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Friday, March 31, 2017

Ghost in the Shell

Given how influential the 1995 anime film Ghost in the Shell has been to Hollywood over the years (it inspired many of the images in The Matrix Trilogy, just to name a few), it's kind of surprising that it's taken this long for us to get a big budget live action adaptation of the film.  And while the movie successfully manages to recreate the world and some of the famous scenes from the original animated film, the story has been stripped somewhat of its emotional impact and cerebral power.  I wouldn't exactly call this a dumbed down film, but rather perhaps a bit too simplified.

Ghost in the Shell shares a lot of the same traits as the recent live action Beauty and the Beast remake.  Both are big budget reimaginings of influential animated films that are pretty much ingrained in the mind of their respective fandom.  Both do admirable jobs of recreating the world, and certain scenes those familiar with the earlier work expect walking in.  And both have obviously been made with a great amount of care.  However, in both cases, something crucial is missing.  With Beauty, it was a sense that the emotion and heart of the story had been drained at the expense of beautiful images.  Here, the complex story of the original anime (and the manga that inspired it) has been given less influence, in favor of the special effects and action sequences.  Yes, a lot of the same ideas of the original film are explored here, but they're done so in a way where it feels like the script is spelling it out for us, rather than allowing the audience to pick up on the themes on their own.  The plot that once drove the film has now merely become a line for which to hang a lot of expensive set pieces upon.

Director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) shows that he knows how to dazzle the eyes with his futuristic settings and highly stylized action scenes, but the heart at the center of the story is a bit more bare bones than fans of the original might remember.  Set in a futuristic society where pretty much all of humanity has some kind of cybernetic implant or enhancement of some kind, the film follows the Major (Scarlett Johansson), an officer for a special anti-terrorist task force who is the first of her kind - a human brain that has been implanted inside an entirely cybernetic body.  She was created as part of an experiment by Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) to create a machine that was capable of the free thinking of humans.  The Major now works alongside her partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek) to stop cyber crimes.  Since nearly everyone in this futuristic society has some kind of cybernetic upgrade, criminals can "hack" into people, either stealing information from their minds, or even controlling them with a virus upload.

A series of hacking crimes are being committed by a mysterious individual (Michael Carmen Pitt), who seems to be targeting a number of scientists or influential people at the robotics company, and murdering them.  The Major goes on the trail of the criminal, but the closer she gets, the more she begins to question her own purpose and how she came to be.  When she finally gets to spend some extended amount of time with the man responsible, he plants the idea inside her head that maybe the people she serves are not telling her the truth about her own past, and are keeping information from her.  Wanting to know more about her own past before her brain was implanted in the robotic body, and also wanting to learn more about her connection with this mysterious man, the Major is forced to go off on her own to get answers.  This leads her to go on the run from some of the people who created her, and now want to destroy her in order to prevent her from learning the truth.

Ghost in the Shell does ask some of the same questions the original did, such as what is the nature of humanity, and how human is someone if only their brain is organic.  But, in all honesty, it doesn't seem all that interested in the answers.  Instead, in an obvious attempt to make the film more marketable, the movie pushes those questions aside in favor of martial arts battles, shootouts, chases and well done but overwhelming special effects that make up maybe 99% of the film. (I would not be surprised to learn that not a single moment of this movie wasn't filmed in front of a green screen.) I can understand the decision to some extent, but it's a disappointment nonetheless, especially since the original was highly praised for its cerebral approach, while still finding time for some well done action scenes.  This remake simply isn't as mentally stimulating.  It's impressive and pretty to look at, yes, but it does feel more than a little empty the more you think back on it.

Part of this emptiness is due to the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role, and this has nothing to do with the controversy surrounding her casting in a role that was intended to be Asian.  She's simply lifeless here, speaking in the same monotone drone no matter what may be happening, and she at times comes across looking lost up there on the screen.  Perhaps she was not comfortable with the largely green screened shoot, but in her many quiet or emotional scenes, she is simply not convincing in the slightest.  It's only during the action scenes that she seems comfortable, which perhaps explains the change in emphasis over the original.  If that's the case, they should have gotten someone who would be able to handle both kind of scenes her character would have to experience.  Whatever the case, Johansson simply does not fit the part, and since she's on screen for almost the entire movie, she kind of drags things down.

Another major mistake on the part of the filmmakers was to take an adult Sci-Fi thriller that was clearly meant to be R-rated, and tone it down to the point of ridiculousness in order to achieve a "golden" PG-13.  We get numerous murders throughout the film, but since every death is entirely bloodless, these sequences do not have the emotional impact you would expect.  Instead, they seem wiped clean and overly sanitized.  We see a person getting shot point blank, and there's absolutely no sign of damage or wounds.  We see The Major taking out a room full of thugs or armed guards, and the movie cuts away from the blows and fists before they can connect.  It kind of becomes unintentionally comical during certain moments, since you can at times clearly see the cuts and edits that were used to water down the violence.

Ghost in the Shell is perfectly watchable, but also pretty much unnecessary, since we have the much better films, comics and TV series which inspired it that explore every idea this movie does, only much better and with much greater respect for the audience.  Some people may see the addition of Scarlett Johansson as an improvement, and I would agree, if she were giving a real performance here.  I can only recommend this to those who are not familiar with the earlier film, and even then, they'll only be getting half of the experience.

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