Archive for April, 2017

“The Case for Christ” is the story of an atheist journalist who gets upset when his wife converts to Christianity, so he decides to investigate Christianity in the hopes of debunking it. I am reminded of a line of dialogue from Dr. House: “If you could reason with religious people, there would BE NO religious people.” Even if our journalist, Lee Strobel (Mike Vogel, doing his best Billy Crudup impersonation) somehow managed to concretely disprove “Christianity”, proof never seems to be a problem for the most devout of believers. Modern scientific advancements and historical evidence have already definitively disproved the Creation Myth and a number of other Old Testament stories, but people still believe in them. Strobel’s wife, Leslie (Erika Christensen, a long way from “Swimfan”) doesn’t really push her beliefs on her husband, so the only issue I can see is the potential indoctrination of their children. Luckily, the film shows us Lee condescendingly explaining Jesus from an atheist standpoint to their daughter in order to nullify this concern, as commits the sin of forcing his beliefs on their child first. Regardless of whether the initial conflict of two married persons with kids having different faiths is a serious problem for a relationship or not, the solution to that problem is not a journalistic investigation.

So the basic set up for this film is flawed, but not nearly as flawed as the execution. “The Case for Christ” is brought to us by Pureflix, the Christian movie studio that brought us the hilariously awful “God’s Not Dead” series. The real life Lee Strobel is a Christian apologist who played himself in “God’s Not Dead 2”. The audience for this film are Christians who want their view of the historical veracity of Christianity confirmed, and will enjoy cheap shots at atheists, who are always portrayed in these movies as condescending assholes. Granted, I myself am an atheist and often a condescending asshole when it comes to discussing religion, but not every atheist is me, or Dr. House, Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory”, Dexter, Rick from “Rick and Morty”, or every other atheist you see portrayed in modern fiction. A lot of this modern condescension comes from the rise of evangelical influence in politics that came with the George W. Bush administration, as well as religious politicians pushing against gay and trans rights and other important issues, combined with 9/11 being a partially religious-motivated terrorist attack and a greater public consciousness of religious-based violence from certain Jihadist groups around the world. If those of us who are secular did not view religion as being a dangerous force in politics, that condescension would likely dissipate into mild amusement, but I digress. The intended audience for this film wants their preconceived notions validated, not challenged, so the film delivers on that score at the cost of it being intellectually bankrupt.

How does one go about debunking Christianity anyway? Does one attack the very historicity of the events depicted in the New Testament? Does one settle for attacking the Old Testament and draw the conclusion that the New Testament falls apart if the foundation that is the Old Testament crumbles? Does one ignore the historical questions of the events themselves and simply look at the recovered historical documents and debate their authenticity? Do they question why some documents are considered canonical and others are not? Do they compare the early Christian church’s beliefs and the later church’s beliefs to simply poke at the infallibility argument? Do they ignore Christianity altogether and just go after the concept of an omnipotent, omniscient god? How about just attacking the underlying philosophy of Christianity? Or contradictions in the New Testament? There are so many conceivable lines of attack that it can make one’s head spin.

Lee Strobel, and thus the film, decide to narrow the issue to a single element: the resurrection of Jesus. One co-worker of Strobel’s tells him that if he can disprove the resurrection, the rest of the religion falls like a house of cards. For a two hour film that wants to be the Christian version of a journalism movie, a film like “Spotlight” or “Zodiac” or “All The President’s Men”, this narrowed focus works well enough. With the elements being narrowed, the film has enough time to provide us with a B story. While Strobel is investigating Christianity in his spare time, his day job as a newspaper reporter has him assigned to the story of a police officer who was apparently shot be a repeat offender. The circumstances of this shooting are such that it seems plainly obvious that the suspect is guilty, so Strobel of course goes along with that obvious conclusion based on the evidence. How much money do you want to bet that Strobel will have overlooked other evidence, find out that the suspect was innocent all along, and Strobel will thus be punished for his cockiness in jumping to conclusions. How much additionally would you like to bet that this B story will mirror the A story investigation into Christianity?

If you’re keeping track, we now have three story threads: Investigation into the Resurrection, investigation into a police shooting, and marriage troubles. Is that enough for the film? Nope. We also have a brief story thread involving Strobel having a poor relationship with his father (Robert Forster, who deserves much better than films like this). This story thread only exists for one reason: to paint all atheists as simply being people with daddy issues, and are thus lashing out at their heavenly “father”. I shit you not, this is one of the bullshit arguments the film makes. Hell, one scene in the film exists only for this reason. At one point in the film Strobel visits a psychologist, who the film helpfully tells us is agnostic, to see if the people claiming to have viewed Jesus walking around after his death could be suffering from a form of mass delusion. This psychologist is played by…Faye Dunaway. I shit you not, Faye Dunaway is in this movie for a single scene, and her entire purpose in the film is to argue that people are only atheists because they have daddy issues. She’s gone from “Chinatown” and “Network” to THIS? She deserves better than this. A few token famous atheists are mentioned as having daddy issues, including Freud (whose own theories were often as lacking in fact as religion) and Nietzsche. Since we’ve learned from “God’s Not Dead” that Pureflix doesn’t understand logical fallacies, I must point out to them that correlation, if one actually exists beyond the token names given here, does not prove causation.

Perhaps I should go back to the beginning and tackle the steps Strobel takes in this investigation. When the film begins we are told that Strobel is a very good journalist. He’s had a book published about his investigation into the Ford Pinto, and is now a cocky hotshot around the newspaper office. One night he goes out to dinner with his wife and daughter, and the daughter asks for some change to get a gumball out of a candy machine. He gives her the change, she gets a gumball, and she starts choking on it. Of all the patrons in the crowded restaurant, the only person who seems to know how to do the Heimlich Maneuver is an off-duty nurse (L. Scott Caldwell). Upon saving the girl from choking, the nurse claims that she wasn’t going to go to the restaurant that night, but Jesus told her to. So Jesus is okay with, I dunno, the Holocaust, but he makes sure to personally intervene by telling a nurse to visit a restaurant so she can Heimlich a choking child. Unless Jesus also made the child choke in the first place so that he could them have her saved, which leads to the nurse converting Leslie which leads Lee to investigate Christianity and eventually become a Christian himself. If that’s the case, I’m glad Jesus thinks almost making a child die, and at least scaring that child and subjecting her to the pain from choking and the injuries to the abdominal area that come from the Heimlich, is worth converting one atheist family.

That night the daughter asks her parents who Jesus is, because an upper-middle-class white girl of school age in Chicago would of course have never even heard of Jesus before this incident. Apparently neither her or any of her friends had ever seen so much as one Christmas decoration before. I’m always amazed that the writers of Christian fiction, whether it’s films like this or those Chick Tracts, seem to think a large portion of Americans are unaware of the existence of Christianity or devoid of basic knowledge as to the religion’s beliefs. Regardless, Lee dismisses Jesus as a fairy tale to his daughter, but Leslie has been moved by the incident, starts going to church with the nurse, and is soon an out and out Christian.

Upset, Lee visits a fellow atheist friend of his (Mike Pniewski) for advice on how to de-convert his wife. The friend name checks Bertrand Russell (Pureflix loves argument from authority in that it always name checks people who make arguments without ever telling us what their arguments were, as if mentioning famous names is enough), but Lee states that there’s no way Leslie would be willing to read his famous book “Why I Am Not A Christian” in “her state”. This later prompts Lee to start his investigation. Later in the film, when Lee cannot 100% disprove the resurrection, this atheist friend tells him something that no real atheist would ever say: that just as it takes faith to believe in religion, it also takes a leap of faith to NOT┬ábelieve. This sort of equivalence between religion and atheism as requiring faith is, of course, idiotic bullshit. When one side has much more evidence for their case than the other side, concluding that the stronger side is correct is not “faith”. Faith is believing in something with NO evidence or IN SPITE OF evidence. But certain evangelical Christians love to say that it takes “faith” to be an atheist. They confuse “faith” with “reaching a conclusion when 100% certainty does not exist or may be impossible”.

Now you would think that a well respected journalist would actually know how to conduct an investigation. They would know how to mine credible sources from non-credible ones, would know what follow-up questions to ask when certain claims are made, etc. The Lee Strobel of this film is not a good journalist. The first person he interviews is Gary Habermas (Kevin Sizemore). Habermas makes some claims that are not challenged by Strobel, the main one being that the Resurrection of Jesus was witnesses by over 500 people. I can think of many follow-up questions to this claim: Who are they? Did they write witness statements that are preserved in the historical record? How did they arrive at that number? What were the circumstances of these events where they witnessed? Locations? Strobel just kind of nods and moves on. He takes this claim as fact and moves on to his next hypothesis.

So the whole “500 witnesses” thing comes from one line of the New Testament. It’s in the First Epistle to the Corinthians. This one line in a document written by Saul of Tarsus, the founder of what we call Christianity, and was at an earliest written 20 years after the date Jesus is normally estimated to have died (30-32 CE), which is still about 30 years before the earliest of the Gospels was written, is hardly definitive, concrete, unimpeachable proof. The source is biased (trying to spread Christianity), and there is no other corroborating evidence, either Christian or secular. Also, apparently another part of the New Testament, Acts, claims that after the Resurrection Jesus’s followers only numbered about 120. So unless someone’s numbers are off the Bible itself claims that 380 people saw Jesus Resurrected and were not convinced.

Later, Strobel talks to a historian in Jerusalem over the phone. It’s worth noting that Strobel travels all over the country in person to talk to other “experts”. Since he’s apparently paying for these flights out of pocket (remember, this is his personal business, not the newspaper’s) he is wasting a lot of money and spending a lot of time away from home when he has a wife, a daughter, and eventually a newborn baby in the family. Anyway, this phone expert tells him to not worry about the differences in the Resurrection story in the four gospels because it’s similar to when eyewitnesses are interviewed by police and their stories are slightly different. Yes, the contradictions in the Bible are just as inconsequential as whether the getaway car at a bank robbery was a blue Honda or a black Honda. Never mind that none of the writers of the Gospels were contemporaries of Jesus, the first Gospel being written about 40 years after Jesus is said to have died, which is a long time to pass for someone who never knew you to write accurately about you in a time when stories were passed through the oral tradition and investigating the veracity of claims for decades earlier and miles away was nearly impossible. One of the biggest problems of this film is that Strobel is willing to accept the New Testament as an accurate historical document so easily. The film doesn’t even attempt to discuss non-Christian historical sources like Josephus.

This film really wants the audience to think the New Testament is viable as a historical document, as opposed to a document which has SOME HISTORY IN IT, but is not historical. Think of it as the difference between a documentary on the Vietnam war versus “Forrest Gump”. JFK is a historical figure, much like Pontius Pilot is a historical figure, and JFK is featured in “Forrest Gump” just like Pilot is in the New Testament. But “Forrest Gump” is still a fictional narrative. I’m not claiming the New Testament is completely useless to historians, because of course it isn’t, but accepting the claims of the New Testament narrative as factual, but with some minor eyewitness misrecollections, is something no good journalist, or historian, would do. That doesn’t stop the film from including a scene where Lee talks to a former archaeologist-turned-priest whose main argument for the New Testament being history is that far more historical MANUSCRIPTS of it exist than of almost any historical document. Okay, but the fact that the New Testament was copied down a lot in history doesn’t make the New Testament ITSELF history. The film specifically mentions about 5800 Greek manuscripts, since they are the earliest ones and the many that came can be credited to being copied off of those, and the preponderance of copies will of course grow as the Christianity itself spreads. Fewer copies of other works can be explained because there’s not as much call in the old world where literacy was a privilege to copy works that didn’t make up religion for the masses and would be enjoyed by the privileged few who were literate and had the time and interest to read. Plus, of those 5800 Greek manuscripts, only about 100 are from the 1st century, and many of those are just tiny fragments of a single page. Far from the entire modern New Testament being unimpeachable history, historians and religious scholars often have a hard time deciding what parts of the book were from the original authors (when we even know who THEY were) and what parts were added and when. The whole process is much more involved and fascinating than this film cares about, and Lee Strobel is such a shitty reporter in this film that he again has no follow up questions, and is simply impressed by such a big number of manuscripts when compared to “The Iliad”, the epic poem by Homer that survived even longer with fewer copies (and is also not entirely a historical document, I would add). You could even point to works from Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia that are older, in better condition, AND original copies. That doesn’t mean the myth of Osiris is history.

Eventually, Strobel ends up chasing after strawman arguments, such as the mass delusion hypothesis from the Faye Dunaway scene. The most absurd argument is when Strobel argues that Jesus survived crucifixion and the witnesses who saw him resurrected were just seeing a living Jesus who was falsely presumed dead. Look, I’m pretty active in some atheist circles, and I’ve never once heard this argument, probably because if you accept the story of Jesus being crucified, the chances of him surviving the details from the Passion are almost 0%. That doesn’t stop this movie from having Strobel talk to a medical doctor about crucifixion. At one galling part of this conversation, Strobel states that Islam believes that Jesus survived the crucifixion. This is partially true. Some Muslims believe Jesus rose bodily to Heaven without being crucified, and some in the Ahmadiyya movement believe he survived crucifixion and died in India. The doctor then points out that the Quran was written in the 600s CE and he says he prefers his history a little closer to the source. Honestly, that’s rich coming from a Christian when there are no contemporaneous accounts of Jesus even existing.

When I talk to other atheists, their attitudes about Jesus fall into 3 categories:
1. He’s a fictional character
2. He’s a composite of a number of real false messiahs who were executed by Rome.
3. He’s a real historical person who was executed, and myths developed following his execution which became Christianity.

“The Case for Christ” isn’t interested in laying the groundwork for the Resurrection by proving Jesus existed as a historical figure, or even do much work in trying to prove the content of New Testament can be trusted as history. It’s argument can be summed up as: The New Testament says it happened, there’s a lot of old copies of the New Testament, and some half-assed partial acceptance of the New Testament (like Jesus surviving crucifixion) make no sense. That does not translate into, as Lee later tells Leslie at the end of the film, “the evidence for your faith is overwhelming”. Not even close.

It is rather weird that Strobel never interviews other atheists in the film to learn their arguments and strengthen his questioning ability. While I have not read the book by the real Lee Strobel in which this film is based, apparently the only “experts” cited in that book are fellow evangelicals. I’m not even sure if the real Strobel ever WAS an atheist, or if he just chose that atheist-who-was-converted angle as a hook to sell more books. A better movie would have tried to deal with atheist arguments against Christianity, not pretend they don’t exist and replace silly strawman arguments in their place. But this film was never interested in playing fair. It’s about giving certain Christians in the audience the same smug sense of superiority over atheists that they think most atheists have over them. The film’s attitude can be described as: “All your fancy love of ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ won’t stop you from the One True Faith. What an IDIOT you were being.” Not to mention Lee is shown in the film to drive drunk and do other bad behavior that no good Christian would be caught doing. Heavens, no!

The film was directed by Jon Gunn (no relation to James Gunn), who previously directed “Do You Believe?” for Pureflix. “The Case for Christ” is, if nothing else, more competently made than most of their films. It has the production quality of a decent TV movie, and the acting quality of slightly better than that. The film is not as unintentionally bad as the “God’s Not Dead” films, and thus not as enjoyable, but credit must be given to them for improving their production values. The problem remains how intellectually bankrupt and disingenuous their films remain. They still resort to knocking down strawman arguments, half-truths about historical evidence, pious platitudes, and argument from authority. They are learning to make better films from a nuts and bolts standpoint, but they still can’t produce a screenplay worthy of the improved value.

“The Case for Christ” is another film preaching to the choir. It’s intended audience will think it’s more intelligent and fair than it is because the film is playing on that audience’s ignorance and naivety about the very religion they claim to believe in. When atheists like myself view this film, they’ll mostly spend it wishing they could pause the movie to add extra commentary, or at least jump in to help Strobel question the “experts”. It’s a better film that most of what Pureflix has produced thus far, but that also makes it less fun. D+

Advertisements

“‘The Boss Baby’? More like the Bad Movie Baby.” – Carson McLendon

“The Boss Baby” can’t decide if it wants to be a clever, adult-friendly kids movie drawing a direct line between narcissistic middle management and the demanding human ID that is the infant, or a stupid movie for the youngest of child audiences with the most immature and obvious toilet humor designed to make a four-year-old laugh that you could possibly imagine. The result is a movie that isn’t enough of either. You have references to “Glengarry Glen Ross” next to jokes about farting, infant-butt-slapping, infant-butt-sniffing, and the threat of a pacifier being inserted in any infant’s butt. At least half of the jokes in the movie are about baby ass, which is far too many for a movie that is trying to thread the needle between the kind of kids movie that parents enjoy alongside their children and the kind of kids movie the parents spend their time checking their phone during.

The plot involves Timothy, narrating from the future (Tobey Maguire). Timothy is the only child to two very loving and hands-on parents (Lisa Kudrow and Jimmy Kimmel) who read him multiple stories and sing him a Beatles song before he goes to bed every night. He’s also got a very active imagination, which only confuses the narrative by making you question if the Boss Baby (Alec Baldwin) is actually a secret manager from a baby-run business, or if the entire film is just Timothy (voiced as a child by Miles Christopher Bakshi) creating the scenario to cope with all of the attention going to a new baby. This could have been an interesting plot device, but the film makes it clear very early on that it’s the former, so I’m not sure why the device is even introduced to begin with. A sight gag involving Timothy hanging on to one of those cars that a baby can peddle from the inside and how the adults view this in contrast to how the kids view it ends up making no sense because of this, despite being a funny cut away.

The parents bring home the be-suited Boss Baby, and Timothy is very upset that the attention gets pulled away from him. He soon discovers Baby can talk is actually on a mission to infiltrate the parents’ workplace, a corporation called Puppy Co. which seems to exist to push the idea of people adopting puppies in lieu of having babies or other pets, and prevent them from unveiling a new designer dog breed so cute that babies will be supplanted as everyone’s favorite cute accessory. As someone who had a vasectomy to specifically make sure he never has children, I am genuinely wondering if there is any competition in the real world between babies and puppies with regard to which most people prefer. Hell, I’m a cat person. Babies are pretty low on my list of cute things I want in my home.

Anyway, Baby doesn’t want to stay in the family any more than Timothy wants him to stay, so they team up to stop Puppy Co. so that Baby can return to his company, where babies drink a special formula to never grow up but still somewhat age intellectually as they lobby the world for babies.

This concept has potential, and some of the plot holes (the mom is pregnant, so how did Boss Baby get from the corporation to inside her womb to be born? Did Boss Baby abort the real fetus? If babies are delivered via conveyor belt, how does that jive with pregnancy and our real world process of reproduction?) can be pushed aside under the defense that this is a cartoon meant for kids. The problem is that this film, unlike those by Pixar or some other companies, doesn’t know how to make a good grown up story that is also accessible to kids. Or, conversely, how to make a silly and fun kids cartoon that offers emotional or intellectual meat for the adults. A clever story bit or a piece of satire in once scene is drowned out by a stream of obvious, unfunny sophomoric humor an additional 10 times in that scene. I can forgive the lack of world building and the schizophrenic tonal shifts if the movie were simply funny enough to make up for its flaws, but the vast majority of the gags fall flat on their face.

I wasn’t expecting an astute satire of Capitalism or office culture in this film, but I at least expected it to be at the low level of, say, “The Belko Experiment” from earlier this month. “The Boss Baby” does nothing with a gangbusters concept and doesn’t engage in enough world building for it either. Remember how “Monsters Inc.” did a great job of creating a whole new world that was centered around a fictional corporation adjacent to our world? “The Boss Baby” fails where that earlier Pixar film succeeded. Other movies prove that the problems “The Boss Baby” exhibits are fixable, but the filmmakers just didn’t want to. As a result, nice voice performances by Alec Baldwin and Steve Buscemi (as the film’s villain, a former baby executive turned adult) are wasted in an unfunny cartoon that, to be honest, i dozed off during the third act of.

Bad movie baby indeed. C-

Before I get into this new, live action “Ghost in the Shell” film, I feel it is important to note that I have not seen the original 1995 film. I note this because anime seems to be in the midst of a resurgence in popularity in the United States, no doubt in small part due to the increasingly popularity of cosplay, of which anime characters are among the most emulated fictional creations among cosplayers. I, however, hate anime. The art style of anime is not aesthetically pleasing to me, as I see each big-eyed, sharp-edged-hair sporting character as interchangeable, and the weird frame rate movements and lazy, blurred-line-filled backgrounds in action shots strike me as downright repellent. Despite my personal antipathy towards the genre, I acknowledge that western pop culture has been borrowing from and stealing from the genre since at least “Akira”, if not earlier, and anime’s artistic influences have spread throughout western entertainment from the larger-eyed characters in Disney’s “Tarzan” to how superheroes are portrayed in modern comics. It must also be acknowledged that while some anime have pretty awful storylines (“Yu Yu Hakusho”, of which my ex was inexplicably fond of), others have stories that are quite rich (“Oldboy”, which was adapted into an excellent live action film from South Korea).

It seems that those who are not as repelled by anime as I am look upon the 1995 “Ghost in the Shell” with as much reverence as one can towards a science fiction film. Both that film and “Akira” (which I have seen) are usually regarded as the pinnacle of the genre, outside of the works of Hayao Miyazaki, who is usually considered his own thing. While the subject matter of that film feels derivative now, because the cyberpunk genre has been looted and plundered since at least the publication of William Gibson’s novel “Neuromancer” in 1984, in 1995 cyberspace was still in its infancy, and the concepts portrayed in the film must have seemed revolutionary. in 2017, we all live online, “The Matrix” from 1999 and its sequels are considered dated, and we’ve had less remembered films like “Johnny Mnemonic” to drive this genre into the ground.

This is a long way around to state this: the visuals of the new “Ghost in the Shell” are quite good, I liked the characters, but the story at this point just covers ground that has already been covered ad nauseum, and in a better fashion. When the film introduces philosophical concepts, such as what it means to be human, or how much humans can be augmented by technology before losing their humanity, it doesn’t explore them in any fulfilling measure, and just bringing them up doesn’t earn you brownie points because it’s been done before constantly. I also hesitate to praise the visuals too much because I simply do not know how many were just lifted from the anime, and how many can be rightly credited to this film.

I ended up seeing the film twice, but not by choice, exactly. I tried to see the film in IMAX 3D, but the 3D function of the projector was broken and it was shown to me in 2D. I was given a pass and came back to see it in 3D as I felt that would greatly enhance the experience, which it did. That also created the problem that, when not concerned with following the plot since I knew what would happen, the second viewing more greatly revealed the film’s flaws. The film moves too fast, careening from plot point to plot point without giving you a chance to breathe, or think. The themes of the film are spelled out in clunky, explicit dialogue. One of the three credited writers of this film is Ehren Kruger, who some readers may remember is the man I consider one of the worst screenwriters in Hollywood. The shitty dialogue has Kruger all over it, and I imagine the pacing was Kruger following a studio note to speed up the action in order to bring the script’s page count down.

The plot involves a near future where most humans have some cybernetic parts grafted to their bodies. In an age where people already seem glued to their smartphones, this isn’t as far fetched as it probably seemed in 1995. Some people get frivolous additions, like a cybernetic liver that allows them to drink as much alcohol as they like, while others get brain implants to allow them to learn multiple languages in minutes. The advantages of this technology, as well as the disadvantages (hacking, part of your body being a product produced by a corporation) are mentioned but not delved in to in this film. Without having seen the original, I do not know if it contained more material delving into the science, ethics, and philosophy of this stuff, meaning the American film dumbed the source material down for action’s sake, or if the original only contained what the new film contains, because in 1995 simply bringing up these issues alone would suffice as a job well done.

Of the many companies that produce cybernetic parts, one such company, Hanka, seems to be partially funded by the government. Which government? The film doesn’t tell us where it takes place, but I assume it is either Japan, or some future federation of Asian nations. Our main character is Major (Scarlett Johansson), who is the first being to be made entirely of robotic parts save for her brain, which was recovered from a person. The next step to this society is obviously going full robotic, and the step between cybernetic parts and being able to upload your consciousness to a server is to have all of your body be artificial save for your brain, which is where YOU are contained. This film calls your consciousness/sentience your “ghost” and the robotic body is the “shell”, hence the title. For some reason, Hanka wants Major mainly as a weapon. They like the idea of a robotic killing machine that can improvise in ways robots (and, apparently, AI) cannot. This plan makes less sense as the film goes on and you find out the CEO of Hanka, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) wants something that can be easily controlled. Also, if eventually all of these people want to live forever, and Major is the first step in that direction (presumably Major’s brain will still age, rot, and die), then why waste her as the equivalent of an FBI agent or a Seal Team Six member?

Anyway, Major is made join Section 9, which is a cross between the FBI, the CIA, and the military. Hanka, despite being a private company with some government funds, seems to be able to pull rank over Section 9, a government agency, though the head of Section 9 (Beat Takeshi) can go over Hanka’s head to the Prime Minister. Yeah, I was kind of hoping the relationship between all of these entities would be made clearer. As the film begins, Section 9 is investigating the brain-hacking and murder of a number of high-ranking Hanka scientists. This investigation leads to Major finding out that Hanka has lied to her about her origins and how she came to be a ghost in a shell. Along the way we meet interesting characters like Batou (Pilou Asbaek), a tough guy who cares for Major and loves dogs, and Kuze (Michael Pitt), a cybernetic creature who many be more justified in his seemingly evil actions that we would guess from the start.

Kuze, as a character, is underdeveloped. In one scene of the film we’re shown a bunch of bald men, covered in ash, connected to a network. The film tells us Kuze is using them for…well, I don’t know what. Does he jump bodies into them? We are shown earlier in the film that he doesn’t need to be hardwired to a person to hack into them and take control of their bodies. Are they hooked up to provide energy, the way the machines in “The Matrix” use humans as batteries? I think the film just thought the image was cool (it is) and didn’t care about the logic.

It’s a shame because there is logic to other visuals. The shots of the city, while of course reminiscent of “Blade Runner”, feature bright and colorful holograms projected on and in front of bland, concrete tours. This presents the world as one where boring and dehumanizing utilitarianism are gussied up and painted over with the distractions afforded by the mixture of Capitalism and government advertisements. As almost every character we meet is in a stage of dehumanization as they augment their bodies with technology, portraying the city the way the film does helps make the thematic foundation of the film tangible.

The film does some stupid stuff too. Cutter is way too hands-on for a CEO, and the whole business with a “spider tank”, which is introduced abruptly and serves as a foe for a rather mundane and boring third act setpiece, feels like it comes from a different movie. Why would Hanka even make that thing?

Obviously I cannot discuss this film without going into the controversy regarding Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Major. There was a lot of uproar that she was cast instead of a Japanese actress, and this has been held up as the latest in a long line of whitewashing roles meant for other races, particularly Asians. Johansson is a fairly big star, lusted after by male fans and balancing her role in the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe as Black Widow with roles in smaller indie films like “Under the Skin”. She is arguably a safer bet for a studio to cast in the lead of an expensive sci-fi action film than any Asian actress of the same age range, especially when visual spectacles like this film make a lot of money in Europe and other foreign countries where star power and a recognizable name matter more than they do in the U.S. She has also played robotic or not-quite-human characters in the aforementioned “Under the Skin” and “Her” (the former film I hated, the latter I loved), so we know she can play a part human/part cyborg grappling with humanity.

The test I usually hold for such matters is, for lack of a better name, the Tony Montana test. Al Pacino, an Italian-American actor, played Tony Montana, a Cuban refuge, in the film “Scarface”. At the time there was uproar about the cross-ethnic casting. Now, could a Cuban or other Latino actor have played that role well? Yes, of course. But that Pacino performance is so unique, so iconic, that no actor could have done what Pacino did there. Even if you think that performance is too over-the-top or broad, it is a unique performance, and a big part of why that film is still held in high esteem today. I would argue that his performance MAKES that film, and thus the cross-ethnic casting was justified to make the film what it is. Johansson as Major? It doesn’t rise to that level. She does a good job, but you can’t argue that it’s a performance that another actress could not have done as well, or better, and the film’s positives do not begin with a discussion of that performance, like “Scarface” does with regard to Pacino’s.

That all being said, there is an in-universe reason for the casting, and it adds an interesting dimension to the plot. **SPOILERS** We find out that Major WAS a Japanese girl, a runaway who lived with other runaways in a decrepit and mostly abandoned part of the city and wrote anti-technology manifestos. Hanka had been kidnapping these runaways and experimenting with turning them into ghosts in shells. Major was the one that succeeded, and her memories were erased with small, indistinct fake memories being added to give her a drive to serve Section 9. This twist, that a Japanese girl was kidnapped against her will and turned into a machine with the likeness of a Caucasian woman, kind of serves as a metaphor for the film, or cultural appropriation in general. After all, what is “Ghost in the Shell” but an Americanized and presumably watered down version of what was originally a Japanese film? Isn’t cultural appropriation taking the fruits of one culture, hiding the source, and presenting it as a pretty product of your own culture? Granted, this metaphor probably wasn’t intended by the filmmakers, who were likely covering their asses once the shit hit the fan about Johansson being cast, but it’s interesting nonetheless as a comment on not just this film, but remaking cultural products in general. Now, I don’t believe all Western remakes of other culture’s films are appropriation. Some are just transplanting settings for a different audience, and some are actually cultural APPRECIATION that pay homage. Where the line exists between appreciation and appropriation, between celebration and stealing, will be in the eye of different beholders. As a white American male, I certainly shouldn’t be the person telling anyone definitively where that line exists. Insofar as “Ghost in the Shell” is concerned, it probably should have been made more multicultural and less Japan-specific in setting, or they should have just made it take place in Japan but had everyone speak English or a mix of languages. The film exists in a weird area where the bulk of the characters are Asian, except for a disproportionate number of the main characters, and the setting is very clear Tokyo, or a Tokyo-like city. **SPOILERS END**

While it has many flaws, I did enjoy “Ghost in the Shell”. Hell, I wouldn’t have sat through it twice, projector failure or not projector failure, if I didn’t. The movie is very pretty to look at, and I enjoyed the score, production design, art direction, and robot/creature designs (that geisha bot is beautiful). The characters could have been better developed, but I liked most of them. Cutter was the film’s only weak point, as his motivations make less sense as the film goes on, and the relationship between the government, Hanka, and Section 9 could have been spelled out better. I’d have also liked to know where Hanka’s competitors fit in. The deeper themes are brought up, but that’s about it. You can discuss them with other viewers, but it’d be nice if the film LEAD that discussion. And while the film is a CGI-fest, which I usually loathe, it only bothered me during the spider-tank scene, which features a very fake digital Major climbing a wall and jumping around. I also like the motif of Major being asked and giving consent for a number of things. The way Cutter is dealt with in this fashion is interesting. I perhaps didn’t like how the film pins all of the evil on Hanka and holds Section 9 and the government as being almost blameless, benevolent saviors, but I guess that’s similar to how, at the end of “Robocop”, it is not OCP that is defeated, but rather one employee in the form of villain Dick Jones. Sadly, “Ghost in the Shell” could have been a similarly scathing attack on Capitalism and the commodification of human technological advances as “Robocop”, but it decides not to, even as it apes the visual language of similar satires, like “Total Recall”.

The director here is Rupert Sanders who previous directed another visually beautiful but empty film, “Snow White and the Huntsman”. I am tempted to praise him for the visuals in this film, but honestly there’s nothing special about the shots or camera angles and movements. This is all production design, art direction, and the special effects department. Sanders seems to just shoot what they give him.

If this reviews sounds more negative than I mean it to be, it’s only because this film had the potential to be more than just a very pretty, derivative sci-fi film. As it is, it’s still better than most of the crappy blockbusters Hollywood puts out, but maybe that’s because the source material isn’t from Hollywood. B