Sunday, April 9, 2017

Hollow Pursuits: A Review Of Ghost In The Shell (2017)

It may have taken me a bit of time, but after seeing Rupert Sanders’s 2017 Ghost In The Shell on Friday I’ve finally come up with what I think is the perfect word to sum up the experience.


Not that the film itself is depressing, per se, but what it says about the producers--and what they think of their audience.

Ghost In The Shell’s Long History

As a matter of full disclosure, I am a pretty hardcore Ghost In The Shell aficionado.  I enjoyed Masamume Shirow’s manga when it first came out, way back in 1989 -- though, not understanding a word of Japanese, I had no idea what was going on.  I saw Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film opening weekend in the US -- and the same with his sequel, Ghost In The Shell: Innocence.  I’ve seen every episode of each TV incarnation of the franchise: Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex; Ghost In The Shell: 2nd Gig, and Ghost In The Shell: Arise.  I could call myself a completist but I have yet to see the Ghost In The Shell on stage.  And, yes, that’s a real thing (in Tokyo in 2015).

So, suffice it to say, when I heard that my beloved Ghost was going to be Americanized--and be whitewashed by having Scarlett Johansson in the lead--I was more than a bit skeptical.

And, guess, what, I was right: the new Ghost In The Shell is, to be pretty obvious, a shell of not just what it came from but what it could have been.

But that’s not the sad part.

A Quick Guide To Ghost In The Shell

For those unfortunate not to have read or see anything of the original Ghost In The Shell franchise, here’s a quick synopsis of the basics: in the near future when augmentations and enhancements have become commonplace, even to the point of many people having completely artificially bodies (save for their brain) “Major” Motoko Kusanagi is a member of Public Security Section 9: a Japanese anti-terrorist task force specializing in cyber-terrorism.  A full-body cyborg, the Major is possibly one of the most kick-ass anime characters out there--and considering how many anime characters to more than their fare share of ass-kicking that’s saying a lot.

Public Security Section 9 is headed by gruff but brilliant Aramaki and also includes the mostly human Togusa; the (literally) steely-eyed sniper, Saito; Pazu, who may or may not be a former Yakuza; and a few too many others to name.  Finally there’s Batou: who comes pretty close to the Major when it comes to posterior-impacting.

Yet More Whitewashing

Back to the new film, let’s begin by getting the whitewashed elephant out into the open.  When Hollywood is already getting some much deserved flack for consistently casting white actors and actresses in the roles of established non-white characters the decision to put Johansson in Ghost In The Shell was at best foolish at worst completely insulting.

You could almost (almost!) look beyond the decision if the film handled it creatively.  Instead, and I won’t get into spoiler-territory here, the big reveal is even more disturbing.  It’s as if those involved were laughing at anyone who had voiced any concern about the casting.  Even more troubling is that they invented a character, Ladriya (played by Danusia Samal) whose only existence seems to give the cast more diversity.  

Does It Stand Alone?  No

Believe it or not, I actually can screen out the everything that came before 2017’s live action Ghost In The Shell: seeing it without really seeing the manga, the movies, the shows--everything that came before it.  

And, guess what, it still doesn’t work.  

The dialogue is so bad it’s almost a Mystery Science Theater 3000 audition tape.  One particular scene makes me wince in retrospect: a conversation among the Section 9 members that seems to drop the painfully outdated term “cyber” a dozen or so times--it’s as as if the screenwriters Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger were laughing at the source material.

Then there’s the actors actually speaking this dialogue.  Sure, you have some top-notch talent involved--including Japanese legend 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano as Aramaki--but they all seem to be on the verge of looking at the audience with a “can you really believe I’m saying this?” expression.

Scarlett Johansson is pretty, but then she always is, but instead of being a supposedly custom-built killing machine having a crisis of identity she instead always in need of a long nap.  In what were no doubt supposed to be scenes of intense and meaningful self-discovery I kept expecting her to give out a long, deep yawn.

Then there the visuals.  Sure, some of them are pretty, but other films did a much better job of depicting a gritty urban future.  Much has been said of the production values and I do have to give credit to Weta Workshop for some fine SFX but when a painfully trite moment of direction, or an equally painful line of dialogue interrupts, all the pretty pictures are just so much lipstick on a pig.

Then there’s the direction, and while this isn’t the source of my sadness it’s getting damned close.  Practically every seen in the new Ghost In The Shell is a direct copy of a scene from the original animated film, the sequel and even various episodes of the assorted TV series.  Like a scene in the new film?  I’ll bet you hard currency that it’s either based on or maybe even a complete copy from a previous, and so much better, iteration of Ghost In The Shell.  

A homage is one thing--but I’m surprised the director hasn’t been sued for cinematic plagiarism.

And now we get to this reviewer’s above-mentioned one word description of the live-action Ghost In The Shell.

In A Word: Dumb

You can say lots of things about the the manga, the original film, the sequel, the various TV versions and I’ll pretty much agree with you: slow, impenetrable, tedious, confusing … even pretentious.  But one thing you could never say about any of them is that they were stupid.

To put it bluntly: the new live action Ghost In The Shell is painfully stupid.  

In addition to the production’s infuriating disregard for concerns about the whitewashing, and a plot that pretty much mocks anyone who expressed it, the film makes practically no sense.   From the opening cards to the last line the film is clear that it doesn’t just disrespect it’s audience but thinks it’s too stupid to understand what made every incarnation of Ghost In The Shell so fascinating.

Instead of exploring--as the other films and such do--what it means to be ‘human’ (especially if the only thing left of you is your brain), dealing with complex and intriguing ideas like the vanishing mediator and a stand alone complex, metaphysics … and even the afterlife, the new Ghost In The Shell has a frothing villain, Cutter (played by Peter Ferdinando), who shoots characters for no reason except to shout at the audience “I’M EVIL.”

To resort to a rather silly, but apt, cooking metaphor: the new film took everything from every version of Ghost In The Shell, put it into a blender, hit frappe, and then pushed it through a strainer.  Except, instead of getting the juice of what makes Ghost In The Shell so memorable and magnificent they gave us the nasty pulp.

Want further evidence?  Perhaps one of the most beautiful moments in Mamoru Oshii’s original film, and echoed in his Ghost In The Shell: Innocence, is the opening: the elegant technological ballet that’s the creation of a cyborg.  Set to Kenji Kawai supremely beautiful music the scene, to this day, elicits a deep-body shiver of awe.

And then there’s the Americanized version: a pale--okay, let’s call it whitewashed--version set to, of course, a paint-by-numbers Western-type soundtrack.  They do use the original Kenji Kawai music, though--at the end, over the credits … when people are leaving the theater.  

It’s like a final screw-you to the fans.

To be fair, Mamoru Oshii--director of the two anime films--has come out in favor of the new film.  And for those who are total purists I give a gentle reminder that the Japanese love to reinvent their movies and shows--and that every version of Ghost In The Shell has done that, and then some, many times.

I can’t speak for the legendary Oshii but at least when the Japanese relaunch and recreated Ghost they did it always keeping what makes every film and show to great: Intelligence.

Yes, this is a sad film: a testament to how little Hollywood thinks of you.  Clearly, they are saying, you aren’t smart enough to understand Ghost In The Shell.  So here’s some explosions, lots of gunfights, pretty pictures, a bad guy to hate, and a sexy white woman who can drool over.

It Actually Could Have Been Good

What’s even more infuriating is that the film could have been wonderful.  Give the reigns back to Oshii--he’s done live-action before--bring the music of Kenji Kawai to a new audience.  

I’d even accept Scarlett Johansson as the Major … and before you throw those rocks let me explain: in the movies and the series the Major is a full body cyborg, her shell is often referred to as a stock model, chosen not for aesthetics but performance.  There’s even a scene in the original film when she sees what appears to be a doppelganger of herself-- except it’s another person wearing the same style body.  Why not have a scene where she explains that all that’s important is her “ghost,” her consciousness, and that the body is just one that suits her needs?  Hell, in the series she’s even worn male ones.  You could even have a fight with an adversary that’s also wearing a Scarlett Johansson body.

There are all kinds of things this new film could have done.  It could have been as memorable and haunting as the films, full of fascinating concepts, interesting characters, stunning visuals, amazing music … but, no: we have a dumb movie created by people who think that’s what Western audiences are.

Love Your Ghost

If there’s a ray of sunshine in all this is that this film might intrigue a few people, enough to check out the original animated films and the various TV versions.  

If you do I think you’ll be in for a truly special experience.  Just one though: it will make you think.

And, believe me, that’s a wonderful thing.  

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