FILM REVIEW: Ghost in the Shell

Ghost In The Shell...https://storgy.com/2017/04/13/film-review-ghost-in-the-shell/

“You’ll have full motion in about a week. Just take it easy until then.” I turned my head towards the voice but I could only make out a throbbing white shape.

“When can I leave?” I asked, my mouth desperately dry.

“You’ve had major surgery, Mr Rae. We’ve replaced your eyes, parts of your brain and your right arm with cybernetic implants. We’ll need to keep you in for a while.”

“But, I didn’t ask for this”, I croaked.

“It’s all right here, Mr Rae. You still have 15 years left on your mortgage so your bank decided it was best if we get you back up and running.”

Suddenly I heard a deafening crackle followed by tinny music. I clamped my hands over my ears but it didn’t do any good. It felt like it was coming from all around me.

“Are you tired of your old, slow legs?” A woman’s voice booms from somewhere inside my skull.

“Who said that?” I shouted over the music. I turned to the man sitting in the chair beside my hospital bed, my vision starting to clear. I could almost make out his face.

“There’s no need to shout. Who said what, Mr Rae?” He said, not looking up from his iPad.

“A woman just asked me if -”

“You’ve been walking around on those things for years,” she continued, “Why not replace them with our new iSprint Cybernetic Leg Enhancements. New from Dubious Robotics iSprint Legs, new Legs, new You. The future in your hands.”

“There’s a woman talking about new robot legs.” I could feel panic setting in and the bleeping machine beside me seemed to agree.

“Yes, well. Cybernetics aren’t free, you know. You get a new lease on life and in return you just have to listen to a few ads. You can skip most of them, don’t worry.” And with that the man in white was gone.

“Now streaming, in film new releases,” the voice was back, “‘Ghost In The Shell’, we have determined that this film is relevant to your interests. Would you like to watch ‘Ghost In The Shell’?”

Remakes are tricky. Like meeting up with someone you haven’t seen in 10 years. How do you start talking? What do you talk about? Do you reminisce or do you catch up on the time since you last met? If you just rehash your common experiences, what was that point of meeting up, or was that the point? This is a problem that Ghost in the Shell (2017) has. Should it re-invent or just reproduce? It may have been an impossible task but they took their best shot.

In preparation for this I watched the original the night before.

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I think it’s fair to hold a remake up to its predecessor, how can you not? I had avoided much of the press surrounding the release, so I didn’t hear any rhetoric about what exactly the 2017 version was supposed to “be”. I was trying to avoid making judgements before I had seen it but it was impossible to avoid the controversy about “Whitewashing” (I use quotes here to delimit a quote not as a dismissive tool to belittle the clearly evil people who think racism is bad [that was a joke {racism is great

}]). I’m not really sure what the debate is, here. A film set in Japan with Japanese characters was recast to replace almost the entire main cast with white people. How can it not be whitewashing? They didn’t change very many of the names, only the ones that were a bit too “asian-y”, which feels kind of gross and also means it’s difficult to claim that it’s a complete re-imagining. It smacks of the studio execs who were worried that Bruce Lee wouldn’t be able to carry a film as vast in scope as “ Enter the Dragon” despite him being the star of several films in China. Granted that was in the ‘70s but we don’t seem to have come very far. I’m not sure it even matters that Mamoru Oshii, the director of the original, doesn’t think it’s a problem (link: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/24/scarlett-johansson-ghost-in-the-shell-director-whitewashing). An artist’s interpretation of someone else’s interpretation of their work needn’t be the ultimate truth on the matter. If you’re making a film and you’re worried that your audience is going to be too terrified of epicanthic folds to concentrate on it, then you might not have that much respect for your audience. Either take the story completely out of its original setting so it makes sense that the characters are white, or keep the setting and keep the character’s ethnicities how they were. The decisions are those of people not really thinking about how their prejudices could affect their judgement and spending too much time listening to focus groups of angry teenage boys. Right, now that unpleasantness is out of the way, we can all go back to pretending racism is a thing of the past and talk about this movie.

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I think that comparing the new version to the original is fair because although this is a re-interpretation of the story, there is enough shared content that the link cannot be ignored. We’ve silently resigned ourselves to the idea that re-makes are acceptable so it stands to reason that they should be compared to their predecessors. So, if that’s going to be a problem, you might want to go to your happy place for the remainder of the review. Don’t stop reading, obviously.

The film is, largely, about the Major (Scarlett Johansson), a cybernetic human, the first of her kind, and part of an elite anti-terrorist organisation, Section 9. She and her team are facing a new foe, a cyber-terrorist (I don’t think they use that phrase) who can hack into the cybernetically enhanced minds of humans and take control of them. The story trundles along, with some twists and turns in a functional enough way, but is never particularly engaging.

Ghost in The Shell has some issues. There are some real problem areas that can’t be ignored. There is an overall lack of impact to a lot of the things happening on screen. While most of the action is choreographed well enough, some of it feels flabby and slow and disappointing, like a sorbet when you really wanted ice cream. There is too much emphasis on slow motion action and quick cuts to really feel like the action is happening around you. I came away feeling like the film thought it was a lot cooler than it actually was. It just doesn’t grab you. To be fair, the original didn’t have a huge amount of action. There’s a lot of talking, there’s a lot of discussion about the themes and I can see why they wanted to add a little more punch but Rupert Sanders’ direction seems to be lacking somewhat in that area.

For once, Hollywood’s obsession with Christopher Nolan-ing everything actually made sense. It does feel very by the numbers in places but the setting was already gritty and dark, so the treatment doesn’t feel out of place. The city is grim and brilliant and some of the shots over it are stunning: Giant holographic advertisements and vast skyscrapers right next to filthy rivers and poverty stricken slums. The city feels like an area where they expertly captured the feel of the original.

Disappointingly, the themes of the original weren’t there when the bus left, so didn’t get a chance to be in this film, only showing up towards the end as watery versions of themselves. The original deals with the nature of memory, consciousness and identity in a world where your personality, or ghost, can be downloaded into a cybernetic brain. It deals with the frustration of being an artificial human, being “only free to expand myself within boundaries.” In both films the Major symbolically recreates her “birth” (assembly?), scuba diving in the bay and letting herself float to the surface. 2017’s version however doesn’t seem to have taken enough notes when they were watching and it just felt like the movie didn’t really understand what it was showing me. This is probably the biggest issue for me: Ghost in Shell, in any previous incarnation, is a philosophical discussion about humanity’s relationship with technology. But this film feels like little boys recreating their favourite manga without really understanding it. That’s probably a little too harsh and dismissive – the film is, largely, technically impressive and from that point of view it is well executed. It just reminds me of when I would draw my favourite Megaman robots with minute variations and genuinely thought of them as my original work.

“But Sam, not everything has to be a philosophy lesson. Films can just be fun. You’re just a film snob.”

Fair point, films can just be fun but then why include any of the thought provoking content? The message “Memory cannot be defined and yet it defines Humanity” is replaced with “Memory is irrelevant, it is actions that define us.” Ok, thanks Batman, nice contribution. Actions define Batman because he is a billionaire who dresses up in fetish gear and punches muggers. Memory defines Humanity because our experiences and the memories they create and our flawed recollection and interpretation of those recollections make us who we are. And what does that mean if we can artificially create something that thinks and feels like we do? This film doesn’t seem to want to spend the time thinking about that and would rather just re-create some cool stuff it saw in the ‘90s.

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I don’t begrudge this film for changing the story from the original. It probably would have been difficult to make into a live action film but when you hold them up to the light next to each other, I know which one feels more complete. The original was a story about how technology might create consciousness and what our responsibility to that consciousness might be. 2017 feels more like a Frankenstein story mixed with action genre classic “Now the agency that created him(her) wants him(her) dead”. It all feels very thin and empty.

This isn’t really a spoiler, don’t worry, but why, oh why, does the villain have to be a guy in a hooded cloak? Can Hooded-Cloak Man be added to this of unacceptably clichéd things that we don’t do any more? Also, he talks with a similar rhythm and cadence to Stephen Hawking’s voice machine, which is very off putting. I guess that’s better than him having booming villain-voice.

So, I’m being pretty critical of Ghost In The Shell (2017), which would give you the reasonable impression that I didn’t like it. I did like it and I think that might be why I’m being so critical. There were so many good things in there that it was frustrating when the other parts didn’t work as well. Some of my favourite scenes were lifted, wholesale from the original. There were, as I mentioned, beautiful shots of the city. The fight scene in shallow water was pretty good. The “hacking” and virtual reality CGI parts were an interesting take on something that has been done badly too many times. I also loved the performance by “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. I may be showing some bias here as he is one of my favourite directors (if not a particularly gifted actor), so the scene where he got a chance to shine was very satisfying. This films version of the Thermoptic Camouflage (a material that can make the wearer invisible) was inspired. It was sci-fi fantasy whilst still being flickery and clunky enough to look believable. The film does have the problem of getting very anxious about covering up Johansson’s face. Even though scenes from the original were recreated, any face coverings have been removed. I get it, you paid millions of dollars for her to be there, you may as well get some mileage but it felt a little transparent.

The “Spider Tank” from the original makes an appearance too, but unfortunately looks like a giant air fix model rather than an imposing weapon. It’s ok for tanks for have curves. Guys. Real tanks have curves. The bin-men are also present but in a much less interesting capacity, too. That’s sort of the problem with a lot of elements that were taken from the original: They’re here but they’re not amazing and does anyone actually understand why they were part of the original?

Now, this is really off topic but I have a few questions that the film didn’t answer.  Several times people communicate using some sort of sophisticated holographic technology where they appear to be standing in the room interacting with you until the call ends when they freeze and melt away like voxel sand. Imagine the conversation after a successful sales pitch:
“This hologram communication technology is amazing. It’s going to revolutionise how people communicate!”
“Yes, we’re very pleased with it”

“One thing: When you disconnect does the image just disappear or… what happens?”

“It melts into sand like the person is dissolving in front of you”

“Um… is that… can we change that?”

“No, it’s absolutely necessary.”

“Ok, I guess the end of every phone call will just be a harrowing experience, then.”

“Yeah, I guess it will.”

It looks cool, as long as you don’t think about it too much.

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WARNING: EXTREMELY MILD SPOILERS

At one point, the gang are interrogating a suspect who is restrained in a glass cell (another Hollywood trope they can’t seem to shake). He is shackled and has some kind of device around his neck attached to a cable that goes into the ceiling. At the end of the interrogation he jumps, folds his legs underneath himself and breaks his own neck. Why the hell is this even possible? I don’t know if it’s universal but law enforcement seem pretty keen on suspects not hanging themselves but in this dystopian future, they provide them with the means to do so, in case they didn’t bring their own shoelaces. It was extremely jarring thing to happen and no one in the film seemed particularly surprised. Maybe it happens all the time?

END OF MILD SPOILERS

AND BEGINNING OF ACTUAL SPOILERS

The big reveal at the end is that The Major is actually a young Japanese woman who was kidnapped by the Hanka corporation so they could cut her brain out, erase her memories and use it to create an android soldier. Not a bad twist, not original, but not bad. The problem is what that says about the whitewashing argument. It is a film in which an Asian woman is murdered in order for her to be reborn as a far superior but emotionally shallow killer robot. The main plot of this film is a damning comment about the film itself. Like an unintentional Robocop 2. It just really bothered me when I realised that and I can’t, in good conscience leave it out of this review.

END OF ACTUAL SPOILERS

Ghost in The Shell (2017) isn’t too hard to recommend, despite its problems. It is by no means brilliant but I’m glad I saw it and I’m glad I saw it in the cinema, too. I think that made it a lot more enjoyable. It really does look amazing overall, apart from a few weightless balloon people CGI moments; it was pretty flawless in terms of visuals. The way the technology is presented, as if WIFI doesn’t exist and everything needs a giant bundle of cables, is an inspired choice that retains the cyber-punk feel of the original. They also resisted the urge to make the story into the usual global threat and kept it fairly small and personal but the story really wasn’t this film’s strength.

Be warned though, you may well come away feeling unsatisfied if you are a fan of the original or any of the films or series that followed it. If you don’t know the original, you’ll find an exciting and beautiful piece of cinema with only a few jarring fumbles.

STORGY Score: 3-out-of-5

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Review by Sam Rae

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Tune back in on Saturday 15th April to read Sam’s Essay – ANIME: Is It Good?

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