The new motion-capture animated film "Renaissance" is a visually wondrous experience in high-contrast black and white, bogged down by a slow, underwrought story and uninvolving characters. It would be easy to dismiss it as another great-looking film with little else to offer, but that wouldn't be entirely true.
Directed by French filmmaker Christian Volckman, based on a "visual concept" by Marc Miance and an original screenplay by Matthieu Delaporte, Alexandre de la Patellière, Patrick Raynal and Jean-Bernard Pouy, the film mixes sci-fi and noir in ways familiar to anyone who has been exposed to "Blade Runner," "Minority Report" and any number of other novels and films. However, the result is an original visualization that advances both the look of motion capture and the ability of the medium to adapt elements from other media -- in this case, opening up the possibilities in borrowing the style of a graphic novel and successfully expanding it to the scope of cinema in ways that surpass even "Sin City."
Set in 2054 Paris, which has been isolated from the outside world "for its own protection," "Renaissance" is a dark joy to inhabit once you jettison the idea of a satisfying narrative. The city has become a densely vertical mix (designed by Alfred Frazzani) of skyscrapers built upon its rich historic architecture. Beautifully transformed from the City of Light to a city of darkness, it remains eminently recognizable. The Eiffel Tower still stands in the distance but is no longer alone in its elevation. The Metro plows indomitably through the decaying depths with a labyrinth of passageways connecting the crumbling tunnels to the sleek plazas above. A steady, black rain seems to pelt anyone who ventures outside.
The requisite story revolves around a stoic cop named Karas (voiced by Daniel Craig) charged with finding a young woman named Ilona (Romola Garai), a scientist for the monolithic, omnipotent corporation Avalon, which appears to own the city. As Karas plunges deeper into Ilona's disappearance he becomes involved with her older sister Bislane (Catherine McCormack) and the two are drawn into a conspiracy of nefarious genetic research that leads to a dark secret from the past.
Early on, the stark visual style makes it a little difficult to keep the characters straight. But even once we've focused on Karas and Bislane, they're simply not that engaging. Their interactions are too mundane and dry, and the dialogue lacks the jazzy beats of good pulp. Likewise, characters such as geneticist Jonas Muller (Ian Holm) and Avalon exec Paul Dellenbach (Jonathan Pryce) simply don't provide the intrigue needed to propel the story.
However, fans of cutting-edge animation and graphic novels will likely warm to the cool, abstract power of the visuals. The ways in which the minimal light appears to bounce off faces and transform them into ghoulish masks is truly fascinating, and the brief splashes of color that appear late in the movie startle the senses because of the monochromatic harshness of what came before.
MPAA rating: R for some violent images, sexuality, nudity and language. A Miramax Films release. Director Christian Volckman. Producers Aton Soumache, Alexis Vonarb, Roch Lener. Original story by Matthieu Delaporte, & Alexandre de la Patellière. Screenplay adaptation and dialogue by Delaporte, & Patellière, Patrick Raynal, & Jean-Bernard Pouy. Original visual concept Marc Miance. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times