In the year 2046 Mars is a thriving human colony. Many human beings rely on advanced lifelike androids called "Thirds" to handle menial jobs like childcare, secretarial roles and sex work. Yet others deeply resent their presence. One such person is Ross Syllabus (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland), a Chicago cop who transfers to the bustling Martian city of Saint Lowell after losing his partner to a killer robot. Fresh off the space shuttle, Ross stumbles right into a shootout resolved with dynamic flair by his new partner: sexy badass nymphet in red leather fetish gear Naomi Armitage (Elizabeth Berkley). Fiery, flirtatious Armitage and cool introvert Ross barely settle their chalk-and-cheese chemistry before they need to investigate the murder of Kelly McCanon (Dorothy Fahn), the "last country singer in the universe." The crazed killer live-streams the murder exposing the secret that Kelly was a Third. It proves the first in a string of murderous attacks on Thirds. All of the victims are women with yet more secrets in store. Enraged Armitage sets out to exact vengeance on the killer revealing to Ross she herself is an especially advanced Third. This revelation is but one of many unravelling a vast, tangled conspiracy that threatens the future of life on Mars, in all its forms.
Armitage III was originally a four part OAV series. Released in 1995 it was acclaimed in anime fan circles for melding of sexy high-octane action with cerebral sci-fi, but overshadowed by the bigger budgeted theatrical release Ghost in the Shell (1995) which dealt with similar themes. In the wake of Ghost's commercial and critical success on the international stage, Pioneer - the well-funded anime studio behind Armitage and slickly animated fan-favourites like the Tenchi Muyo (1992) franchise, El Hazard: The Magnificent World (1995) and Moldiver (1993) - decided to rework the serial into a lavish feature film. Adding new scenes and, most significantly, a new English dub headed by actual Hollywood stars, at the time a rare occurrence in a Japanese animated film. Fresh off a disastrous lead in now-infamous bomb Showgirls (1995), former Saved By the Bell star Elizabeth Berkley ably inhabits what is easily her strongest dramatic role as "badge-toting terror in hotpants" Naomi Armitage. Giggly and flirty yet hard-as-nails, Armitage is as iconic an ass-kicking anime robot girl as her sister in chrome Battle Angel Alita (1993), decked out in her Jean-Paul Gaultier-inspired red lingerie-type outfit with matching leather jacket and super-cool shades. However Berkley responds to the nuances of Chiaki Konaka's screenplay that imbue this fetish figure with a complexity and vulnerability that makes both character and story deeply compelling. Similarly Kiefer Sutherland, in a role that stands out from his jokier turns in animation from The Simpsons to Monsters vs. Aliens (2009), lends the role of Ross the appropriate level of gravitas. His hard-boiled vocals ideally suit a neo-noir detective hero. Listen out also for some quality character work from none other than Bryan Cranston in one of his many early anime voice acting roles. Ross, whose paranoid robo-phobia has a more grounded psychological rationale compared to, say, Will Smith's character in I, Robot (2004), is as uneasy about the nature of his existence as Armitage. On the one hand their partnership clearly echoes Hollywood's classic mismatched cop duos yet also reverses clichéd gender tropes. Here female lead Armitage is the fiery wisecracking kill machine while her male partner is the thoughtful, sensitive one. Both deal with feelings of self-loathing from which the film spins a genuinely affecting love story.
While undoubted indebted to Blade Runner (1982) Konaka's screenplay gives us a much more humane reading of sci-fi author Philip K. Dick’s trademark themes. What defines us as human? What separates an artificial lifeform from the real thing? As Armitage laments: "If humans don’t want me then why did they create me?" Into an already heady existential stew Konaka (one of anime's most gifted screenwriters, he went on to pen another sci-fi classic in Serial Experiments Lain (1998)) throws in a big twist about the Thirds that adds a poignant new layer to the plot's Dick-inspired philosophical discourse. He also enriches the plot with potent socio-political commentary, touching on class conflict and the manner in which the some governments go about sowing prejudice among the masses in order to maintain control. On the downside the story's treatise on feminism walks a perilous tightrope, teetering on the edge of offensive yet posing some undeniably thought-provoking questions. The feature film version also speeds through the plot fumbling several quieter, contemplative moments that play better in the video series. On a technical level, Armitage III: Poly-Matrix boasts some of the most impressive, intricate and evocative production design Japanese animation has to offer. The animation is slick, visually inventive but firmly in the service of Konaka's moody, psychologically driven neo-noir detective story. Six years later a sequel, Armitage III: Dual-Matrix (2002), saw Juliette Lewis assume the title role.