Friday, October 08, 2004

Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 October 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

Mamoru Oshii has ideas. They're not his ideas alone, and he's probably a bit behind the Vernor Vinges and Charles Strosses of the world, but Oshii's ideas are grander and more interesting than most of what passes for science fiction in film today. He also has a real talent for bringing the pretty; there are several segments of Innocence that are gorgeous enough to make one wonder why he would ever have been interested in the limitations of live action. What Oshii doesn't have in abundance is the ability to put these ideas and visuals together so that they are not only interesting, but entertaining.

Take the dialogue. I will forgive a movie like Innocence, which takes place in a future world where technology has transformed many aspects of everyday life, if it is rife with exposition. When that happens, the story is at least supplying you with ideas. Here, though, the audience gets most of the background of the world explained to them with a few screenfuls of text in the opening (which should suffice even if this is one's first exposure to the franchise). What's frustrating about the dialogue is how much of it seems to be quotations, and how many of those quotations are oblique and metaphorical. Aside from how constantly putting someone else's words into the characters' mouths deprives them of having their own voices, I have to wonder whether the passages are common in Japan. After all, I'm reading subtitles so I can see the quotation marks; would a native Japanese speaker just think they were talking nonsense? Not that the "original" dialogue is much better; it varies between the utilitarian and the cliché.

The story isn't quite as ambitious as the world it's set in - there's been a recent spate of "dolls" (robots with the appearance of humans) killing their owners, in direct contravention of safeguards modeled on Asimov's Three Laws; investigators Batou and Togusa are assigned to the case. The "ghost" or soul of Batou's old partner had disappeared into the net after her body parts were all replaced with synthetics and her mind was augmented with an "E-brain" (which is common); Batou is more cyborg than man now, and the elite force has assigned family man Togusa as a partner in part to monitor him. The investigation involves shooting at some yakuza and the heading to the gigantic (but run-down) city where the dolls' manufacturer is headquartered.

After a long time holding out, Japan seems to be embracing CGI - almost all of Innocence's backgrounds and vehicles seem to be digitally rendered, while human/cyborg/doll (and canine) characters are primarily hand-drawn. The mix is often distracting, as the characters frequently seem to be lit differently than their environments; sometimes a character's gait doesn't match how quickly they move through a hallway. There are scattered shots that just seem to be shownig off, such as an eagle flying close to the camera so that we can see just how much detail was used in rendering its eyes and feathers. The thing is, it doesn't match the rest of the living things we see.

There are some moments of great character animation, however. Batou's dog is an adorable bassett hound who steals every scene he appears in and buries them in the back yard; if there were an Oscar for "best animated character", the dog would win it hands down. There's a great, tense scene in a convenience store, and a couple of wonderful bits at the end which make up for a lot of the frantic (but relatively unexciting) combat that surrounds them. Oshii also does perhaps the best job in memory of visualizing cyberspace and making a scene that involves hacking suspenseful and active.

Science fiction has been called the literature of ideas, and Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence is richer in ideas and images than any two or three recent science fiction movies combined. If it had perhaps spent a little less time ruminating on and philosophizing about these ideas and more time actually exploring them, it could have been one of the year's best movies.

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