I recently watched Expelled from Paradise (Rakuen Tsuihou), a 2014 animated film written by Urobuchi Gen, directed by Mizushima Seiji, and produced by Toei Animation with animation from Graphinica.
Upon first hearing of the film’s premise, I was intrigued. Humanity, in this story, lives in a virtual world of boundless possibilities. But when a party from Earth hacks into the virtual world, the government dispatches an agent to track down the threat. This agent is our protagonist, Angela Balzac. She is given a physical body and sent to Earth to partner with a freelance agent, Dingo, from the remaining Earth-bound population. Now, I’ve enjoyed Urobuchi’s previous stories: Madoka was a glorious tragedy that shone with humanity’s stubborn optimism, and Fate/Zero was a great excuse to watch a Battle Royale while musing about utilitarian ideals. Based on the premise and the writer, I was excited to see where the film would go.
The story is quite standard, with plot points recognizable from countless other movies. Angela’s personality clashes with Dingo’s at first, but she eventually learns to get along with him (nobody saw that coming). Allies and antagonists are not as they seem (gasp!). Conflicts happen. We get some big fight scenes with cool animation. And the ending ties up most of the plot threads.
No, the meat of this film comes from the characters. Its themes are intertwined with the clash between their worldviews, and its character development is highly connected with thematic debate.
The interaction between Angela and Dingo seems to be a discussion about society and the individual. Angela Balzac has grown up in a strict meritocracy, and plays by society’s rules to climb the social hierarchy. She is goal-driven and fiercely motivated, but due to Dingo’s influence, she begins to appreciate a more laid-back life. After her character development, Angela might have become a stronger character if she had been able to choose between one lifestyle and the other. Unfortunately, certain (spoilerific) plot circumstances take the choice away from her.
Dingo, on the other hand, is all about personal freedom. He has worked with agents from the virtual world before, but has always turned down offers to live in it, because he cannot stand playing by the rules of its society. Instead, he defines for himself what he wants from life. This is evident in his freelance job, and in the rock music that he plays for himself. At the same time, the film makes it clear that humans cannot isolate themselves from others. Even Dingo, in his fierce independence, relies on business from the virtual world and from various traders. A fine balance is needed, it seems.
Two other characters deserve mention. Broadly-painted and spoilerific, they showcase other faces of humanity.
Warning: plot spoilers for the next two paragraphs.
The Hacker turns out to be an AI from an abandoned space colonization program that developed self-awareness. Its goal is to continue building its spaceship, and to recruit volunteers to expand the frontiers of the human race. The banter between Dingo and the Hacker show the extent to which its humanity has developed. Does being human mean enjoying music and feeling emotions? How does a machine define emotions? What is it like for it to feel interest? Love? With these quick strokes of characterization, the film paints the Hacker to reflect humanity’s curiosity and desire for social interaction.
On the other hand, the virtual world’s government represents the flip side of humanity: we cling to the status quo and mercilessly crush anything that might usurp our absolute control. That’s why, when Angela reports of the Hacker’s harmless intentions, the government—paranoid of the Hacker’s power to bypass its security system—orders the Hacker’s extermination. When Angela protests, they lock her up as well.
The animation is unique: it appears to be done entirely by computer. While CG has received a lot of criticism in anime, it wasn’t that bad in this film. The action scenes, as well as the fighting and shooting sequences, were quite spectacular. The robot’s movements, surprisingly expressive, could even be considered cute. Unfortunately, the human faces suffered from the CG. While I am by no means an expert in computer animation, it seems to me that CG faces either look cartoon-like (as in the Pixar movies), video game-like, or venture into the uncanny valley. It might take some innovation in computer animation, or a shift in audience taste, for CG faces to look “good” on the TV or movie screen.
Aside: be forewarned that the female protagonist gets about ten seconds of completely non-sexual nudity and spends the rest of the film in a skin-tight outfit, which distracts from the serious thematic discussion.
One musical number from this film deserves mention for its thematic relevance. It is an old-style rock song that Dingo plays to himself on the guitar, on the radio to Angela’s annoyance, and to the Hacker. It’s part of his assertion of freedom. As for the Hacker, making music with Dingo asserts its developing humanity. Aside from this song, the background music is unobtrusive and unremarkable. It does its job.
So what did I think of this film? Its strength lies in its writing. A fairly standard storyline is used to debate the themes of personal freedom vs conformity, of progress vs stagnation, and of what constitutes human nature. The CG effects in action sequences are also well done. It is not without faults, however. Its characters are used almost as voices for different sides of an argument. Moreover, in non-action sequences, its CG totters dangerously close to the uncanny valley. But at the end of the day, it’s an above-average film. If any of the above interests you, give it a watch.