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Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Mamoru Oshii, 2004)
Thereís a thin line between visuals that merely look ďreally coolĒ and those that can truly be described as visionary, and thereís little denying that the distinction between one and the other is mostly a personal judgment call. Still, I think it can be said that at least one series of animated marvels in Mamoru Oshiiís Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence qualifies. About two-thirds of the way into the film, the narrative grinds to a halt so that we can watch an utterly dazzling sequence that showcases a futuristic parade filled with costumed dancers and gargantuan floats. The visuals suddenly donít need the justification that the plot had been providing, and the effect of viewing such wonders for their own sake is exhilarating. Unfortunately, the spectacle doesnít last nearly long enough. Oshii even stops midway through the cycle to flash back to his heroes as they extract some info from a thug. As a result, the sequence only temporarily provides reprieve from a story that is cast in the familiar mold of Blade Runner and I, Robot. Itís regrettable, but perhaps a bit predictable, that a film that is this forward-looking in its graphic construction is saddled with a commonplace plotline.
Beginning with a series of murders, in which androids created to give sexual pleasure have begun to assassinate their owners, this police procedural imagines investigative techniques for a world whose time has not yet come. The animation has amazing depth of field, ever-pulsing lights, and insanely busy backgrounds, all achieved through a nearly seamless integration of CGI effects. It must be pointed out, though, that the characters, tellingly, are 2-D figures in a 3-D world, and by far the least detailed things on display. Though the two main characters, the police officers in charge of the investigation, are relatively well fleshed-out, the supporting cast exists mostly to add to the body count. Thereís a depressed mood that permeates throughout the movie, and no character can ever be said to enliven it. Though the world that the movie takes place in isnít as bleak as Blade Runnerís, this is an even more humorless film overall. Even ready-made opportunities for fun scenes are squandered. Disappointingly, we never see the sex dolls performing the functions theyíve been designed to do and the refusal to incorporate that kind of adult material creates a context where the gory action sequences feel a bit obligatory and punishing. Worse still, despite the fact thatthe film is about the hunt for a murderer, the plot is constructed in a way that essentially mutes all suspense. There are no chase scenes and only a few moments feature action of note. Fortunately, itís not a total loss. One inspired sequence, in which one of the main characters suffers from a brainhacking results in a distinctly Proustian nightmare, in which the man enters his distorted memories, only to meet his death repeatedly and face his nightmarish mechanical doppelganger. Another highlight is the sequence in which the infiltration of a facility is partially conveyed to the audience as a swirl of progressively changing computer code.
Moments like this in Innocence are too rare, in the same way that brilliant moments are too rare in any underachieving film, but they will help to make the movie bearable for those who arenít fans of anime. The philosophical concerns that many find intolerable in most Japanese animations are here in full force (Descartes is referenced at one point), and the majority of scenes are only vaguely enlightening disquisitions about the nature of the rapidly advancing robots. The pursuit of artificial intelligence brings this futuristic society closer to an understanding of human nature, and ironically enough, they mostly find more and more how robotic our responses are. The very tenets of humanity are being challenged and explained with scientific theorems, resulting in a world set on edge. Anomalies are everywhere. Robots keep pet robots of their own, another robot has a pet dog despite the fact that it interferes with his job, one human sees his choice to become fully robotic as an evolutionary step, and a hell of a lot of normal people who are intimidated by all of it. On an extratextual level, Innocenceís existential concerns about the artificial replacing life as we know it seem to be inherently tied in with the rapid advances being made in the animation field. After all, with the advent of CGI, itís getting impossible to tell animation from filmed reality. The deliberate choice to use 2-D character art in a film this close to the state of the art and the relative blandness of most of the human characters in this swirling fantasia of technology, however, suggests that the thought of artificial actors that could replace the real thing is still true sci-fi.