We fiinally caught up with writer-director Mamoru Oshii’s magnificent new Japanese animated film GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE, and now we’re sorry we didn’t see it sooner, while it was playing at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood. It’s absolutely the most visually stunning films I’ve seen this year. Unfortunately, it’s rapidly disappearing from theatres. You can wait to see it on DVD, but it would be a mistake to miss the opportunity to see this film on the big screen.
GHOST 2 is a sequel to 1995’s GHOST IN THE SHELL, which was about an elite unit called Section 9 that handled politically related criminal cases. Most of the agents in the unit are cyber-enhanced — not only physical but also mentally — to the point that some question remains as to how much, if any, humanity is left. (The title is a reference to this phantom of human personal identity.)
The sequel is a new story featuring some of the same characters from the original, and it lives up to — and in many ways exceeds — its progenitor, both in terms of story and visuals. During the ensuing years, the field of computer-generated animation has advanced by light years, and it shows here. Much of the movie looks far more magnificent than many live-action special effects films that rely on CGI. (The opening title sequence, portraying the creation of a “gynoid” [a female android], is worth the price of admission alone.)
Much of the time, the film feels like a cross between I, ROBOT and SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, except that it’s much better than both of those films combined. Like ROBOT, the new GHOST film deals with the implications of manufactured life taking on the characteristics of its human creators. Like SKY CAPTAIN, Oshii’s intends to wow audiences with each new spectacular image that flies across the screen (there are even several similar sequences, such as the final act underwater stealth approach to infiltrate the villains’ lair).
Unlike SKY CAPTAIN’s director Kevin Conran, however, Oshii knows how to make his images count. Each one is choreographed for maximum impact, and he knows how to use just enough of them to make his point, and then quit. (For example, a fight scene between two cyber-enhanced characters takes place in a brief few shots, instead of dragging out for five minutes; but you won’t feel short-changed in the least.)
There are also numerous other visual and literary reference points. The cyberpunk feel of the futuristic citys-capes and flying machines recalls BLADE RUNNER. The emphasis on high-toned literary quotations (Milton, the Bible, Shelly, et all) recalls the philosophical ambitions of the MATRIX sequels, but Oshii pulls it off far better.
In a way, Oshii’s murder-mystery plot is just a hook on which to hang his philosophical musings. Based on the manga of the same name, the premise is that a new model of gynoid is turning homicidal, killing its owners and then self-destructing. This gives plenty of leeway to discuss issues like nature of consciousness and reality: What separates humans from the artificial life they create? Are people themselves really just organic machines?
For most of its length, these ideas support and enhance the story, giving a feeling that the movie is dealing with a profound topic without getting bogged down by it. In the last reel, however, the dialogue does get extremely dense, and you may find yourself wishing that you were reading a book instead, so that you could pause after each new dialogue passage to digest the concepts.
By the end, the resolution of the mystery has almost come to be beside the point, as Oshii seems more intent on wrestling with his philosophical questions. It’s a slight let down, but you have to give the man points for his ambition and integrity. GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE is a piece of cyberpunk science-fiction that dares to take on heady issues in an entertaining, popular way; un-compromised by fear of alienating its audience, it’s a richly detailed and thought-provoking achievement that stands head and shoulders not only above American animated films but also above most live-action science-fiction films. Quite simply, it’s one of the best movies of its kind ever made.