Post1000Tension’s review published on Letterboxd:
"If we don't know where we come from, how can we know where we're going?"
Absolutely underrated it the first time out. Stone cold masterpiece. This may even be Oshii's magnum opus to date, given how tightly it weaves his career-long concerns into a live-action/animation hybrid breakthrough. The potential for disaster must have been enormous, yet GARM WARS shows little of those pressures. It's just confidently, defiantly its own brilliant thing.
At the same time, this is up there with NEW ROSE HOTEL for films that require more than one viewing for full adjustment. Hence its status as film maudit, I imagine. Festival critics probably didn't have the time or inclination to tangle with it more than once. I would dearly love to watch a grassroots appreciation for GARM WARS grow and spread, but the work starts right here, right now!
Back to the film then: what's going on with all this arcane mythology? It's really more simple than it sounds. A group of gods visited a fertile planet and populated it with their own creations. These include the Garm, who sub-divided into eight tribes but warred to the point where only three remain. One needn't have a full grasp of the tribal rivalries because by the half-hour point, the film's scope has shrunken to the scale of three main characters, each of whom distrusts the others for their tribal affiliations.
There is also a mysterious quaternary character, the titular last Druid. The Druid's presence is what catalyzes the group's quest to a figurative Eden, but this also isn't strictly necessary to understand at first. More important is cutting through the sci-fi linguistics. Who, or what, are "Garm" — and why should we care that they're at war? The film shows us that they are humanoid creatures who all speak English, utilize weaponry and technology, and worship a god who appears to have abandoned them. In other words, they are us. "Garm Wars" would then translate, somewhat amusingly, into "Human Wars." (Human Story 4?) We are watching a film of human concerns, a film about the ethics of cloning, the purpose of war; the need to believe in a God, to seek and understand Them; to find existential purpose in one's tiny, mysterious, precarious life.
Hope that all makes sense! I don't like to reduce this film so bluntly to its fundamentals, but there's definitely a high potential for misunderstanding or rejection. Because this is before we even get to the pointed performances, the wandering basset hound deity, and the fallen angel robot army unleashing its Promethean fury upon a planet of hated offspring. GARM WARS is a layered, eccentric film from an artist well-known for his obtuse style. Yet it's all quite straightforward, at least in relation to those towering past achievements. An action movie that transfers its kinetic momentum into theodicy, it's the opposite and the inverse of ASSAULT GIRLS — Oshii's previous hybrid film and a clear antecedent — where the opening political history gave intellectual heft to what ultimately concludes as a video game movie.
In searching for the heartbeat of GARM WARS, a careful viewer will discover that it is not so irregular. In fact, this is a very sad and lonely film. Beneath all the extravagant effects are three characters haunted by a lack of meaning. Their spiritual anguish arises from the war machine that birthed them; multiple lifetimes of conflict, souls uploaded and reinserted into bodies, for what purpose? The Garm have destroyed their planetary ecosystem, and inevitably this becomes a visual metaphor for our protagonists. Oshii has always communicated affect through mise-en-scene, but here it has a direct thematic purpose: alienation from one's own purpose has been displaced on a global scale. If anything, the Garm now fight *because* it's the only way to distract themselves from bigger, unanswered questions. And so it would remain for Kahra 23, Skellyg 58, and Wydd 256 — if not for one fatefully divine intervention.
Time to distribute praise elsewhere: this is a great cast, and the film would go nowhere without it. I am awed by Kevin Durand, who evolves across the film's span from warrior-clone to something hauntingly human. His physique and demeanor match the role's hardness in a competent, everyday success of casting. But where he really startles is in those moments alone with Melanie St. Pierre, where the idea that there's more to life than war in perpetuity sparks deep discomfort. When he awkwardly asks St. Pierre if receiving a blessing from the Gula (basset hound goddess) was "sticky," he is venturing bravely into Star Wars prequel levels of potential ridicule. Yet just as in those misunderstood films, it's crucial to approach the human beings on screen with respect for their unguarded moments. At their least composed, we can see directly into their hearts, and that intimacy generates a powerful compassion. Thus, when Skellig 58 is killed defending his fellow adventurers, the effect is emotionally *and* thematically significant: this man was more than just cannon fodder. His death was a conscious act all the braver for refusing digital rebirth. He's gone forever, and the absence stings.
Perhaps more impressive still is Melanie St. Pierre, whose take on the prototypical Oshii woman warrior demands close attention. Before the film's credits even announce its title, Kahra 22 has been killed in action. Kahra 23 is given new life, a soldier salvageable enough to resume her active duty. Her wary manner stymies attempts at traditional gender-role categorization; who's to even say what being "female" means in this de-productive alien world? Does her gender serve any reliable purpose outside of armed combat? St. Pierre may be a softer presence than the male fighters, but this is not a world that allows for the contemplation of one's emotions. Kahra is just as shocked as anyone when the Gula's blessing opens up new depths of emotion inside her, and the most human thing about her is this struggle to make sense of her newfound emotions before expressing them. Now cognizant of her own need for meaning, and having long been separated from her hive-like tribe, Kahra must rely on an intrinsic form of guidance. Like Skellig, individuation challenges as it liberates, and this becomes apparent in St. Pierre's gradual divulgences, until by the very end she's sobbing, desperate for answers to questions she'd never before felt the need to ask.
As for Lance Henriksen, he is dependably respectful of what could be treated with condescension in another actor's hands. This chosen triad has been entrusted by Oshii to generate interest in a story with no pre-existing source material, something that brand name sci-fi properties like Star Wars no longer need worry about. To accept them, and to accept GARM WARS, is to permit the possibility of being moved by a reconfiguration of ages-old philosophical inquiry, and to cast aside questions of cinematic respectability in favor of something as yet unassimilated to the norm. Oshii complements his committed actors with exquisite images that convey the vastness of interiority, tracing an infinite self-multiplication through GARM WARS' many split identities and lost memories. It can be near-impossible to truly know oneself, but there's valor in the interrogation, something Oshii, ever the experimenter, has proven time and again since GHOST IN THE SHELL. For all the deserved praise that film enjoys, we need only look to the more recent past to see a harbinger of wildly exciting work in the upcoming decade.