'Ghost in the Shell' director Mamoru Oshii scraps his anime roots for a visually stunning yet impenetrable hybrid blend of live-action and CG visuals.
On a planet no one’s ever heard of, three species no one cares about are caught in a genocidal battle for reasons no one understands. These are the so-called “Garm Wars,” a mind-numbing, semi-animated hybrid that blends greenscreen-heavy live-action footage with hyper-detailed yet minimally engaging computer-generated visuals guaranteed to bore all but “Ghost in the Shell” director Mamoru Oshii’s most dedicated fans. Drunk on the needlessly complicated mythology of its unrelatable universe, this talky (to the point of impenetrable) Canadian-made curiosity plays like an elaborate sci-fi screensaver, hi-res enough for theatrical exhibition, but far too stultifying to support it.
One of the world’s most respected anime helmers — and still the only one to have been featured in competition at Cannes — Oshii has long privileged visuals over plot and character. His last feature, the Venice-launched “The Sky Crawlers,” incorporated digital touches into a more traditional anime format, but here Oshii (working with co-director Atsuki Sato) jettisons his hand-drawn heritage altogether in order to play with a new CG toolset. According to the director, this was no hasty switch, but the result of a patient wait for the technology to catch up with the vision he had in mind for this film, which he has been developing since the late ’90s.
You’d think all that time would have been adequate for Oshii to shape the imaginary society into something auds could follow, but instead, he takes for granted that we can comprehend what sounds like so much gobbledygook — long, dense monologues full of references to imaginary species and arcane pseudo-spiritual belief systems. Here’s a best guess as to what’s going on: The story takes place on a planet called Annwn, whose inhabitants, the Garm, were long ago separated into eight tribes. Just three of these remain — the Briga, the Columba and the Kumtak — locked in a state of constant warfare.
The heroine, a clone called Khara (Melanie St-Pierre), is somehow associated with the Columba. Stored in a giant tube amid identical-looking soldiers, she struts around in tight-fitting fetish gear and totes a huge cannon. The film kicks off with a visually stunning air battle, after which Khara chances upon a creepy Kumtak mystic named Wydd (Lance Henriksen, whose wrinkles have wrinkles and whose hairpiece needs a haircut).
The old man talks a lot, but mostly in riddles that mask what’s really going on. Traveling with him are Gula, a creature not unlike a basset hound but blessed with some sort of special power — though we never see anything to confirm this — and Nascien (Summer H. Howell), the last of an otherwise extinct tribe of Druids, also believed “to have access to great power.” Khara accepts the challenge to accompany this odd party, although as things progress, it seems increasingly likely that other Garm need protection from Wydd and his gang, not the other way around.
Perhaps trying to make sense of “Garm Wars” is foolish, considering that Oshii’s overarching point seems to be that all this fighting is for naught. This is a familiar trick — and a paradoxical one — in the filmmaker’s oeuvre, which loves to preach pacifism while gorging auds on elaborately realized visions of destruction and genocide.
More than ever before, there’s an undeniable beauty to the world he has created, which features elegant warships swooping through blood-red skies; sterile white chambers where clones are regenerated; dark Giger-like control rooms in which armored despots sit plugged into shiny metal machines; and an Edenic, emerald-green organic environment where violence disrupts the illusion of peace. It’s all quite impressive, and yet unconvincing at the same time. The actors appear stiff and uncomfortable amid the misty (and somewhat “Myst”-like) environments.
In the end, Khara is less concerned with protecting the Druid than in getting answers — a sentiment audiences will certainly share. Before her quest is done, Khara will convince Wydd to spill secrets meant to enlighten, but every word out of his mouth merely serves to make things more confusing. Though it couldn’t have been Oshii’s intention, to watch is to comprehend how it feels to desperately crave peace — the kind that can only be found when the credits roll and the house lights come up.