By now, anyone who's seen a movie by Japanese writer-director Mamoru Oshii (Ghost In The Shell, The Red Spectacles, Talking Head) should be familiar with the pattern: high-concept genre ideas, beautifully shot and composed images, pacing somewhere between languid and draggy, lengthy meditative silent environmental studies. Oshii's 2001 movie Avalon takes all of the above and blends it with a William Gibson brand of cyberpunk and half a dozen visual and textual concepts drawn directly from The Matrix. Shot in Poland, with a Polish cast and a Polish-language script, Avalon takes place in a grungy future in which the most popular entertainment is a virtual-reality military game called Avalon. Most players team up in order to survive the game's dangerous battles, but one woman (Malgorzata Foremniak), burned by a bad team breakup, has achieved near-mythic status as a solo player. When former teammate Jerzy Gudejko, also playing solo, winds up comatose–one of the many "unreturned" who never log out of Avalon–Foremniak begins to follow up rumors of a game level called "Special A," a challenge which has apparently destroyed all previous players. The plot is formulaic, and much of the rest is familiar, particularly the grubby, sunken-eyed, rag-bedecked people who lie in metal recliners and plug themselves into a machine in order to retreat to a shinier world where they can wear black leather and carry big guns. But while it wears its influences unabashedly, Avalon also bears Oshii's unmistakable stamp, his usual stately pacing, and the gorgeous music of frequent Oshii collaborator Kenji Kawai. These elements combine to give Avalon the weight of high religious ritual, and the visuals, mostly filmed in high-contrast sepia tones, are often breathtaking. Oshii doesn't skimp on the explosions or the CGI special effects (particularly the recurring images of dead game-players dissolving in a spray of polygons), but his loveliest images occur when Foremniak works quietly at her computer, bathed in harsh orange light, or when she placidly makes an elaborate meal for her beloved dog. Like The Matrix, Avalon eventually devolves into what-is-real? philosophizing, though with a simpler bent and a punchy but inconclusive ending. But unlike The Matrix, Avalon never seems to be in any rush to get to that ending. As usual in his films, Oshii piles on the shiny geek-bait, but reaches his greatest successes by hovering in ordinary moments, just enjoying what he's created.

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