Review: ARCANE – Stylistic Images in the Void

This is the review of the new Netflix series ARCANE, which is based on the video game LEAGUE OF LEGENDS.

Spoilers below. I discuss the shock surprise ending.

Let me discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly.


The good:

The art direction likewise combines a steampunk, grunge graffito, film noir, strobelight-mystic, art deco and Korean game styles masterfully. The art direction deserves an award.

The animation quality is topnotch, including visual effects I have not seen before, producing an unique look.

Fight scenes, chases, escapes, are animated with an alluring fluidity, while quiet scenes play with light and shadow, and a wondrous color palette to great effect. Scene of insanity are jagged, jarring, neon-bright, and disquieting.

The characterization and plot are likewise topnotch, displaying a true craftsmanship of story telling surprising given the limitations of the source material — it is based on a fighting game. The characters are fully realized and alive. The writing, on that level, is remarkable.

The worldbuilding is also sound and consistent, portraying a world of Victorian technology and high-energy alchemical black magic, bio-modification, nonhumans, and addictive body-altering pharmaceuticals that might have come from the laboratory of Dr. Jekyll.

The plot concerns the turmoil between a corrupt plutocracy, living in the daylight in soaring towers of ivory and gold, and the crime-riddled underground living in the canons and pits below. Two orphans, separated by tragedy, try to reunite, but one, driven into psychosis by self-inflicted trauma, is raised by the druglord who killed her foster father, and becomes a mob assassin.

Meanwhile a crippled young man from the gutters, elevated by merit of his scientific genius, joins a young scion of privilege equally gifted, in the investigation of wedding magic to technology to benefit mankind, while sinister forces seek to use the work for war and oppression.

There are plots and counterplots, political betrayals among the elite council ruling the city, murderous betrayals among the crimelords and crooked cops of the underworld. Ideals are corrupted, then remembered, families are broken, unlikely friendships bloom, and lost loved one sought again. All is dark, desperate, gritty, grimdark, darkgrim, but with enough humanity and rare acts of kindness to confound expectations.

The bad:

The shock surprise ending is that all the major characters are killed for no particular reason in the last frame of the last show.

If the show is renewed for a second season, either all will escape by an unlikely and unsatisfactory deus ex machina or the minor characters of the first season will be elevated to leading roles.

If the show is not renewed, and this was meant to be the finale, then the show is a cheat, and your time is wasted by watching it. All the drama and intrigue lead up to exactly nothing, and all plotlines are cut off.

This is not a tragedy. A tragedy comes to a climax when the faults of the protagonist provoke events beyond his control, and a dire but inevitable vengeance descends from heaven to smite him, and the stark horror of where he has been lead by his ambition and pride, jealousy or indecisiveness (or whatever the sin might be) are revealed in all awful clarity.

This is not that. The psychotic girl was raised by a druglord who, coming to love her as a daughter, nobly refuses to betray her despite being offered his life’s ambition. Her long-lost sister, thought dead but actually confined in steampunk Alcatraz, returning to save her, hoping sisterly love will redeem all, causes the psychotic such confusion that she shoots the druglord, regrets it, and, in an act of madness and despair, blows up the ruling council.

The ruling council was in the act of voting to end an ongoing state of martial law, and to grant life, liberty and happiness to the undercity in an unexpected act of selfless nobility and charity toward the oppressed. Boom. All gone. Dead.

The young scientist struggling with the moral implications of his great invention: dead. The young cripple dabbling with unlawful dark magics to seek a cure for his fatal illness: dead. The cynical countessa, estranged from her military dictator mother, but trying to seduce the young scientist, at first for profit, but coming to love his ideals for their own sake: dead.

My interest in this otherwise well made work: dead.

The ugly:

As is by now commonplace in the vomit heap of modern culture, all the male roles are played by females.

The protagonist, a streetwise street-fighter, brawler, and boxer whose fistfighting skill terrifies whole barrooms of thugs and rummies is a teen girl.

The main enforcer for the mob is a girl thirtysomething.

The unstoppable assassin demolitions expert whom no one can defeat in gunplay or fisticuffs, is a girl so small and slight that a stiff breeze could blow her over. She slays hosts of brawny brawlers without breaking a sweat.

The idealistic young police detective who walks the mean street seeking answers is a girl.

The cynical leader of the money-hungry foreign cartel is a girl. Her mother, the corrupt brutal dictator, is a girl.

I was simply nauseated by a fight scene between two young women in a bar pounding each other in the face, one with a cybernetic arm and a monomolecular blade, the other with hex-infused gauntlets of ogre-punch, grunting and bleeding like two Irish heavyweights in a bare-knuckle brawl. It was absurd and gross and nauseatingly ugly on every level.

What kind of girl is so ugly, loveless, and shriveled that she cannot find a man to fight for her? Pathetic.

As is the norm, in this show, there are no intact families, no father figures who survive past chapter three, and any romance between male and female is a tawdry matter of mutual exploitation, not without some camaraderie, but never with an eye toward marriage and family.

No, my mistake: the hardboiled girl detective has a married father and mother, I think. The mother is a police commissioner and the father is a housewife, if I recall. The two are snotty and unsupportive aristocrats who oppose her devotion to justice, and wish her to leave the police force. So I heartily approve of them.

All couples are mixed race. No Caucasians mate with Caucasians, even in alien realms peopled with races not of earth.

No, my mistake: the one shy and chubby girl in love with the crippled mad scientist is the same race as he, but their romance consists of her being disintegrated to ashes due to an mishap during an experiment, and his finding her unsent mash notes to him in her papers after her death.

Whether the streetwise street-fighter and the hardboiled girl detective are lesbians is left to the imagination. Almost. They bunk together, which may be innocent; and when they break up, one tearfully says to the other, “What about us?” — which might be a simple inquiry into their platonic relationship; and another character refers to one as the “girlfriend” of the other, which may have been meant sarcastically.

But since neither girl voices even a single line of dialog, or a word, not so much as a twitch of an eyebrow acknowledging the existence of the male half of the race, if the viewer may draw his own conclusions,

There is no humor in this. All is grimly serious as one expects from a grimdark darkgrim crapsack world of darkness and grimness.

And the theme and message of the story, culminating in its surprise mass-death ending, is that nothing is worth doing, nothing comes of it, and that any struggle for truth or justice is pointless and futile — and that, even knowing this, will cannot surrender the fight, cannot lay our arms down, cannot stop following the false lure of high ideals.

It is a nearly perfect expression of total moral emptiness put on film with great craft and care over a matter of a dozen episodes.

This is worse than form over substance. It is form without substance. It is slick and stylistic images, exquisitely executed, weightless as ghosts, hanging in a soulless thematic void.

In sum:

If you are in the mood for grim, gritty, dark, pointless and ironic plotline, admirably well developed utterly humorless and charmless characters, and a flat and foolish cut-off instead of an ending, there is much to admire in the animation and style of this soulless and spiritually crippled show.

If the New Crobuzon series by China Miéville appeals to you, so will this show.

I was revolted and annoyed by that series, and this show. Your mileage may vary.