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"Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence": Androids Dream of Electric Sci-fi

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence comes to DVD with high expectations, and it doesn’t disappoint. An elegant treatise less on man versus machine than man in machine, this sophisticated sci-fi thriller explores the human relationship to robots. And automatic weapons.

ImageIt would be a disservice to take the reader too far into the film’s “Blade Runner meets The Matrix meets I, Robot” plot. In its futuristic Earth, people exist not only in the real world but also as collections of memories on a universal computer matrix. Police detective Major Kusanagi, her physical body enhanced to the point that it has lost its humanity, disappeared into the matrix at the end of the first film. Her former partner, the cyborg Batou, believes that her soul or “ghost” still exists in some form somewhere. Batou and his new partner, Togusa, investigate a series of grisly murders committed by mysteriously malfunctioning sex robots. The robots turn out to be manufactured by a rogue producer who is infusing the androids with the souls of girls supplied by the yakuza. This unique human quality makes these “gynoids” highly sought after and highly profitable. The detectives track down the factory where the gynoids are being produced and set out to shut it down, with some help from an unexpected source. A deus ex machina, if you will.

This Blade Runner-inflected plot eventually branches away and plunges deep into Matrix-style la-la land, so much so that after a point you’re not really sure what is real and what isn’t. There is much speculation about the true nature of humanity and what makes it distinct from robots. Director Mamoru Oshii says that his principal theme is how man likes to recreate himself in his own image, as dolls and dogs and (I suppose) as kids. The film’s exact message on this point is considerably less clear. Indeed, I often found myself wishing the DVD had been released with some Cliff Notes. Still, it’s a most entertaining adventure with exciting action and gorgeous visuals. Just don’t leave your brain at the door. In fact, it would be a good idea to bring a spare.

Fans of the first film will be happy to get reacquainted with the fearless and alluring Major Kusanagi, although here she makes only a small and very unconventional appearance. Batou is the real star of this picture and the only character the film really lingers on. We get to peer a bit into the day-to-day existence of a cyborg, discovering that it is largely filled with such familiar activities as shopping at the convenience store and feeding the dog. Despite the film’s focus on the link between humanity and robots, Batou’s inner feelings remain an enigma for the most part, with dogged heroism being the only truly pronounced trait beyond his dour, mechanical efficiency. However, his inherent humanity is clearly suggested by his capacity for love, or some form thereof, for the Major. Togusa is also a bit of a blank. He provides the human quotient in their pairing, but he is generally restrained, and we learn little about him other than that he has a preference for older women. To be fair, the film has its hands full examining the complex world these two inhabit, and Batou is a compelling lead with acting chops well beyond Robocop‘s. Sorry, Murphy.

Innocence is a little light on action sequences, but when they hit, they hit hard. A shootout that tears apart a largely CGI convenience store oozes style, and the final gynoid melee in the dark bowels of a ship is engagingly creepy. The very physical realism of the action scenes reflects the ever-thinning line between animation and live action.

The film is brought to life through an interesting combination of CGI and cel animation. Most scenes are straight cel animation mixed with CGI, and they look fantastic. The pure CGI moments are much less convincing, though, looking not much better than X-Box cut scenes. Overall, the film is an enchanting visual experience, fun to just sit back and observe while your brain tries to take in the latest plot twist. Though the film borrows heavily—maybe even blatantly—from the dystopian Blade Runner, it draws a compelling setting with some very original images worked in, such as an outlandish parade that looks like Chinese New Year on acid. Unexpectedly, though, the film’s tour de forceis its treatment of Batou’s pet basset hound, which is the most realistic and endearing animated dog I’ve ever seen. You will believe it can bark.

Traditional Japanese musical themes are very pronounced in the soundtrack, giving it a very heavy, somber and reverential tone. The music does give the film a unique and mystical nature, but it’s a bit stiff and self-important for my liking. Where’s Vangelis when you need him? I bet he’ll work cheap after Alexander.

Most notable among the special features is a commentary from Oshii, which is the first such feature I’ve encountered in an anime film and a very welcome if long overdue addition. It is, however, very technical, focusing almost entirely on how things were animated and who did what, including lots of tedious asides about co-workers. One often gets the impression he’s forgotten an audience might actually listen to his ramblings one day. The discussion gives some interesting insights on some of the animation choices and production processes, but there’s relatively little on the film’s other aspects, including the story, which is where us mere mortals needed the most assistance. The “Making of” featurette is superficial and again heavy on technical aspects, but it does touch briefly on the story, characters, and music. Astoundingly, one feature missing from this disc is an English audio track. That makes another first for this viewer, and perhaps indicates that anime fandom is starting to emulate the foreign-film crowd’s preference for subtitles. Or perhaps DreamWorks just wanted to save some money. Either way, it suits me fine. What I find less acceptable is the cheesy cover art used for the DVD, which would be far more fitting for G.I. Joe than highbrow science fiction.

Anyone who likes the first film, robots, or adult science fiction will thoroughly enjoy Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Its inspirations are many, but it manages an original and fascinating voice all the same. Just remember that Batou is not Will Smith, and though there’s plenty of robot-blasting on hand, a thinking cap is required.

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