Renaissance | Inhuman Swill | William Shunn



This film review was originally published online at Science Fiction Weekly, September 22, 2006.

The year is 2054. The city is Paris. A futuristic yet familiar skyline looms above glass-floored consumer plazas and motorways, while the poor, the hip, and the unsavory jostle in the elaborate network of walkways and tunnels that interleaves the old city. Everywhere you turn, interactive billboards for the powerful Avalon Corporation promise eternal beauty to those fortunate enough to be able to afford it.

It’s against this background that a beautiful young geneticist named Ilona Tasuiev (Romola Garai) vanishes without a trace. Last seen at the seedy 71 Club, the ambitious Avalon employee failed to turn up at the low-income medical clinic where she regularly volunteers. Police detective Barthélémy Karas (Daniel Craig), a rogue cop with a shady past, gets handed the seemingly straightforward task of tracking her down.

The case quickly turns complicated when a spectacular high-speed chase nets a suspect who appears, from city records, to have been dead for more than forty years. A lengthening trail of bodies leads Karas from the underground lair of a dangerous criminal overlord to the glassed-in nerve center of the Avalon Corporation itself, whose predatory vice-president Paul Dellenbach (Jonathan Pryce) may have his own sinister reasons for wanting his employee found.

Time is running out for Ilona, held prisoner in a virtual-reality world where the very trees and grass may threaten her sanity and her life. Meanwhile, Karas’s reckless hunt for her abductors has gotten him suspended from the force, though he refuses to give up the case. Pursued by high-tech assassins in light-bending armor, his other friends dead or turned against him, Karas finds his only ally in Ilona’s underachieving older sister, Bislane (Catherine McCormack). Not only may Bislane unknowingly carry the secret of a deadly experiment from the dawn of the 21st century, she may also hold the key to Karas’s greatest vulnerability—his heart.

A moveable feast for the eyes

Despite the somewhat disappointing story, I could have watched the animation of Renaissance for hours. I plan to see it again and try to catch details I missed the first time.

Produced in France and released across Europe earlier this year, Renaissance is a sumptuous visual feast that brings the stark blacks and whites of the comics to spectacular life on the big screen. This beautiful work of animation envisions a realistically evolved Paris where airy new geometric structures nestle amongst the older architecture of the city. Boxy glass habitats dotting the hills around Sacre Coeur, the transparent, multi-level public plazas at Notre Dame, the high-speed elevated roadways and even the bold new arch of the Avalon Building all combine to make this one of the most fully realized future cities ever captured on film.

With its high-contrast black-and-white look, the most obvious point of comparison for this film will be Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City. But whereas that movie used CGI to place real actors in a three-dimensional world of garish chiaroscuro, Renaissance uses motion-capture software to combine realistic human movement with the play of light and shadow in two dimensions. It’s less a graphic novel sprung to life than a china-ink drawing miraculously animated on a flat surface. The technique is closer in effect to the digital rotoscoping of Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, though Renaissance inhabits an aesthetic realm all its own.

It’s a pity, then, that the filmmakers haven’t crafted a story that equals the power of the visuals. The script is a standard-issue future noir with elements familiar to anyone who’s seen Blade Runner or Minority Report or V for Vendetta—a conspiracy of dangerous lowlifes, evil capitalists, beautiful scientists, and old experiments that should have stayed buried in the past. Despite some thrilling action sequences, like a high-speed chase on transparent surfaces and a lofty battle with invisible shock troops, Director Christian Volckman and his writers bring little new to their story. The English-language voice cast turns in similarly undistinguished work, including a disappointingly flat and unrecognizable performance by Daniel Craig, the new James Bond. The movie ends satisfyingly enough but never grows beyond the safety of its noir roots, despite the vast, fertile, and imaginative landscape in which it could have run riot.  

Voices by Daniel Craig, Catherine McCormack, Romola Garai, Ian Holm and Jonathan Pryce
Original story by Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patellière
Screenplay adaptation and dialogue by Matthieu Delaporte, Alexandre de la Patellière, Patrick Raynal and Jean-Bernard Pouy
Directed by Christian Volckman
Miramax Films in association with Onyx Films and Millimages
Rated R
Opens September 22nd in selected cities

Featured Book

Root: A Serial Novel by William Shunn
Proper Manuscript Format by William Shunn