I’d been curious about this movie, as it made great break-throughs in computer animation, but it was horrendously expensive and flopped at the box office. It’s easy to see why. I know nothing about the video game the film’s based on — perhaps the movie’s plot comes from the game. Regardless, it was a mistake as it’s a bizarre and incomprehensible plot. I watched completely bewildered for the first hour. Eventually, things made some sense, but without knowing where the film was going, it was an uncomfortable time. The Japanese love to fill a plot with “spiritual” overtones, but to Americans it comes across as weird, New Age, Eastern, and preaching. For example, a big part of this film involves the mysticism of “Gaia,” which is apparently the “spirit” (soul) of the planet Earth. Perhaps that’s a common philosophic theory in Japan, but here it’s new, a bit absurd, and since it’s never explained, but assumed it’s true by the characters in the film, it makes for uncomfortable watching. The other thing I didn’t like about the spiritual element of the film was the biased way the screenplay handled any controversy. Apparently some characters disagreed with the spiritual theories, but they were treated with dirision by the screenwriters, with it painfully obvious that all the heroic characters believed in Gaia and as viewers, we’re idiots if we don’t go along with it. Frankly, that condescending attitude pissed me off. I wanted to like the film, but that tone made that difficult.
As to the plot of the film, it goes like this: years earlier a fragment of an alien planet crashes on earth. On the metor were “phantoms,” ghosts of alien creatures. When these phantoms come in contact with humans, they destroy the human’s “spirit” (soul) and the human dies. Apparently, these phantoms are invisible without special viewing equipment, so humans seem to randomly collapse and die without a cause, but since we can see the phantoms in the film (as translucent flying snakes and dragons and other monsters), that point is fuzzy and unclear. So the story of the film is about a quest to stop these phantoms who have taken over almost all of earth (except for a few places protected by frorce shields) and destroyed all life they come in contact with. How to stop the phantoms? Well, a scientist has the idea that we need to find the “eight spirits” — special spirits which apparently have some sort of default immunity to the phantoms, and when combined, will defeat the phantoms. For instance, one spirit turns out to be a tiny green plant growing in the ruins of New York City. Of course, there’s no explanation of how these spirits work, how the scientist figured out there are eight of them (!), or what happens when all eight are found — we’re just supposed to assume that all this is correct and root for the good guys as they search for the spirits. As you can see, pretty hokey stuff. No wonder American audiences were turned off.
The animation in this film is spectactular — the human characters are impressive, with occasions of fantastic detail, especially on the characters with more character, like the old man scientist, versus the smooth-skinned young girl who is the lead. The old man has marks and lines on his face that are incredibly realistic, while the girl looks as artifical as a model. There is one critical mistake regarding the animation, however: for several characters they used big Hollywood stars for the voices. I found it terribly distracting and confusing. For instance, the evil general is voiced by James Woods, a brilliant actor, of course, and this isn’t a knock on him, but his animated character is physically completely different from him in real life. The general is a squat, muscle-bound jerk with a mustache and twenty years younger than Woods. It was just weird hearing Woods’ voice coming out of this other body. If they couldn’t pick more appropriate voices or draw the characters to match the actors portraying them, they should have used unknowns. Disney does an excellent job of picking voices that match characters — this film did it badly. I also wasn’t impressed with the girl who did Aki, the female lead. Sometimes she sounded American, sometimes British, and occasionally Japanese. It was very confusing: I kept changing my mind as to her nationality, and at one time I wondered if they’d replaced her with a different actress!
In retrospect, this isn’t that bad of a film. The plot is different, but it does make sense after you’ve watched the film. Unfortunately, the way the plot is presented, the film’s incomprehensible until the end. No doubt it would be better on a second viewing. In some ways, I’d say this film is worth watching just because it is so different, but it’s unfortunately so foreign and difficult to get into, I can’t really recommend it, especially when there are great films like Ghost in the Shell and Princess Mononoke. Those have similar spiritual overtones and message but are much better written.