The Perils of Trying Too Hard
I watched Innocence in theaters when it originally came out. I recall finding the film frustratingly dense in spite of its gorgeous visuals. As a fan of the franchise, I picked up the blu-ray a while ago thinking that a few years of maturity and a deeper understanding of the original manga might help me appreciate this film more. Alas, this was not the case.
Innocence is an ambitious film that tries desperately to repeat the successes of the first Ghost in the Shell film. It is a classic case of a work of art trying too hard. Where the film does not explicitly copy its predecessor (the opening montage, the festival scene, etc.) it awkwardly strives to achieve the same gravity of effect in its visuals and dialogue. Innocence is somewhat successful in the former area and deficient in the latter.
The film's greatest strength is its lush, exquisite imagery. There are numerous moments in the film where one could pause the disk and have a work of art on one's TV screen. In spite of a few jarring moments of badly mixed cell animation and CGI, the film is a visual feast on par with the original.
Unfortunately, the images lack the power they had in the earlier film because they are not tied to a coherent narrative. The actual plot - the sequence of events that occur in the film - is quite simple; a group of female sex doll cyborgs malfunction, two section 9 detectives investigate, they go to where the cyborgs are manufactured to learn the truth, and then the film ends. Like Solid State Society, the film takes its inspiration from Shirow's original manga. However the contrived, pretentious dialogue combined with the plodding pace (40% of the film's runtime is comprised of slow walking, scenery shots, and close-ups of basset hounds) makes the story feel vastly longer and more complex than it really is.
The basic problem with the writing can be summed up in one word: Quotes. Half of the dialogue is a quote. Does Batou have an opinion about one of the antagonists? Confucius quote. Does Togusa want to express his anxiety? Time for some 'Paradise Lost'. The film is saturated with dozens of quotes, from all manner of writers and philosophers. This over-reliance on canned smartness creates two huge flaws for the film.
For one it hurts the characters. The film does little to further characterize the members of section 9 (aside from a bit of development for Batou and Togusa's relationship). Having Aramaki and Ishikawa spout quotes instead of finding their own words does not allow us to get to know them as well as characters, as the quotes are clearly just sentiments Oshii (the director) wanted to express. The dialogue feels like a vehicle for Oshii's navel-gazing and not an expression of real people interacting.
Secondly, copious quote usage cheapens the effect of using quotes at all. The viewer finds that once the film is over, he can't remember any particular quote among the dozens he heard. The earlier film only used a handful, and as a result, its dialogue is much more memorable (I still recall the major's quote at the end, Corinthians 13:11). But in Innocence, with so many quotes from so many different sources, it is hard to know which to care about and why.
Bad pacing and dialogue are not the only problems with Innocence's story. There are a handful of exasperating scenes. In particular, the virtual experience maze I found to be tedious. It is only partly comprehensible because Batou is made to explain how he bested Kim's trap. What's more, the scene near the end where Batou scolds the little girl for not worrying about sex dolls is bizarre to me. In the original manga, it was bad enough for Batou to blame the girls and not their captors for the "innocents" (people who use a product premised on child murder are not terribly innocent in my view) who suffered from the sex doll malfunctions. Here, for Batou to worry about the dolls is beyond callous, and Motoko's concurrence ("If dolls could talk they would say 'I don't want to be human!'") is both asinine and damaging to her and Batou's characters. To
The last couple of frames of the film suggest that Oshii thought he was saying something profound about humans and their need to recreate themselves via dolls and cyborgs. Unfortunately, the film wasn't really concerned with making this or any other particular idea comprehensible. In fact I think many viewers will come away from Innocence with the feeling that the movie wasn't really speaking to them, but rather to itself. It's the same problem Donnie Darko had; as interesting as the film tries to be, it does not stand on its own as you need to read additional books and watch a different cut of the film in order to really get it.
It is a shame, because Ghost in the Shell is a powerful franchise that has always managed to be entertaining, exciting, and thought-provoking all at once. The further it removed itself from Shirow's somewhat campy original manga, the more consequential it became, first as the film, then as the brilliant Stand Alone Complex series and film. Innocence is a step in the wrong direction both in terms of style and substance.
I have yet to watch Arise but my expectations are not terribly high. I shudder at the thought of what Hollywood and Scarlett Johannsson will do to the franchise.