As computer processing power has increased over the years, we’ve seen more and more creative integration of CGI into film. For the most part, the technology has been restricted to rendering ever more convincing F/X for sci-fi and fantasy films. However, over the past few years we’ve seen the technology being used as the very foundation upon which films are being created. Recent films such as “Sin City” and “Casshern” have shown us that it is possible to create worlds totally within a computer and have actors interact with them. The latest in this new technical sub-genre is the French production “Renaissance.”
“Renaissance” incorporates the latest revision of a technique called ‘rotoscoping,’ whereby the movements of real actors are traced over with animation. This allows realistic motion to be overlaid with whatever the animator desires. The technique was most recently showcased in Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly,” but while “Darkly” employed a full color palate, “Renaissance” uses strictly black and white to evoke the neo-Noir look of graphic novels by the likes of Frank Miller. But unlike “Sin City,” it’s not just the backgrounds, but also the characters that have the hand drawn look.
Set in a near-future Paris, the story behind all this animated razzle dazzle revolves around a stoic cop with a fractured past named Karas (voiced by new 007 Daniel Craig for the American release) who is charged with finding a kidnapped woman named Ilona (voiced by Romola Garai), a research scientist for the monolithic, omnipotent cosmetics corporation Avalon, which appears to own the city (a theme curiously similar to another French CGI extravaganza “Immortel: Ad Vitam”). The spidery investigation leads Karas from his underworld roots to Ilona’s dangerously sexy sister Bislane, and onward to the top of the not-so-benevolent Avalon Corporation. Along the way Karas meets Ilona’s old mentor, from whom he learns that, in the process of finding a cure for progeria, she stumbled upon a discovery that could undermine the value of life itself.
This all sounds like heady stuff, and the stark, ultra-contrast presentation makes it all jump off the screen at you. But unfortunately the startling visuals are let down by generic characters and a generally pedestrian script. All the characters, from the brooding cop to the damsel in distress to the seedy corporate thugs, are straight out of a Noir clipart gallery. They are not given anything to do that you couldn’t have predicted by simply reading the plot synopsis. The characters are also all rather grumpy, as if they really couldn’t be bothered to be doing what they’re doing. Then again, that could just be because they’re Parisian.
Interestingly, the filmmakers really don’t take as many liberties with the futuristic neo-Noir framework as they could have. Future Paris is rather well imagined, with the multi-tiered city comprised of a slick, future-tech surface level with transparent sidewalks and super fast transport trains, stacked over layers of decaying tunnels and alley ways. But that’s all they do, as future Paris seems to be a victim of linear thinking by the production team. There’s no flying traffic ala “Blade Runner” or three dimensional highways ala “Minority Report.” But while “Renaissance” dispenses with the flying cars, we still get the animated billboards spouting corporate propaganda. Fritz Lang and Ridley Scott would be sporting satisfied grins while watching this.
The visual style has its shortcomings as well. The stark black and white color scheme is visually arresting, but has a tendency to wash out overlapping shapes. Thus, complex images often devolve into large blank swatches of black or white. It also doesn’t allow for much facial definition. Ilona and Bislane could be twins, but we’d never know it since their faces are often a sea of white. This also prevents the audience from forming an emotional link to the characters since we can’t see what they’re feeling. Combined with the flagging story, the self-limiting visual style gives the impression that the film makers goaded themselves into trying to create art rather than a movie.
There are several scenes where “Renaissance” seems to linger narcissistically over images of no thematic consequence, as if to admire its own coolness. Pretty soon, you bypass the noir styling and begin to wonder if all the characters have cigarettes dangling from their lips simply because of how cool the animated smoke trails look. Then again, that could just be because they’re Parisian.
“Renaissance” is like pretty pop art — eye-catching and striking, yet empty — and serves as yet another reminder that being pretty isn’t enough. Just about any frame from the movie could be blown up into wall size hanging art that an aficionado would be proud to have in their pad. But when strung together as a movie, they simply become art in motion rather than an engaging experience.
Still, “Renaissance” is worth a look if only to drink in the style. Just don’t expect it to linger with you once the end credits roll.
Christian Volckman (director) / Alexandre de La Patelliere, Mathieu Delaporte, Jean-Bernard Pouy, Patrick Raynal (adaptation)
CAST: Daniel Craig …. Barth’l’my Karas (voice)
Patrick Floersheim …. Barth’m’my Karas (voice)
Catherine McCormack …. Bislane Tasuiev (voice)
Laura Blanc …. Bislane Tasuiev (voice)
Romola Garai …. Ilona Tasuiev (voice)
Virginie Mery …. Ilona Tasuiev (voice)
Jonathan Pryce …. Paul Dellenbach (voice)