At the heart of any truly great artist is a set of obsessions that function as a two-edged sword. They can drive the artist to find truths from within that others would never seek, but they can also limit that artist to jogging endlessly around the perimeter of the same track forever. I am hard-pressed to say whether Mamoru Oshii is a) obsessed or b) just plain out of ideas, but with Garm Wars: The Last Druid, Oshii's most recent live-action feature, I'm edging towards the second conclusion. It isn't that the movie is bad, although that's arguably true; it's that it's redundant. Oshii's said all this before, better, many times.
Garm Wars (what a lamentable title) plays like someone created a Mamoru Oshi storytelling program and front-loaded it with all of his usual subjects — a suitably exotic setting, the nihilism of perpetual warfare, the significance of personal memory, basset hound mascots. The program then spat out a Markov Chain assemblage of those pieces, all recycled from his previous works in some manner. Nothing in this film convinced me Oshii is interested in testing these concepts, or expanding on them, or re-examining them in new lights. He's just jacketing them in new clothing and jugging them in new wine bottles.
I have a hard time completely writing off someone who has shown the hallmarks of genius not just once but many times. To write off Mamoru Oshii would mean saying no to the man who gave us the movie incarnation of Ghost in the Shell, the haunting Angel's Egg, the entrancing Avalon, the devastating Jin-roh, the elegaic Sky Crawlers. But if Garm Wars was the first way someone experienced Oshii's work, I wouldn't blame them for wondering why he was supposed to be taken seriously.
World, and war, without end
If Garm Wars (I try not to giggle) recycles any one thing most explicitly from Oshii's filmography, it's Sky Crawlers, his elegaic film about young soldiers doomed to forever fight the same war again and again. Garm is set in some nebulous quasi-mythical pseudo-future, where the last three clans of the world have been engaged in a perpetual state of mutual aggression ever since their god packed up and left them. The Brigga rule the lands with their tanks and war machines; the Columba own the skies with their steampunk airship things; and the Kumtak have put themselves at the service of the Brigga as what amount to their IT administrators.
One fine day the Columba encounter a Kumtak ship hoofing it from a pursuing Brigga division. The refuge is the elder Wydd (Lance Henriksen, mostly wasted), and his savor is a Columba pilot, one of a team of identical clones named Kiakra (Mélanie St-Pierre). Wydd has with him in tow a "Druid," a source of great mystical power that was supposed to have been rendered extinct ages ago. He also has a mystical companion — Oshii's signature basset hound, who earns the movie's sole laugh when he stops to pee. Kiakra and the dog take a shine to each other, and so she goes off poking around looking for him when Wydd takes over the ship's computer and narrowly avoids being taken down by a Brigga commando brigade led by the square-jawed Skellig (Kevin Durand). You following all this? (If not, it's explained to us in some of the most heavy-handed voice-overs and opening narration since David Lynch's Dune.)
Eventually, we end up with a road trip of sorts: Kiakra and Skellig agree to put aside their differences long enough to take Wydd to a grove of mystical significance, where he can essentially plug the druid into the spirit of the departed god, or something, and reveal to all of them why he left all those aeons ago. Meanwhile, Kiakra and Skellig engage in a classic Oshii-ism, where they sit around and talk earnestly and at paralyzing length about things the movie will ostensibly call its themes (memory, identity, the usual bag of Oshii obsessions). By the time we get to the end, we've been well-prepared for how crushing a disappointment it'll be, given how much of a letdown the movie has been up to that point too.
The trouble with being "deep"
It's all every bit as lugubrious and pompous as it sounds, leavened only intermittently by some flashy CGI action material courtesy of Production I.G. As technically well-executed as that stuff is, it doesn't hold a candle to Sky Crawlers, and it's not been assembled with any discernible degree of visual ingenuity or personal flair. Like the movie those shots sandwich, they're all rendered in a hazy sepia-tone fashion that I guess is meant to evoke distant memory or sadness or something, but mostly it reminded me of the annoying and self-indulgent tampering Oshii brought to his "remix" of the first Ghost in the Shell film. Without anything more important behind it than an aesthetic choice, let alone a compelling story worth telling, it amounts to little more than having the movie look like it was left out in the sun too long. (Some of the individual shots are indeed lovely, but the function of a movie is to tell a story, not simply provide nice screenshots.)
Directors — and dramatic artists generally — who want their stories to be Taken Seriously often commit the sin of forgetting that a story is supposed to be interesting on its own merits as, well, a story. We take something all the more seriously as a statement about our existences when it has some vital relevance to said existence in the first place, when it doesn't just feel like a blowsy lecture handed down from the pulpit. Maybe that's why what story we get seems so thin and why some of the action sequences are depressing in their amateurism — it's almost like Oshii built them that way to keep us from getting emotionally invested in the "wrong" parts of the story, because action sequences are frivolous distractions from the weighty stuff. Late in the film Kiakra and Skellig battle a bunch of giant robot-monster-things in a forest, and they discover the way to stop the monsters is by cutting the cables coming out of their backs. I half-expected them to discover at the end that their absent god was a computer and they could restore it by plugging it back in. (The ending we do get is very nearly that silly.)
The problem is also not that the movie would have "worked better as animation," since that critique says nothing about the film's real issues. Most of it is animation already anyway; it's essentially a CGI feature with some live action staged in front of it. This by itself is not a flaw, since Oshii has done fine things with such a mix before — e.g., Avalon. With that film he conjured a feeling of genuine mystery, and he found a way to end the movie on an ambiguous note that was provocative, not insulting. Here, all he has is mystification, and he ends the film with a cosmic shrug that makes us feel like fools for having followed along for ninety minutes.
Novelist Tibor Fischer once noted, in a statement I come back to often these days, that being profound is like being funny; it's something you embody naturally or not at all, and straining for it doesn't help. Oshii has at many points in his career naturally exuded profundity, but there are many other times when he has either strained for it or flat-out asked for it without ever earning it. I was unimpressed with the live-action projects he did in the 1980s (they were better done as Jin-roh anyway), and I particularly hated the novel he wrote for the Blood: The Last Vampire franchise, which read like a bad project he'd dug out of mothballs and wrapped with some vaguely franchise-themed material. Nothing in them hinted at what Oshii could be at his best. Garm Wars, likewise, is Oshii at his ponderous worst, begging for us to take him seriously without ever giving us a good reason to bother.