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Slick Visuals But Not Much Else

“Stunning,” “striking,” and “breathtaking” are just three adjectives that can be used to describe Christian Volckman’s first feature-length animated film, Renaissance. The movie, a monochromatic science-fiction/noir thriller that can be best described as France’s answer to Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez's graphic novel-to-film adaptation, Sin City, has all the slick visuals of Miller and Rodriguez’s film, but without the cynical nihilism or the empty ultraviolence that made Sin City a hit with its target demographic (roughly males under the age of 25). Unfortunately, Renaissance is also an unnecessary reminder that trading off story and character for ultra-slick, ultra-cool visuals will lead to an unmemorable, unengaging, and ultimately forgettable moviegoing experience.

Paris, 2054. After saving a young boy from kidnappers, Barthélémy Karas (voice by Daniel Craig), a tough, taciturn detective working for the Paris Police, gets assigned to investigate the kidnapping of Ilona Tasuiev (Romola Garai), a geneticist who works for the Avalon Corporation. Karas starts where any detective would start, interviewing Ilona’s business associates, friends, and family.

Karas moves from Paul Dellenbach (Jonathan Pryce), a high-level executive in the Avalon Corporation, to Ilona's slumming older sister, Bislane (Catherine McCormack), and on to Jonas Muller (Ian Holm), a former Avalon scientist who now runs a health clinic in a low-income neighborhood, and Nusrat Farfella (Kevork Malikyan), a local crime lord. Together, all are directly or indirectly connected to one of Ilona's projects, codenamed the "Renaissance Protocol".

Visually, Renaissance seems to draw heavily from Sin City for its visual design, down to the emphasis of night over day scenes and ever persistent rain. To be fair, Renaissance was already in production when Sin City made it to theaters last year, but Volckman has admitted in interviews that he drew inspiration from Miller's graphic novels for the look, mood, and feel he and his collaborators worked so hard to achieve with Renaissance.

For the adaptation of Sin City, Miller and Rodriguez used a combination of live-action and greenscreen, adding backgrounds, lighting, even everyday objects in post-production. Volckman and his collaborators took a different route for Renaissance, first filming the actors using “motion-capture” technology, then animated over the raw performances before adding in CGI backgrounds, three-dimensional objects, and lighting effects.

Metropolis is usually the major or key reference point for future dystopias, at least on film, but the combination of a sprawling, labyrinthine cityscape, giant billboards, social stratification, a hard-boiled police detective as the hero/protagonist, femme fatales, genetic manipulation, an amoral global corporation, and the search for immortality lead right back to Ridley Scott's "future-noir," Blade Runner. If we take Blade Runner's literary predecessors into account, Renaissance clearly shows the influence of Raymond Chandler's detective-for-hire Philip Marlowe, down to the reference to one of Chandler's lesser known novels, The Little Sister.

Volckman tries to get beyond the obvious comparisons to Blade Runner or accusations of unoriginality by adding in a few story-side elements meant to make Renaissance stand out (e.g., Ilona and Bislane's ethnic background, which brings up the contemporary spectre of ethnic cleansing, the hero's Muslim background). Given how superficially Volckman treats these elements, it shouldn't come as a surprise that they have, at most, an ephemeral impact on the film's storyline.

The obligatory action scenes (e.g., a car chase, a foot chase, gunplay) only contribute to the sense that most of Volckman's time was spent getting the technology to match visual concepts and not enough time on the screenplay. That's not to say that the visuals don't have their intended effect in distracting from the tired storyline (they do), but visuals can only take us so far. Animation and/or science fiction fans and techno-fetishists, though, might find Renaissance to their liking, but they’re just as likely to find the movie's nearly two-hour running time an endurance test minus a satisfying payoff.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars