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Renaissance   C

Miramax Films / Onyx Films

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Christian Volckman
Writers: Mathieu Delaporte, Alexandre de La Patellière
Cast: Daniel Craig, Romola Garai, Ian Holm, Kevork Malikyan, Catherine McCormack, Jonathan Pryce.

Review by Rob Vaux

At its best, Renaissance is a testament to the wondrous potential of animation -- defying the cute-animals-and-kiddie-parade formula of Disney's ilk, while forging a unique vision separate from more adult fare like A Scanner Darkly. Its cyberpunk vistas are gorgeous creations of noir monotone, evoking Frank Miller's Sin City comics but beholden to no imagination save its own. It reminds us that so much can be achieved with the cinematic tools at our disposal these days, limited only by the filmmakers' desires. Unfortunately, it also reminds us that visuals mean very little without a strong script to back them up. And as awe-inspiring as director Christian Volckman's futuristic imaginings can be, Renaissance squanders them on a story of exasperating banality.

First, the good stuff. Volckman and animation wunderkind Marc Miance have hit upon a brilliant formula for bringing their ideas to life. They use motion-capture technology to mimic the action of real actors, creating a blueprint for the animators to work around. Several additional techniques have solved the problems that plagued previous CGI efforts. Tiny cameras, mounted on glasses, recorded the cast's eye movements for the computers, giving the characters on-screen that all-important spark of humanity. (Contrast that with the figures in Final Fantasy and The Polar Express, who look like wax mannequins brought to life.) Furthermore, Renaissance understands that caricature is the soul of animation -- that its purpose is not to emulate reality, but to exaggerate it (even in efforts as ostensibly devoted to naturalism as this one). Simplicity marks the faces of Renaissance's characters, touched by the barest hints of extension and distortion that create plausible human figures without losing the unique look that Miance and his team have conjured.

The setting is equally well developed. Volckman has engineered a future noir scenario set in the year 2054, amid a Paris cut off from the outside world and ruled by the giant Avalon Corporation, which sells products guaranteeing youth and longevity. Few science-fiction settings combine the old with the new as well as this one. The city is unmistakably Paris, featuring classic architecture, famous landmarks like Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, and a physical layout that any native will recognize in a heartbeat. And yet the filmmakers have expanded it into a wondrously hypothetical future featuring sprawling skyscrapers and multiple levels of walkways and thoroughfares. Transparency dominates many levels of the metropolis -- allowing those above to peer on those below, and fitting in well with the film's themes of voyeurism and control.

To that, Volckman adds a palate of extreme contrast: stark black and white that bursts from the screen in images of breathtaking beauty. Robert Rodriguez tickled such visual potential with his adaptation of Sin City, but it took Renaissance to fully realize the concept. It gives the film one of the most original looks you're likely to see this year, and reminds us once again that for a certain mood and style, nothing comes close to a two-tone universe.

And yet, as marvelous as this canvas is, it supports a plot and story worn bare from overuse. For the first 20 minutes or so, the sheer stunning totality of spectacle carries us along, but familiarity slowly creeps in, leading us to ask what the film has besides a nifty look. The answer soon becomes depressingly clear: not much. The plot presents a tired hash of stereotypes, untouched by the imagination brought to the production itself: renegade cops and femme fatales and evil corporations with dark secrets... concepts mined to the bedrock by a million earlier films. Its hero Barthélémy Karas (Daniel Craig) is a typical plays-by-his-own rules gumshoe, tasked with hunting down a missing Avalon scientist (Romola Garai) whose work may hold the key to immortality. As much as their visual appearance sparkles, their personalities are nothing more than ciphers, and the web of secrets that Karas digs his way into has little resonance or depth. Volckman shakes things up every now and then with a few striking actions scenes, but the gorgeous sense of spectacle can't overcome the screenplay's uncomfortably prominent ennui.

Renaissance further compounds its folly with a ponderous subtext about the quality of life and death. Volckman allows his characters to contemplate the philosophical underpinnings of their dilemma, but the script lacks the heft to make us care. Without investing us more in the drama, such notions become little more than art-house posing -- pretentious as only a black-and-white French film can be. It only underscores the film's more direct failures, failures that its bold imagery can never entirely offset. Renaissance is an inspiring film in some ways, and its creators' ambitions are set admirably high. But a vista as amazing as this one needs a worthy narrative to justify it, and nothing of the sort can be seen. For all the juicy possibilities lying beneath its photonegative surface, it's ultimately just a direct-to-video clunker dressed up in sexy clothes.

Review published 09.21.2006.

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