It's Digital. Can You Dig It?

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We're not diminishing Conran's achievement; we're simply noting that he hasn't attached his technical virtuosity to a ripping yarn or infused it with behavioral brio. The first of its kind often doesn't work; Sky Captain may be the Moses that leads other directors to a blue-sky, blue-screen promised land.

The Japanese anime director Mamoru Oshii has been perfecting his vision for a couple of decades now. Like the Patlabor series of videos and films and the original Ghost in the Shell (1995), his new movie takes a story of tough detectives tracking sophisticated robots and dresses it in some gorgeously painterly images. As Sky Captain is set in the proto-past, Ghost 2 is set in the retro future — Blade Runner territory. Like so many films inspired by the stories of Philip K. Dick, this one is awash in meditation on the basic Phildickian questions: In a world where men and machines coexist, what does it mean to be truly human? And in a future world of wondrous and terrifying possibilities, what, if anything, is real? Can it be that, as Ghost 2 suggests, "humans are nothing but the thread from which the dream of life is woven"?

The film's hero — make that heroid — is Batou, a cyborg detective with a face slashed out of marble and a platitude for every plot twist. "No matter how far a jackass travels," he muses, "it won't come back a horse." Batou encounters lots of fantastic creatures (like the crustaceous Crab Man), elegant vistas (pagoda skyscrapers) and bizarre machines (a plane that resembles both a dragon and Groucho Marx, with a cigar as his nose). It's smart, spectacular, luscious picturizing.

It's also static. French critic Michel Ciment called Ghost 2 "animation without animation"--a cartoon in which the images don't move much. On stolid figures and faces, only the mouths move, as in the old Clutch Cargo TV series. The action scenes don't move at a clip either. Sometimes Oshii preens a little, as when the camera tracks slowly around an object. It points out what's missing in his approach: fluidity of character line, the subtlety of expression that brought humanity to a Warner Bros. cartoon duck or rabbit.

That could be just a fogey's rant, mooning about the old days and ways. Viewers who resist the coming posthuman form of filmmaking may be as obsolete as the movies they loved. Get used to it, people: these new techniques will weave our deepest dreams into a cinematic coat of many colors. Thing is, it'll be worn by a cyborg.

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