of carefully dropped foreshadowing. The pros and cons of youth versus old-age and new technology versus old morality, run as themes underneath the main current. The crux of the primary plot lies in Karas’s investigation of a kidnapping case. The missing person is Ilona Tasuiev, a brilliant young scientist working for Avalon, a beauty/health mega-corporation. Karas can’t rule out anyone as a potential suspect, including Ilona’s sister Bislane, a nightclub bartender named Dimitri, her boss Dr. Muller and Avalon’s CEO Mr. Dellanbach.

The film manages to deal with such diverse topics as medical ethics, identity theft, eternal life, professional ambition, multiculturalism, corporate tyranny and post-human cybernetics all in a fast-moving action film with detective work, car chases, and shootouts. The film does a superb job of balancing the academic and active, keeping viewers on their toes whether they are contemplating the implications of the latest twist or following Karas’s Citroen as it speeds along the River Seine.

[Images: A tracking shot follows Karas along a catwalk. The view of the Eiffel Tower is obscured by a giant computer billboard advertising for Avalon. One shouldn’t resist reading into the fact that an eerie ad selling artificial beauty is eclipsing an old-world cultural landmark. After all, what SF mega-corporation is ever benign?]

While the plot has some creative bends and a finale that overcomes the residual clichés, it’s hampered by the poor writing. Except to move the plot along, nothing much gets said that qualifies as inspirational. Volckman and his writers could have learned more from Melville’s near-silent characters, but they seem to borrow more from the videogame cut-scene mold of generic one-liners and functional expositions. Not surprisingly, the studio also plans to make games. On the plus side, the film does benefit from positive influences like Metal Gear Solid and Max Payne.

Despite English voice-acting by a well-cast bunch (Daniel Craig as Karas, Ian Holm as Dr. Jonas Muller and Jonathon Pryce as the villainous Dellenbach) the dialogue occasionally feels like its being delivered in a vacuum. The slightly-overlong pauses and an unevenness of interactions betray that the lines for each character were probably recorded in separate sound booths and amateurishly combined later. The audio is not generally the film’s strongpoint, and I found the music to be a little timid and forgettable.

All such faults are redeemed by the visuals, easily repaying the price of a rental for anyone seriously interested in animation and CG. Volckman (and friends) had the innovative idea to shoot a black and white film without grays, giving the film a visual Manichaeism in complete opposition to its morally ambiguous tale. While one might suppose that it would be difficult to tell what is going on without a gradient, the filmmakers do an excellent job maintaining clarity when needed.

[Image: It wouldn’t be a post-1990 B/W movie without at least one quick color shot for added “emphasis.”]

Depth perception is provided by careful layering of mise-en-scene, low-key single-source lighting that create a distinct silhouette and plenty of movement. When the blacks and whites of separate object overlap it always feels like it was artistically chosen, not an accident. Time and attention has also gone into maintaining sharp-edged consistency to prevent the way patches can jump back-and-forth between black and white when the original gray is right in between (you can see this ugly effect by watching videos on a computer with the contrast set to 100%).

Though Volckman and company push the “no grays” line, it isn’t fully true. Lighter shades are intelligently selected for phenomena that would normally interfere with a purely two-tone scheme: transparent glass, reflections, clouds, haze, lens flare, holographs and so on. It doesn’t sacrifice the visual design, but rather adds to it, creating realistic effects and dynamic layers that round out the stylish settings. The results can be seen in some of the screenshots below.

[Images: (from top to bottom) A riverside road below a glass promenade for pedestrians, a rooftop forest enclosed in a greenhouse and a transparent office suspended above a busy highway network.]

The images above testify to the artistic vision, which creates a crisp futuristic shell that still maintains a moody noir nougat inside. “Renaissance” consciously bucks the oft-used New York and Tokyo landscapes for something with a more elegant, graphic-art feel and a definite French atmosphere. Here are some more exteriors:

On a basic level, the choice between whether to have black or white dominate an image, manipulates the tone and reaction for various shots. The director tends to reserve the dark backdrops for the poorer downtown districts and criminal underworld (where the action takes place mostly at night) while light prevails in the upscale corporate districts, particularly as part of Avalon’s friendly, but sterile, veneer. However, it isn’t usually as easy as white = good, black = bad. In the following set of paired images (trees and faces, respectively), the expected connotation are undermined within the film.

[Images: Romantic tension and a “Heart of Darkness”-style final lie, presented with typical color association reversed.]

[Images: More plays on color, graphic design and audience expectations in the rare examples of nature tucked away within the urban milieu of future-Paris.]

Coupled to the animation technique is some of the best motion capture work I’ve seen. Rarely do the characters move unnaturally, although there is still a tendency to gesture too dramatically. Unfortunately, the convincing movement is often diluted by the stilted dialogue and loose character development

This lack of polish is certain to provoke shouts of “style over substance,” but in truth the film has both depth and scope for those who dive into the chaos and confusion of the early third. It does take commitment and an open mind. Critics hated the film with uncanny fervor (44% Rotten Tomato, 57/100 on Metacritic), but the majority of the wrath preys on the poor writing while dismissing the visuals outright. Few of the nay-sayers show a willingness to actually follow the story or, god forbid, reflect upon it.

If you are a fan of noir, action sci-fi or animation, I highly suggest you see this film. In fact, buy it. That way maybe the studio can afford to do follow-up. The film merits multiple viewing not just to catch the artistic touches and relive the high-octane action sequences, but to notice the clever references and foreshadowing. On that note, I finish with the type of art comparison I usually reserve for gialli.

Walrus Rating: 8.5

6 comments:

Derek said...

I'm awfully glad that this movie turned out to be as cool as it looked in its trailer. It's too bad we never got to see it in theaters, because I was really excited about it, but it's definitely tops on my list for when I return to civilization at the end of the month.

Mad Dog said...

The movie does, indeed, look gorgeous. I think I heard like one peep about it online a long time ago, then it was quickly put back into the basement for Miramax to starve until its mercy-killing.

But with all this talk about its aesthetics, I'm surprised I never heard the name Killer7 mentioned.

Walrus said...

Derek,

I think you'll really like it. Not our fault for missing the theater release, it didn't even come close to St Louis. It only played in 13 US theaters.

Mad Dog,

The Killer7 comparison is apt, although I couldn't garantee a direct influence. One thing about the film is that there are plenty of derivative elements despite the originality in other areas. Some people are bound to see only the cliches while others will see primarily the inspirations.

Kathryn said...

Maybe it's a little immature of me, but seeing these screenshots makes me really, really want to carve pumpkins!

Derek said...

After viewing the film, I agree with your basic views, but I have to say that the dialogue and delivery was more of a problem for me. I was reminded particularly of watching a cutscene from a Square/Enix RPG (I'm currently in the middle of FF VI), where slow, delicate piano music usually signals that the dialogue to come is poignant, rather than the other way around.

I thought the sound effects were a high point. The music was forgettable, as you say, but it was nice to hear that the tone of the ambient noises stayed consistent with the camera's point of view. As the camera shifted locations, the audio followed suit, from standing next to the characters, to listening in on them from across a crowded plaza with a shotgun mic, to hearing someone through a thick pane of glass--the sounds didn't just change volume, they changed equalization too. Given how frequently the camera shifted locations, I'm glad that their sound folks kept pace.

Walrus said...

It is a shame they couldn't have spent more time on the script and delivery. Considering that they spent tens of thousands of hours on the animation, I think they could have spent another 20-30 hours polishing the screenplay in to something less lamentable.

Your sound engineer's ears are, as usual, keener than my own. I do recall the voices changing frequently, but I didn't examine how accurate they were with the acoustic design. Very cool.