Monday, August 4, 2008

Renaissance (2006)

Whether it be the outrageously proportioned women in the 1981 geek love classic, Heavy Metal, or the breathtaking mother of all anime, AKIRA, I think that it is pretty much understood that not all cartoons are for kids these days. I find it refreshing that a generation always manages to drag the trappings they feel most comfortable with along with it as it progresses, despite the insistance of the previous generation that such trappings are "childish."

I find it equally refreshing that when this occurs, it means that said generation hasn't forgotten the importance of having fun.

For my parents, those trappings were board games and soul music. For me, it is cartoons and video games.

When I first heard about the film, Renaissance, about a year ago, I was immediately excited. Not only was this a cutting edge animated film, but it featured the voice of Daniel Craig (Layer Cake, Casino Royale) and drew some rather blatant parallels to one of my all time favorite dystopian science fiction movies, Blade Runner.

Then I heard that this was made by the French... Yikes....

Or not, since one of the greatest treasures that the France has given to the world was neither Statue of Liberty nor the Eiffel Tower.

It was a man by the name of Luc Besson..

Hell, either Cyril Raffaelli, David Belle, or Jean Reno could single handedly redeem the entire French population, so my initial fears that French involvement could ruin this production were put to rest for the time being.

Renaissance takes place in Paris, France in the year 2054 and follows French-Algerian detective, Barthélémy Karas (Craig), as he investigates the kidnapping of a beautiful and brilliant geneticist named Ilona Tasuiev (Romola Garai). In the course of the investigation, our intrepid hero naturally runs afoul of evil corporate dickhead, Paul Dellenbach (Jonathan Pryce), and eventually hooks up with Bislane Tasuiev (Catherine McCormack), the sister of the kidnapped scientist.

Rather predictably, Renaissance attempts to run the gambit between noirish action and moral relevance much like her predecessor, Blade Runner, did over two decades ago but was much better at it. The odd thing about this production is that even though the everything is done in black and white, the visuals are still very stark.

The Paris of 2054 worked better than I expected it to as far as dystopian settings go. It reminded me quite a bit of (what I assumed to be) the future London of Terry Gilliam's, Brazil: a city where you can't help but marvel at the complexity and still feel a chill run down your spine because you knew that somewhere, someplace... evil was hard at work..

What ultimately disheartens me about Renaissance is that it is a film that has only learned part of the lessons taught by similarly themed works.

Like Brazil or Blade Runner, the film relies heavily on visuals that bring big dividends. The film's innovative rotoscopy techniques and stylized illustration keep your attention fairly effortlessly. Renaissance accomplishes quite a bit through mere pacing and action, and does a great job of convincing you that the black and white lens through which you view this world is just as important to the story as the plot itself.

I would argue that if there is a project that really does successfully capture that intangible, surreal touch we all expect in comic book films these days then this is the one, even though Renaissance isn't based on any past or present illustrated hard copy.

As you watch this, you really get the sense that you're actually settling down with your favorite graphic novel, or kicking back with your ancient stack of Heavy Metal or Epic Illustrated magazines and losing yourself in those sci-fi alternities that Juan Giménez, Masamune Shirow, and Moebius created so long ago where women were hot and problems were solved properly via liberal use of small arms fire from cool looking automatic weapons.

I enjoyed savoring the irony of Renaissance as it presented a dysfuntional place where the lens of the world literally registers black and white, yet the spectrum of morality dwells in familiar shades of grey. Renaissance gives you a glimpse into a backdrop where absolute power does indeed corrupt absolutely, where purity and honor are ideals to be admired even if they do seem like liabilities, and where sometimes you have to do a terrible thing in order to preserve the greater good.

However unlike Brazil, Blade Runner, or even AKIRA, Renaissance does not take the time to build a foreboding sense of dread. The villains are acceptably threatening but Karas is such a badass that you're certain that he'll will eventually triumph over the sinister mega-corporate forces that dare to play God with the rest of humanity. For a dystopian work, Renaissance is hardly subtle.

There are a couple of very clever plot twists, but not enough tangible menace to fill a viewer's heart with any doubt that good will win in the end. That is a cardinal sin when it comes to dystopian literature.

In a despotic future society where things aren't as they seem, the worst thing you can inject into the plot is a feeling of positive surety. Whether it be the insurmountable bureaucratic power of Big Brother found in in Orwell's 1984 or Terry Gilliam's Brazil or the state-sanctioned mind control used by The Grammaton in the 2002 woefully underloved cinematic offering, Equilibrium, there always has to be something overwhelming and malevolent lurking just beyond the mind's eye that tests the protagonist's perseverance to the breaking point, if it doesn't grind him into dust first.

Overcoming nearly impossible odds is what makes dystopian plotlines so interesting in my opinion. The amount of hardship the hero has to overcome is so monumental that it makes even the most mundane victories memorable, and makes complete triumph truly remarkable.

Director Christian Volckman doesn't keep the narrative as tight as he should nor does he seem to trust the story enough to let the plot do its work. This disappointed me a bit because I've seen this movie twice now and after every viewing, I always get the feeling that something wonderous will literally jump out of the screen and force its way into my subconcious.

There is a film for the ages somewhere in the script of Christian Volckman's Renaissance, but sadly you will just have to settle for a popcorn muncher that is a tad too smart for its own good.

1 comment:

Ash said...

I'm definitely going to track this down and give it a watch when I get the chance. Looks good, but I'd been leery.