July 17, 2008


If you didn't like Ghost in the Shell, you're not likely to like the sequel, because much of is more of the same, although so much of the more looks absolutely fantastic. The most striking and intricate noir cityscapes since Blade Runner. On the other hand, even if you loved the original, you won't necessarily love the sequel, because, well, much of it is more of the same. It all depends.

Ghost in the Shell—to date the best interpretation of William Gibson's cyberpunk classic, Mona Lisa Overdrive—stands alongside Blade Runner, Dark City and The Matrix as one of the handful of films that do the genre any cinematic justice. Consequently, Innocence, as with all such sequels, begins burdened with the expectation that it will somehow out-geek and out-pontificate the original.

To be sure, it doesn't have as many problems as those dreadful Matrix and Star Wars sequels. It avoids resorting to empty philosophical babble (scripted by people not as smart as their characters) in an attempt at faux profundity. There's nothing worse than film makers, who after the fact discover that they produced something profound, and then the next time around try to be profound on purpose. The results are always ugly.

Babble there is, but it's not empty. Director Mamoru Oshii started with good material, and it's been ten years since Ghost in the Shell. But Ghost is the Shell was structured to make a particular existential argument, and with a compelling female protagonist (Motoko). At times, Innocence turns into a My Dinner with Andre (with androids). Hey, I liked My Dinner with Andre, but you want to tell Batou and Togusa to shut up and go shoot some more yakuza.

Innocence is built upon the foundation of a great idea—that the only way to make a robot "real" is to clone a human soul—and is buttressed by the eternal question of what ends justify what ends. The lead, though, is buried by one too many is-this-a-dream-or-reality sequences. Perhaps Oshii thought the idea too obvious and thought it necessary to muddy the waters. Complexity is one thing, but I prefer stories that don't rely on a tangle of tangentialities to keep the audience from figuring out the ending.

The last twenty minutes is worth waiting for, except that it also prompts you to ask why the middle third couldn't have been at least ten minutes tighter or ten minutes more relevant, and why we had to wait this long for Motoko to show up and provide something more than whispered subliminal warnings and cryptic clues you'd only remember if you'd watched Ghost in the Shell about fifty times.

Oshii admits this on the commentary track, which is doubly annoying. Better to embrace clarity in the first place than ask for forgiveness afterwards. But I still recommend the film. There's something to be said for being too talky and too cryptic rather than too dumb. Too much Matrix leaves the eyes glazed over with its self-important navel-gazing. Too much Star Wars actually kills brain cells.

Moreover, I'm not yet ready to give up on hand-drawn animation, especially when it comes to human characters. Even in zillion-dollar productions like Shrek, digitally animated people have that Final Fantasy look that ends up looking less human than traditional pen and ink drawings. Besides, if you can't tell the difference between "real life" and "art," then what's the art for? The Louvre would replace the Mona Lisa with a (digitally scanned) photograph.

One final gripe with the R1 DVD release specifically is that the subtitles combine the closed-captioning track with the subtitle track, which is unbelievably annoying. I spent about five minutes fiddling with the remote and failed to find a "normal" subtitle track. A big boo, hiss to distributor DreamWorks. They can do better than this.

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