Unrecorded Chronicle: Garm Wars Review

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Although this movie may speak English, make no mistake, Garm Wars: The Last Druid is not only foreign — it’s alien. That is the offensive descriptor I used to make sense of the Wachowskis way back when, because who from Earth really makes movies like Jupiter Ascending? Such a science-fantasy space opera with its 21st century mythmaking and all resultant proper nouns blowing back and forth

As has been mentioned, scifi is never born on the silver screen, and science-fantasy was defined by Star Wars, which skewed more toward science-fiction in the 70s and 80s. Its fast-and-looseness was with cinematic shorthand — sound in space, lightsabers, the Force, these are for the betterment of the entertainment. Put elf ears on an interstellar warrior, and you’re relegated to the dusty shelves of a bookstore that’s more like the dream of a bookstore.

It’s an unusual image, science-fantasy, and you have to hand it to these creators, because they’re pretty brave. People don’t know how to make sense of it, and given the way people read film (see: Blade Runner), the lavish and otherworldly production will inevitably distract from the idea (though obfuscated storytelling is still to blame — Jupiter Ascending is this inverse epic, a fairy-tale satire, but leaves you spinning in space).

Mamoru Oshii packs as much meaning into every frame, and has strange preoccupations even in giant robot and police procedural anime (nobody quite makes cyberpunk look like this):

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So a space opera fantasy might be Oshii’s Big Move, but… nothing is as it seems. The mystical biomechanical aesthetic of the film gestures toward a shared universe with the alt. history of Avalon, and the Sandworms of Dune with Assault Girls. Could this really be a virtual reality story, as has been suggested?

I can’t imagine what it’s like, directing people to technobabble in that Shakespearean intonation, if only because science-fantasy is nerdity of the highest order. The dialogue in Garm Wars is no sillier than what you’ll find in your Star Treks or your The Lord of the Rings, but these things have been firmly pressed into American pop culture.

As you may find, if there’s any uniting theme through this exploratory review, it’s definitely anxiety. Not only because this film represents a recent stateside ambassador to my favorite filmmaker, and manifests all my fears and wonders on screen, but it’s been a long time. Since September of last year, when that trailer dropped, I really wanted to like this movie, but knew there was a chance I wouldn’t. Would it be too nerdy even for me? Would it be too me even for me? I know I shouldn’t let that kind of genre bias sway my opinion (nor self-loathing), but some things unfortunately cannot be helped.

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So this virtual reality idea becomes attractive, because it gives a dark and thematic reason for being to the giant robots and Nausicaa gas masks. But before I go into that, I’ll drop a spoiler warning, a habit I need to develop for this podcast. If you can find a theatre that’s playing it this week, don’t hesitate. This was my first Oshii movie in the theatre, and that’s quite the experience. Compromised slightly though — there was only one other person there with me, five rows back.

It’s an entertaining movie, for sure, and you’ll never see another one like it. Well, unless you’re fond of the Oshii. You’ll get that usual hybrid of meditation and fantastical action, with endless mystery and a badass heroine at the center, with the basset hound at her side. But that mystery — it’ll linger, and that’s part of it. Mamoru Oshii turns you into a student of Mamoru Oshii, so if you don’t mind, I’m gonna do my best…

Spoiler Warning!

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It’s not wise to render judgment on an Oshii movie so quickly, in my case within a few days of seeing it. This is however, definitely not a case like the other big scifi movies I was so excited for but let me down over the years, so I don’t think my opinion will change. I like Garm Wars: The Last Druid, but making sense of it right now, in realtime, will definitely bolster my appreciation. And it’s possible that this bolstering is required, because if this is just a scifi nerdfest, it’s something I can only enjoy in the privacy of my mind…

Is there a deeper reason for the proper nouns and the fantasy largess, or is it just there for the sake of itself?

It might’ve just been an offhand theory from Brian Ruh (Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii), the connection to Avalon and Assault Girls. The idea was that this fantasy realm of Garm is the same virtual reality world of war that Ash and Rinko Kikuchi bounced around in [Ed: This jerk never saw Assault Girls]. And that theory, for me, provides me with comfort, that maybe it could be that deeper reason.

There’s a dreamlike quality to the movie, with the crossfades, the jumpcuts, and the digital paint, all lending credence to this theory, but also to other possible theories, if you can think of them, and share them. But there’s something very satisfying about the connection between this one and Avalon, if this one depicts a future world that takes the ending of Ash’s story to the next level, where the line between reality and fantasy is completely erased.

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Therefore, as I witness, the fantasy takes flight. The costumes, vehicles, and weapons are rooted in Avalon’s look, but are far-flung advancements. Not only that, but also infected by this reality transversal are the humans trapped inside, who’ve developed a mythology and are thoroughly mired in it. The questions haunting the characters, about the future, about memories, and the value of life are all well contextualized in this framework, though there’s arguably no textual evidence to support it.

In reading Garm Wars, I think that it’s important to keep these things in mind, and even when watching it, keeping that active analysis going is almost a given. Mamoru Oshii is rarely engaging you emotionally. I think that Jin-Roh and Ghost in the Shell 2, and possibly Angel’s Egg, if you’ve unlocked the secrets of that one, are his emotional heights, in terms of the popular stuff. I mean, Innocence is a bleak, two-hour meditation on grief, this nightmare journey through a sad future world where police-work stumbling on grisly crime scenes is a desperate rush to redefine life itself in order to overcome the loss of a friend.

For the most part with his movies, it’s the intellectual engagement, which is sometimes thought of as incompatible with emotional, at least when both happen simultaneously. I like to think that’s untrue, especially when in educational theory, it’s an emotional response that helps us retain knowledge. I really hope that that little factoid is true, because it’s what I stake my life on

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I like to think that this is something Oshii does so that he can extend the lifespan of a film, such that even an 82-minute movie can live beyond its opening and ending credits in the happy minds of its viewers. The audience goes on to explore, bringing the ideas from the movie world out into their own world.

But a word of caution, perhaps, and this is something new — I think it’s possible that some movies really are meant to exist in a vacuum of some kind. That maybe with Garm Wars, I’m not supposed to engage in this way, but actually look at it from a completely new angle. What if a movie could be kind of purposefully unspecific? Not quite like a Rorschach, but in this case, using vagueness toward concreteness.

With the virtual reality theory as a starting point, I can think about Garm Wars as not being connected to Avalon, in that context of, if it is. As dark and interesting as that theory would make it, that’s the thing that kind of bothers me about Avalon. It’s a great film, but the scifi nerd inside me, who will one day walk free of the pain, wants that extra dimension of escapism. It’s tough to picture oneself inside a fictional world when it’s embedded in another, and doubly tough when the film is criticizing that kind of daydreaming.

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And it isn’t just about immersion, though that is part of it. Frankly, the world of Garm is too bleak for escapism, and as a matter of fact, it’s rare that a film with such beauty and high-flying adventure would come out of a dizzyingly dark world. Usually thematic grit is matched by visual grit.

I think that if Garm was this true fictional world, and not a fake fictional world, then the dynamic changes. The characters are no longer lost in a delusion and trapped in this endless war, they’re just trapped, but then the story itself can take on a more almost parable-like quality. Because nothing is really defined — again, that vagueness. The technobabble is actually specific by way of being vague. Who are these people? To say that they are us, or our future selves, trapped online, that’s limiting. They’re not us, they’re everyone — us throughout time.

This is the story of a soldier who becomes individuated from her military, makes friends with the enemy, and learns the truth of all existence: enlightenment upon crucifixion at the Tree of Life. (Huh? What? And that enlightenment is a doozey, maybe). And the reason the journey looks like this, where medieval history meets the future, as if the timeline were scrunched up and mixed around, is because everything’s cyclical. That’s a highly impressionistic environment in which to set this story. There are giants and all-powerful beings in this world, but they’re robots and cyborgs this time. Myth and history have taken scientific shape. No matter how far we get, no matter how alien, we’re always human. And that’s good and bad, of course.

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Our heroine, Khara, is a good example of this. She is in places suspicious, playful, curious, and hostile, where humanity is poking through a robotic foundation. You also got to hand it to these actors and actresses, veterans and newcomers alike (people remember Kevin Durand from X-Men, but are they forgetting his complex, though brief, performance in Fruitvale Station?), for bringing this world to life, because this world has no precedent. Getting into the head of a character like Khara, or like Wydd, that’s a hell of a thing. You can’t just open a fantasy novel and have a starting point.

When the world is really this projected dream of its creator, like a fable or a myth that just happens to take the form of a movie, as opposed to a tactically laid installment of a franchise, it’s something that on its face becomes effortlessly reflective of us and our society. Khara is nobody, she exists in a pure context, and so it’s easier for her to become us, and vice versa.

So instead of Avalon and Assault Girls, I’d tend to draw the connection between Ghost in the Shell, Avalon, and Garm Wars, and it’s a thematic link, as well as one of the main character’s appearance. Of course, the Major, Ash, and now Khara are all athletic women with short black hair. Remembering sacred Gula, Oshii is nothing if not one for recurring imagery.

All three characters share in common this journey toward enlightenment, and their endgame is an answer to existential questions — ‘do I exist’ for the Major, ‘does reality exist’ for Ash, and for Khara, the question is ‘do I matter,’ which I think rounds it out nicely and makes for a satisfying exploration across at least three movies. And when I say enlightenment, it’s a conflation of two things. For one, it’s the Oshii preoccupation with religious iconography, and then it’s the act of what happens in each case. For the Major, she has a happy ending, but Ash has a terrifyingly bad one, and Khara’s ending is similarly sad, though I’d need to review that ultimate scene a few times and really pick apart its meaning.

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But my current theory is that again, it’s about the value of life, and it helps to raise that question against the backdrop of this absurd, endless war.

Khara is not only a soldier, she’s a clone. She has no memories, but even if she did, they’d all be about warfare. And she keeps herself moving forward by, in essence, reloading herself with mana injections — she is a walking weapon, a delivery system for her rifle. Her demilitarizing journey begins when she comes into contact with a Gula, the basset hound, and you wonder if dogs really are sacred the way giant robots roam the forests, or if this one simply warmed her heart instead of ‘blessed’ her (I’m more of a big fluffy white dog kind of person myself, Maremma sheepdog, Great Pyreness, but damn was that basset hound adorable standing up on two legs)…

An enemy soldier, Skellig, is then unable to fight her, and she joins up with Wydd and his tiny escort, the last druid. On this pilgrimage, as the narration describes it, Khara begins to wonder about things, like memories, and the future. She’s hoping to find answers, and it seems like her worst fears are affirmed, these fears which are grim and manifest in interesting ways over the course of the movie, for example the murders of the other Khara clones while they’re sleeping.

On that note, there are a few images we linger on, with a frame frozen in time, where Oshii shows his Tarkovsky influence, as well as his anime background. One of them is toward the end, during Khara’s talk with Nascien, and the one I mean to point out here is when she holds a dead, fellow clone in her arms, and she’s looking into her own face.

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That’s a pretty terrifying thing, to have your mortality realized so viscerally, like looking at your tombstone, but a lot worse. This is the fate of all Kharas, and all Garms. The fundamental nature of the war may change in the end, but war will always be a constant, and soldiers will always die.

This kind of science-fictional extrapolation does the job of abstracting war, which goes back to the whole vagueness thing. In our day, you can’t really have this kind of commentary if it’s a contemporary war film. Those soldiers are too familiar, and it’s not really fair to say that what they’re doing is wrong, or that they’re victims of something. It’s more complicated, and war gets more and more complicated as history goes on.

So it is incredibly valuable to have stories like this, where we can take soldiers out of the modern day, and examine them from a purer angle. Garm Wars doesn’t have to say that even if we wanted to outlaw war, we’re kind of stuck in it, because it shouldn’t risk weakening the argument that violence has a dehumanizing effect, especially once it’s become culture and heritage.

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But again, the storytelling in Garm Wars isn’t exactly obvious, readable even to the level of Ghost in the Shell, which laid everything out but was just verbose about it, or Avalon, which was actually a careful balancing act of what’s real and what isn’t. Or even Ghost in the Shell 2, which at least takes place in a somewhat familiar environment. Everything about Garm Wars is new and strange, beginning with the environment. The film is shot in Montreal and Vancouver, and Oshii and crew do a job of fashioning an alien landscape out of it. The wastelands are so desolate, and the forest is lush without looking tropical necessarily. Almost like it would be cold there.

It’s not the usual kind of movie you’ll see in the movie theatre, but I connect to it even if I don’t understand it. It’s in a genre that doesn’t exist, an almost known quantity that’s lurked in the margins of science-fiction, between films like Terminator and Star Wars and Ghost in the Shell. Somebody said one day, ‘What if we put all these things together?’

Garm Wars: The Last Druid proves the value of modern mythmaking, and the potential of science-fiction as utility in pure creative expression. Instead of pitting soldiers against each other on a futuristic battlefield because you’ll get those Halo dollars, you’ll do it because this story couldn’t be told another way.

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I suppose that’s why this movie feels alien, because now we’re looking forward, and the language of speculation rounds back to share roles traditionally held by detectives and drifters and other pillars of archetypal storytelling. When looking at a blank canvas, I can see why science-fiction is not tempting, because so much of it has been defined for you already, and I think that with this movie, Mamoru Oshii is resetting a lot of what those images mean — he’s taking ownership of them. And he proceeded to mark his canvas with a characteristic and philosophical, but fun, movie.

That’s our chronicle of Garm.

A few of the talent in the movie are pretty cool on Twitter. You should check it out and be cool with cool people: Melanie St-Pierre (Khara), Jordan Van Dyck (Interrogator B), Admiral Lance Henrikson (Wydd), Summer H. Howell (Nascien), Kevin Durand (Skellig), Geoffrey Gunn (The Writer)

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3 thoughts on “Unrecorded Chronicle: Garm Wars Review

  1. I put it to you that the characters *arent* human.. they are NPCs in an abandoned /unused virtual realm in Avalon. In Arthurian legend, Anwyn was a world created by nine maidens (the nine sisters?) around a vast cauldron.. i forget if the cauldron is the source of immortality but it has some significance. In Avalon, if we assume the girl in white was Morgan (the fairy who takes spirits on to avalon) then the druid dressed in white may also be one of the nine sisters.. notice the seagulls travelling to the next world? In Arthurian legend, only creatures that are white or red may pass between worlds 😉 I see it as NPCs, fighting an endless war without players, sophosticated data gaining knowledge with each death/spawn.. eventually questioning their existence and why they were abandoned by the creator (a programmer would be god in their eyes)

    1. Makes you wonder if Oshii is at all a gamer, or this just represents his fascination with technology — always thinking in these spaces just stage left of where everyone else is

      It’s definitely an interesting theory — I need to go back and rewatch the movie for sure

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