Ghost in the Shell (2017) [dir. Rupert Sanders]

Posted: April 4, 2017 in Uncategorized

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


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