July 3, 2016

Garm Wars: The Last Druid (2014)

On an alien world, generations of war have reduced the eight Garm tribes to just three: the Columba, the Briga and the technologically advanced Kumtak. A Kumtak priest named Wydd (Lance Henriksen) has been captured by the Briga along with a presumed-extinct Druid - a powerful technology master hidden behind an egg-like mask. When Wydd tricks the Briga and destroys their interrogation chamber with a massive explosion, he goes on the run - accompanied by an unwilling Briga pilot named Stellig (Kevin Durand) and a Columba fighter pilot named Khara (Melanie St Pierre). Together they hunt for the gods who created the world, and to find out why they were abandoned.

That is about as coherent a synopsis of Garm Wars: The Last Druid that I can give you. This visually eye-catching but narratively jumbled effort comes from Japanese writer/director Mamoru Oshii. Oshii is a legend in animation, having directed a string of hugely popular and enduring anime features including Ghost in the Shell, The Sky Crawlers and Patlabor. His live-action feature films have not enjoyed such widespread success. His 2001 science fiction film Avalon, which was shot in Poland with an entirely local cast, was a well-deserved critical and cult success. His other live-action films, including Assault Girls, The Red Spectacles, Stray Dog: Kerberos Panzer Cops and Talking Head, have not enjoyed the same exposure. Garm Wars: The Last Druid is one of his most recent live-action efforts, and his first film to be shot in English.

There is no mistaking Garm Wars for the work of any other director. Oshii's milky, slightly dream-like aesthetic washes over the whole film, while regular composer Kenji Kawai's choral-based and eerie score is unmistakable. It has clearly been put together on a comparatively small budget, but - like Avalon - its specific and deliberate aesthetic masks over any financial shortcomings very well. The design work is top-notch: everything has a strange aesthetic somewhere between the technological and the biological, with an unusual Celtic feel to things.

The performances are fairly weak and uneven. Lance Henriksen gets away with a lot purely because he has such a deep, distinguished voice. Melanie St Pierre and Kevin Durand are not as lucky, awkwardly delivering some fairly dreadful dialogue in a flat and unenthused manner. Perhaps it is a language problem: as director, Oshii is Japanese, but his actors are speaking English. It may also be a budget issue: most of the performances feel as if they were given on the first or second take.

The story is a nonsense - and not even one of the charming variety. It takes several minutes of explanations and narrations to even get to the start of the action. The viewer is bombarded with fantasy names, all of which come way too thick and fast to be of any use at all. The film is so wrapped into its own mythology that for the first-time viewer it is damn-near impenetrable. It is also relatively unsatisfying; fairly quickly what seems like a large-scale science fiction war movie shrinks down to a road trip through the forest. An excellent action sequence in that forest notwithstanding, the film gets pretty boring pretty fast. Even when it finally does hit a climax, it comes as a montage with an over-arching narration. The viewer is not even provided with a proper conclusion for their troubles. This is not even a case of leaving an ending open for a hoped-for sequel: there literally is not an ending to the film, just suddenly scrolling credits.

Mamuri Oshii has demonstrated an exceptional talent over the course of multiple films. Garm Wars is quite simply not one of them. The design is nice, and the standard Oshii touches are there, but it is a maddening, empty, and quite boring film.

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