The Netflix original CG anime Exception is facing a steep uphill battle against low expectations. Nicky and Steve dig past the exterior to find a compelling sci-fi thriller.
This series is streaming on Netflix
Disclaimer:The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
Hey Nicky, quick question: how do I tell whether I’m really me or whether I’m just a construct grown in a lab and implanted with my memories for the sole purpose of watching a different anime each week and cowriting cute little columns about them? And a very important addendum to that: why is my chin so pointy?
Well, I’m not really sure how to answer the first question but even if I was a weird clone only designed to do one job does that matter as long as I enjoy it and feel fulfilled telling people about what anime they should or shouldn’t watch? Secondly, they can make my chin as pointy as they’d like if they said I got to be re-designed by the esteemed Yoshitaka Amano.
Speaking of memories, haven’t we reviewed an anime featuring designs from Amano together before?
Such is our lot in this life: biennial assessments of shows that take perhaps questionable routes in adapting Amano’s idiosyncratic style into motion. Though at least this time we’re spared from the horrors that were Brugs and Whatever The Hell that one dinosaur was.
God, Gibiate is so bad. When I saw the trailer for this new CG Netflix show, part of me wondered whether it was possible recreate that level of disaster twice. Like many great artists with detailed or abstract styles, it’s a struggle to adapt Amano’s art to motion. One of the strengths of CG models over traditional animation is the ability to maintain higher fidelity without expending as much labor. However, this doesn’t stop us from receiving uncanny, poorly rendered, and stiff products—many of them on Netflix. Despite being intrigued by the premise, I was uncertain that there could be an Exception to the rule.
Just the phrase “Netflix original CG anime” is enough to set my expectations several degrees lower than usual. Don’t get me wrong, I love doing this column, but at this point it’s made me sit through more than my fair share of dull, forgettable 3D slop. Which is why, honestly, I came out of Exception‘s first episode pretty bullish on its aesthetic! Whatever you want to call this, it’s certainly not dull.
From the trailer, it was hard to get a grasp on how the show would actually feel. The models do have many of Amano’s signature hallmarks, but his art is extremely painterly and gestural, so much that even Final Fantasy games usually take some liberties.
In many shots, the extreme stylization might seem off-putting at first, particularly the characters’ bodies and shading. Exception uses a soft painted-like shader instead of a typical smooth or more realistic one. This not only applies to the characters but many of the objects or environments, including actual paintings sometimes.
It’s a lot to get used to. I’m unsure if everyone will like it. But once I actually watched it, I could feel myself getting pulled in by it’s dedication to detail and atmosphere.
I think it helps that the direction and the motion feel both confident and natural for the most part. There’s a lot of careful attention to how characters move and talk to each other. Visually, the grandiosity of a future in space feels big, and the conversations between crewmates feel intimate. All of which goes towards creating immersion towards the high-concept sci-fi setting.
I think the soundtrack helps a lot too. As big a get as Amano is for character design, Ryuichi Sakamoto is arguably even a bigger get for music composition. Dude is one of the most important musicians of his generation, and he doesn’t phone things in here at all. Lots of spooky, sad space ambience that pulls the mood together and gives the show a further level of polish.
Oh agreed, both the visuals and sound design are pulling their weight to help set the moods. But even a show with gangbusters production couldn’t function without a strong backbone to hold it together, that being the story. For that, we also have writer and filmmaker Hirotaka Adachi (pen name: Otsuichi), known for his horror short stories, to provide the script and setting.
The script and story are always the biggest mystery factor for any show or movie, but especially with a heavy sci-fi story like this one. Everything in Exception is a way of showcasing big ideas, and if those ideas don’t deliver, then there’s not really a point, is there?
Welllllll, it depends. If you’re like me and you’re a sucker for claustrophobic space thrillers, then even a little effort can go a long way. Exception follows in the footsteps of big forbearers like Solaris, Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunshine, Moon, and so on, so if you vibe with those, chances are you’ll vibe with this one.
But there’s a reason we get very few space thrillers like those, and that’s because they’re hard to pull off. It’s hard to set up suspense, project a future for humanity that doesn’t feel like a useless info dump, and most importantly, not to sound like the writer is talking out of their ass. All those things require a lot of craft, and it’s intimidating to be compared to so many other gems.
Which is why I’m surprised how well it does do all of that!
Yeah, writing-wise, I think Exception is fine. It doesn’t go quite as deep as I’d like on any one of the many thought experiments it proposes, but there’s something to be said for variety! Right off the bat, I like how our characters’ first instinct upon waking is to ponder the authenticity of their existences. Because I know I’d do the same in their shoes.
It’s Philosophy 101 stuff—are we our bodies? Are we our memories? Are we something else? But there’s a reason humans keep returning to those questions.
It’s not that it isn’t a bit pretentious but it matches the larger-than-life situation. Actually, I had to switch to the Japanese track even though the English was the original, because I thought they captured the kind of serious and somewhat broad-strokes thoughts tone better than if they sounded more natural, especially when it’s obviously more about the question itself than the characters asking the question.
Not that I think the character writing is bad, but they’re like purposefully vague in the ways that you can never fully know what people around you are thinking. They don’t reveal a whole lot about them but only just enough to let you imagine what goes on in their heads.
Yeah, your tolerance will vary, but personally I love when characters are mouthpieces for opposing viewpoints in a philosophical argument with no clear correct answer. Really! Especially when they start digging into thornier stuff like what defines personhood and autonomy, and how that fits into these characters’ roles as disposable clones. Which turns out to be a pretty important thing to nail down when a cloning mishap turns one of you into a Final Fantasy miniboss.
I think having super detailed look at each character upfront would also defeat the point since part of the thing (no pun intended) is that we never quite know anyone well enough to know whether what they say is correct or true. In fact, we’re not even sure how well some of them know themselves! Sometimes, the most we get are little reminders, or mementos, that these people are who they say they are. Remnants of their past selves, copies of trinkets or photos. They’re not the same as lived experiences but they’re proof that somebody lived.
This is important for Lewis too; upon the Magic Advanced Technology 3D Printer having a little freak-out during a solar flare, the characters immediately question whether he’s worthy of being considered human, with Mack and Oscar demanding they throw him back in the womb-vat like a piece of garbage to be recycled against strong protests from the compassionate botanist Patty.
And before you ask, the aforementioned womb-vat is indeed called The Womb, complete with a gratuitously yonic entrance. Exception is many things, but subtle ain’t one of them.
It’s probably the most thematically important piece of equipment too, because it enables most of the debates and thought experiments posited by the show. Because it allows any of the crew members to “reboot” themselves, even in the event of death, it opens the door for all of these specific valuations on life and identity. It also means the show can temporarily turn into a slasher without too many lasting consequences.
It even brings up one of my favorite concepts! The Womb-Tomb dichotomy, the tidbit Oscar brings up is actually true and extends to a lot of separate cultures and early civilizations, such as many urns being rounded or egg-shaped.
My favorite use of it involves both those aspects too! When the story takes a turn towards the Among Us side of things, Mack deliberately entombs and rebirths himself just to win an argument and prove his innocence. That is the exact kind of sci-fi fucked up action I’m here for.
Being reprinted also resets a persons memories since they all stem from data taken from their original bodies that are now in cryosleep lightyears away with the rest of humanity. So a person who dies and gets reprinted really wouldn’t remember anything they did during the mission, and if there happened to be two of you printed, you would basically be separate people with the same set of memories. As with Lewis and The Cooler (Monster) Lewis.
And all the unexpected outcomes create a lot of pressure because these guys have a lot of work to do in order to cultivate a place where humans can actually live!
Yeah, there are a lot of ledes buried in Exception. Even though it’s the purpose of their mission, the whole terraforming thing doesn’t really become important until the last act of the show. We also get a scant few scraps of background info on why humans want to colonize another planet in the first place, which involves something called an “Alternative Intelligence” that’s only vaguely described. That’s cool stuff! And it’s stuff that would’ve been nice for the show to explore in more detail, tbh, but even these hints add some pleasant heft to what the series is doing.
There’s some action too, such as the confrontations against monster Lewis. They’re done well, but honestly they’re not the highlight. The choreography and motion isn’t bad but they kind of refrain from showing Monster Lewis too well early on and instead leave him obscured with a blurry filter including over much of the motion. This is probably the most “ps2 era” the show looks.
As much as I love Alien, I was glad to see the anime ditch the monster movie stuff in favor of exploring the Misprint Lewis’ humanity. That plays to the series’ forte much better. Especially when he starts teaming up with Vanilla Lewis! One of Exception‘s strengths is how it will subvert expectations in order to develop the story in a more interesting direction. You’d expect the Lewises to be natural enemies, but instead they become each other’s most important ally.
Giving the words “trust yourself” a whole new meaning.
It’s also not the only time Exception explores the concept of twinning and reflections. And by that I mean, yes, you need not worry: the show has selfcest.
Which is maybe trusting yourself a little too much.
But still rules! It’s the wild stuff you’d only do if you aren’t a coward.
It’s completely out of nowhere and I have nothing but the utmost respect for it.
Especially given how Patty is initially portrayed as being the most empathetic and naïve of the group. She was even the one who vouched not to kill Cooler Lewish and helped him restore some of his memories via the necklace of his dead lover. She’s the character with the most “heart” present to to the audience.
I mean what is having a heart if not loving yourself. Carnally. But jokes aside, her motivation is a fittingly compassionate one: astro-environmentalism. The planet they want to colonize already has life on it—life that won’t survive the terraforming process. Now, whether or not this warrants stealing a nuke and endangering both the planet life and the prospect of any human settlements there, that’s a thornier question to be sure.
It is funny, though, that Exception lets Patty be both an antagonist capable of self-reflection and a scheming villain who gives clues out of a children’s storybook. We all contain multitudes, and I guess that goes double for those of us with clones.
It’s great because most of the other characters seemed at least a little sus at this point. Especially Mack, who was so single-mindedly dedicated to the mission he was willing to eliminate all external threats, and even altered some unfavorable data when their new home planet wasn’t quite passing the house inspection by the cute spider robots.
Similarly, both Lewis have the whole trauma of losing the person he loves that make you question if some of these guys were all right to begin with. These clones might be perfect copies free of imperfections but they still have all the errors that make up a human.
The mystery component is good enough that I think the series loses some steam once Patty reveals herself and the finale turns into a mad dash towards the planet to find the bomb. Again, action isn’t really the production’s strong suit, and I’d much rather watch these weirdos stand around in their video game FMV environments and debate Maxwell’s demon or something or other. Though their lionfish spaceship breaking down looks pretty cool at least.
Yeah, the whopping 48-minute finale might feel a little long, but overall it’s a good ride. It’s not perfect, but it’s risky and confident in a way that feels a bit old-school. Even some of the qualities perceived as flaws add to the overall charm. It’s a bit of an anomaly that’s totally not for everyone but I hope that a few more people make an Exception for it.
Hopefully, I convinced you before we started going into spoilers, but if you dismissed the show because of the art style or CG, I would encourage you to give it a shot. It seems about once per year one of these Netflix originals manages to pleasantly surpass my utter lack of expectations, and this year’s winner appears to be Exception. Tasty, brainy, moody sci-fi with spacesuit ponchos. That’s a winning combination in my book.