The story follows a heroine, Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak), her gamer name, as she plays a virtual reality game for money in the near future. She plugs into the game by sitting in a dentist-like chair and pulling on a metal helmet (with wires dangling everywhere). The game rooms are in a decaying, back alley building because Avalon is officially illegal. She looks lifeless as she sits in the chair and seems exhausted when she awakes from playing.
Much of Mamoru Oshii's past work as a director was on mature anime films ("Ghost in the Shell" & "Ghost in the Shell 2 - Innocence"). "Avalon" breaks with his tradition and uses human actors, real tanks, and real city locations filmed on location in Poland. Some scenes and special effects are computer generated. But like "The Matrix", most of the movie takes place in a virtual game.
The game rules come to us in small bits of information. Here are some of the basics. At first, it looks like a war game in which she walks around shooting tanks, helicopters, and other players. But then we learn you can form teams with other players and fight missions to collect points. Game players have different classes: warrior (like Ash), thief, mage, and bishop. They get paid depending on how well they play. They also have to pay-to-play, and this restricts them in certain ways: we hear that Ash cannot switch to bishop class without playing so much she would run out of money.
Ash plays alone, for the most part, and she seems to make good money playing the game. She's one of the top players and makes enough to do it full time. Some characters she meets in the game are other players, and some are purely digital programs. Actually, the recent film, "Inception", has similar rules for dream worlds since you only have a chance of dying in a dream if you get lost in lower levels of them. You also don't die when you die in the game (in Avalon, too, that is), you just wake up. But you run the risk of becoming brain dead if you delve into the game too deeply. Sometimes players never awake and become vegetables. Ash is not afraid of the risk, however; she's cocky and courageous (or addicted).
Do previous game players who choose to stay there (and let their bodies go brain dead back on earth) die when they get killed in the game? Their body is unplugged and over at a hospital, but the projection of them still exists in the game. Some of them seem to think a game existence is important enough to choose to stay in the game forever. But what if Ash kills a previous player in one of her game missions? The choice of whether it's ethical to kill a previous player is quite complicated and depends on your definition of a person. Do game projections qualify when they float around in the game? Do they actually "die" if Ash shoots them? The plot moves along a bit faster when Ash hears about a secret level, and the ethical questions come to greater conflict. Usually the game is never-ending during typical play, but rumors spread that she might be able to beat the game or, at least, get a heck of a lot of experience points in a secret level. To get to the level, she has to find a ghost and shoot it, so she teams up with Bishop to get help.
Oshii first shot the film in full color, but then he digitized and edited it into mostly black and white. Some color remains, mixed in here and there by choice (the computer text is orange, a hologram is rainbow colored, and the end of the film is in full color).
It takes great care to get the director's vision on screen. But the long pauses for effect (as in "2001: A Space Odyssey" or "Solaris"), may annoy impatient viewers. For example, we hear a classical opera piece twice, almost all the way through both times. The first time the piece has subtitles and we get a montage about the city and game environment. The second time the song plays during the climax of Ash's secret level mission, perhaps the most exciting part of the movie. It slows down the movie at just the moment we want more information about the deeper levels of the game. It could give us a better look around, but it chooses artistic silence instead (which is commendable).
Where "The Matrix" ends the movie with bullets and martial arts, "Avalon" ends with dramatic music and meditative imagery. "Avalon" never went long without giving important information. But you might discount the information if you don't love intricate video games. Visually it's still well worth watching if you are in this situation. My only major complaint seems minor: Bartlomiej Swiderski (as Stunner) needs to learn some table manners since he eats like a dog! "Avalon" deserves more attention for its ideas. Like in "The Matrix" and "Inception", it asks whether virtual reality is better or worse than reality. Ash discovers blurry lines between game and reality (her dog goes missing and shows up in the game, for example). More properly, the film argues that reality is constructed by her individual perspective and possibly by her choices (she sees the same statue once with its head and once headless).