Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is a flawed, dazzling, pretentious, brilliant, only partially coherent work of genius. This lush work of sci-fi Japanimation, from writer/director Mamoru Oshii, seems to have something very important to say about human existence. God knows what it is.
Let's start with the title. No, it doesn't refer to some kind of haunted, virginal crab fish. Set in the future, in a world where cyborgs have replaced humans as the primary inhabitants of the planet, the "Ghost"Â refers to the essence of a being's personality"”a soul, or spirit, of sorts. The "Shell"Â is the body itself. On the one hand, kudos to Oshii for sandwiching Platonic dualism into the title of a movie. It's original. On the other, it's a little needlessly complex, just like the movie itself.
The film's hero is a cyborg, Batou (voiced with gruff sentimentality by Akio Otsuka), a returning character from the original Ghost in the Shell. Batou is an anti-terrorist detective for a futuristic agency called "Section 9."Â (It's like CTU from 24, but darker, futuristic, and without the annoying Kim.) In a touching homage to the buddy-cop genre, Batou misses his old partner from the first movie"”a woman-cyborg known as The Major"”and has trouble accepting her less talented replacement.
Batou and his new partner investigate a crime that involves human-slaying robots. So far so good. Around halfway through the film, though, as Batou seeks evidence from someone known as "Locus Solus,"Â the story loses focus and becomes hopelessly jumbled. Batou is blasting robots with his machinegun but we forget why. Imagine, for a second, that you're on a hike, following a red-hatted guide through a strange yet beautiful forest. For the first two miles, your guide is in sight, red-hat visible through the trees, and you're on the best hike of your life, basking in the scenic waterfalls and the lush vegetation. Then you lose sight of the red hat. Once he disappears from view, you're lost, flailing through the bramble, but you can still appreciate the beauty of your environment. Kind of.
Innocence leaves you lost in the forest, but what a forest it is. In terms of visual style, Innocence is one of the most stunning movies you will ever see. The set pieces are all jaw dropping, especially the segues between action scenes. The futuristic, blinking cities are a cross between Blade Runner and "Cloud City' from The Empire Strikes Back. (If "Cloud City"Â has you scratching your head, well, chances are this isn't your thing). The action scenes are hyper-stylized and should thrill any fan of anime.
This is hard sci-fi. There's no Will Smith to soften
the edges; there's not even a Speilberg-esque attempt to make it accessible to a mainstream audience. This will turn away most and delight a select few, but Blade Runner
disciples beware: while the visual styles are comparable, Innocence
lacks the sense of subtle storytelling that makes Deckard's adventure so compelling. It's an heir to Blade Runner
in terms of style, and perhaps even intent, but not in execution.
One of the film's greatest strength"”its cerebral discussion of existential puzzles"”is also its greatest weakness. It's an odd comparison, but Oshii suffers from the same problem as Ayn Rand. Instead of evoking his themes through the organic action of the film, he clunkily manipulates his characters, like Rand, as mouthpieces for his philosophical agenda. (Think of those 30-page sermons by Roark and Taggart. Ugh.) Then again, millions of angst-ridden high school kids adore The Fountainhead, (I was one of 'em), and there will likely be legions of devotees of Innocence, too.
Oshii's penchant for quotation is a problem that cannot be overlooked. During one stretch of the movie, Batou and his partner exchange philosophical quotes for what seems like 15 minutes, with very little natural dialogue thrown in the mix. The long list of quotes ranges from Descartes to the Bible to Confucius. It's a tiresome device. First, we feel like we're being lecture too. Second, we would be more likely to appreciate the thrust of Oshii's message if we discover and embrace it on our own, without spoon-feeding; this is the clichéd but valid mantra, "show, don't tell."Â Third, it's a cheap shortcut for characterization, and it doesn't work. Batou and his partner don't seem like real characters, but rather walking Bartlett's quotation books.
It's a shame that Oshii focuses so much on the Philosophy 101, because at certain times, he proves himself to be a master of subtle characterization. The most touching moment in the film is a silly scene between Batou and his pet basset hound. Batou"”who to this point has shown no affection toward anyone"”lovingly pours extra vitamins into the dog-food. As the basset lowers his head over the bowl to eat, Batou tenderly lifts the dog's long ears out of the way. This silent gesture says more about Batou's humanity than 200 quotes from Kant or Hegel.
The texture of the film"”the look and feel"”is breathtaking, visionary, and seems to have the fingerprints of the divine. Too bad that it's only a shell and is missing the ghost.
Movie Grade: B