Ergo Proxy 01: Awakening (2006)
By: Michael McQueen on May 23, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Madman (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1, Japanese DD 5.1, English DTS 5.1. English Subtitles. 102 minutes
The Movie
Director: Shukou Murase
Starring: Meagan Hollingshead, Liam O'Brian, Rachel Hirschfeld, Travis Willingham
Screenplay: Dai Sato
Music: Yoshihiro Ike
Tagline: Malice implanted by the creator
Country: Japan
Fans of SF must be having a ball at the moment – I know I am. A renewed literary interest in SF has meant that pulp classics, such as Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, J.G Ballard's High Rise and Philip K. Dick's Ubik are, once again, finding their way onto bookshelves with flashy new covers. In fact, there has been a significant revival of so-called Dystopian SF in cinemas in the last five years: Minority Report and I, Robot were both adapted from paperbacks by Dick and Isaac Asimov respectively, and another adaptation of I Am Legend is due for release this year (starring, of all people, Will Smith – aaargh!). And let's not forget Danny Boyle's recent foray into the genre with Sunshine. The motives are a mystery to me, but Hollywood seems to be overly-keen on giving SF the good, slick commercial treatment at the moment. Ergo Proxy arrives in the midst of this buzz.

The setting is the future – though what time this is, we have no idea. The city of Romdo is a supposed 'paradise' where 'emotions have become obsolete' and milieu resembles the dystopian cityscape of Ridley Scott's Bladerunner and George Orwell's 1984; big screen televisions tower over people whilst loudspeakers encourage citizens to spend more money on themselves. Located in this uber-consumer nightmare is Re-l Mayer, a waif-like detective from the Intelligence Bureau, clad head-to-toe in tight black leather who's investigating a murder case involving the other central characters in Ergo Proxy: Auto-Reivs. Auto-Reivs closely resemble Philip K. Dick's replicants; robots imbued with a human personality. The threat of an Auto-Reiv – or indeed any cyborg - becoming 'self-aware' is a recurring notion in SF – in this case, the threat is the Cogito virus, a glitch in the robot's programming that convinces them they actually are human (Cogito, as in cogito ergo sum: I think therefore I am). Like all SF that deals with simulation, simulacrum and artificiality, the search for truth and authenticity takes on a symbolic meaning for Re-l, as her struggle to solve the case leads her down the path of Government conspiracy, hidden agendas, and all manner of futuristic danger. The danger in this case is the Proxy, a super-being that has mysteriously infiltrated Romdo. By the end of this arc, the Proxy is still an unknown quantity – what it is, what it wants and what it can do is still a mystery, but its presence hangs over the series like a spectre; intriguing yet threatening. Vincent Law is another character to become enveloped in the scandal; he is an immigrant to Romdo, but is valiantly attempting to prove his worth as a citizen by hunting and destroying infected Auto-Reivs. When he is attacked by the Proxy, he discovers he now knows too much, and he is forced to flee the city. Accompanied by a companion Auto-Reiv, Pino, Vincent is a symptom of the malaises that plague the future; the vulnerable 'human' element that easily slips through the cracks of hyper-industrial post-technological society. The final destiny of these characters is still a long way off, but these first four episodes mark the beginning of a journey for all of them.

The first thing that will strike you about Ergo Proxy is how jaw-droppingly, gob-smackingly, mind-boggingly AMAZING it looks. The visuals are the hybrid product of traditional anime 2D cell animation that is merged with 3D CGI – but the effect is so seamless, so convincing, and so flawless that it's almost impossible to tell were animation end and CGI begins! Forget words like 'incredible', 'impeccable' and 'perfection'…they ring like empty hyperbole when compared to the ethereal, almost other-worldly visuals of Ergo Proxy. It's a 'through the looking glass' effect that is one of the most technically confident and cinematically ambitious displays of animation prowess. The production team at Manglobe have set a benchmark that surpasses everything I've seen in animation and live action this year.

The narrative of Ergo Proxy is a different proposition though. In this first arc there are many questions asked and very few answers given. The pacing is deliberately slow, and in four episodes very little actually happens; little pieces of information are revealed as Re-l attempts to get closer to the truth, but there are few major plot developments. Furthermore, the plot is hard to follow, and the structure is frequently disorientating as it jumps from character to character without warning. Thematically, Ergo Proxy has a lot in common with Ghost in the Shell and Bladerunner; the principle concern is for the psychology and morality of its protagonists' and much time is dedicated to their individual thoughts and emotions - introspection, despair and paranoia. The show attempts to balance two dense thematic threads; on one hand, it offers a cautionary tale about the frail vulnerability of humanity; on the other, it portrays a dissent into technological entropy. Both threads posit a psychological/metaphysical study of the 'self' in a dystopic, alienating world. This subject matter is quite weighty, and actually watching the show becomes an isolating and cold experience – which is unusual, because these themes are so immersive, so compellingly fascinating that it's quite impossible to turn away. Ergo Proxy has lofty ambitions that translate awkwardly on screen, but are nonetheless mesmerising when coupled with the sublime imagery. It's a contradictory, paradoxical and compulsive viewing experience that can only be described as powerful. The unique imagery provides the perfect foil for Ergo Proxy's narrative; soft-focus lighting and omnipresent shadow reflects the dystopian landscape, and the psychology of the main characters. A blend of bleak noir-tinged futurism and surreal, almost dream-like flourishes, the overall effect is sophisticated and intelligent.

It's very hard to know what to make of Ergo Proxy: it plays more like an art-house movie than a traditional anime, or SF epic: it's alienating, yet compelling; confusing, but engaging; cold, but inviting. An inspiringly different re-examination of classic SF themes and characters, Ergo Proxy is literally overflowing with the potential to become an innovating and engrossing series, but the narrative balance between character study and plot development needs to be as finely tuned as the visuals before that can happen.
Quite possibly the best thing I've seen all year, and certainly the best animation I've ever seen. There's nothing else that even comes close to the staggering technical brilliance and accomplishment of Ergo Proxy. However, there is an emphasis on texture – particularly dominant shadows - that will get lost on low-definition screens.
English 5.1/DTS and Japanese 5.1 with English subtitles. The atmospheric soundtrack is understated in the mix, which definitely suits the mood of the series. Everything else sounds top-notch.
Extra Features
A Japanese featurette about the key words of Ergo Proxy and a Behind-the-scenes at Manglobe that features interviews with the director and a peak into the animation studio. Personally, I thought this could have benefited from more insight into the actual creative process. The English Staff Interview is more informative and features the English scriptwriter and voice director giving in-depth analyses of each character. Other features include a picture gallery and various trailers and commercials.
The Verdict
I really am torn up about this one; it's far too early in the series to make any sort of value judgement. There's such a phenomenal amount of potential for Ergo Proxy to blow our minds, it seems unfair to judge it solely on 4 measly episodes that just barely get the story going. However, if this 'Awakening' collection is anything to go by, we are on the verge of something truly special here – and it's not often you can say that.

Narratively, it rates about 3; the actual plot doesn't quite live up to the ambitious promise of the show's premise, but one can safely assume the next batch of episodes will remedy that.

Visually it easily rates 5…a neat average of 4 should do it.
Movie Score
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