Sunday, 2 April 2017

Film Review - 'Ghost in the Shell'

While I would never call myself the most devoted fan of Japanese animation, I could still list plenty of examples of different films and series that I have genuinely enjoyed over the years – some of which even having managed to leave a lasting impression. High up on that list is, of course, the original Ghost in the Shell animated film, released in 1995 – a film which managed to impress me with both its strong sense of world-building, and its story-telling (the deliberately slow pace it set did test the patience of my younger self the first time I saw it, admittedly – but, it grew on me).

So, perhaps understandably, the whole idea of a live-action American remake is something that I have always approached with some degree of trepidation. Not because I have any real issue with the idea of a live-action American remake, of course (in fact, I have been sincerely hoping that the film would turn out well) – but, mostly out of concern that the whole endeavour would be fumbled in some way. This is, of course, exactly what seems to have happened – though, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The basic premise of Ghost in the Shell is something that should be instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the original film, the manga series on which the film was based, or even science fiction, in general (particularly that often very bleak sub-genre known as 'cyberpunk'). Constant technological advancement has given the human race the ability to, essentially, upgrade itself through various cybernetic enhancements.

As the film opens, that blending of humanity and technology seems to have reached its most pure form, with the Major (Scarlett Johansson) – a human brain entirely housed within an artificial body. As we are told early on, the Major is the first to have undergone this process of full conversion – but, she may also represent the future of the human race. For now, though, the Major works for Section 9, a government agency tasked with investigating various forms of cyber-crime – and, it's here that the action picks up, a year after her creation.

Following an attack on a meeting between a representative of Hanka Robotics (the corporation responsible for building the Major) and an African diplomat, Section 9 soon finds itself on the trail of the mysterious Kuze (Michael Pit), who seems to have a very personal interest in the corporation. As she continues her investigation, though, the Major soon learns of a deeper mystery that seems to link her to Kuze – one that is tied to her own creation.

And, that's really all I can say about the film's central plot-line without running the risk of spoiling anything. In all, Ghost in the Shell actually presents a relatively straight-forward central narrative, despite the complexities that may be added by its setting, and the broader themes that it clearly wished to explore. Much like the original animated film, the are attempts to explore of identity, and what it actually means to be human, through the Major – as she finds herself struggling with her new status. Unfortunately, though, the film seems oddly reluctant to truly delved into these fascinating themes – and, instead, seems satisfied with simply hinting at them.

One scene, for example, features the Major employing the services of a prostitute – not for sexual gratification, of course, but simply to act as a surrogate for her own inability to feel any sort of physical sensation. It's a fascinating, and very strange, scene – something that should feel very intimate, but which, instead, is actually the complete opposite. The problem, though, is that it's also a very brief scene – and, in the end, it's also the only clear sign we get of the internal conflict that the Major is going through.

This is really just a small example of one fairly significant problem that I had with the film, as a whole. In the end, none of the film's attempts to create genuinely emotionally meaningful moments really worked out – either because they were glossed over, or because they just weren't set up very well. The film's final act, for example, was entirely centred around revelations concerning who the Major truly is, and the surprising connection that she shared with Kuze. Unfortunately, due to the fact that the film hadn't delved all that deeply into the thoughts and feelings of its cast of characters, these revelations just didn't carry very much weight.

Despite that, though, Ghost in the Shell was still a film that featured some great performances. Scarlett Johansson may not have been most people's first choice for the role (even apart from the whole 'white washing' controversy), but she still managed to give a performance which suggested the right amount of inner turmoil, and suppressed emotion. I would have preferred it if the film had actually given her a bit more to work with by actually exploring her character with a little more depth, of course – but, she made the most of the material she was given.

Pilou Asbæk, in the role of Batou, is able to provide the film with the film with the majority of its few moments of genuine warmth and humour. As the one responsible for creating, and caring for, the Major, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) provides many of the others. Similarly, Takeshi Kitano is able to make a reasonably strong impression as Aramaki, the head of Section 9. Also, the combination of make-up work, Michael Pit's performance, and digital vocal manipulation managed to give Kuze a suitably 'inhuman' quality which made him into a genuinely fascinating figure, whenever he was on-screen.

Unfortunately, though, the rest of Section 9 do tend to feel more like background characters than actual members of the film's cast. I definitely would have appreciated it if they could have been given a bit more focus.

Ghost in the Shell is also, quite often, a genuinely fantastic looking film. The futuristic setting, with its overwhelming display of holographic advertisements, is one that is brought to life in an entirely believable manner – and, the film's costume and set design is typically fantastic. The film's various action sequences are also typically very well shot and staged – even if they do, perhaps, owe a little too much to the original animated film. But, then, that hints at another problem that I had with the film, in general.

By the end, just about any iconic moment you can imagine from the original animated film will have been recreated in live action, here. Admittedly, I did actually enjoy this aspect of the film, at first – as it seemed like it was simply a sign of the new film attempting to pay suitable homage to its predecessor. Eventually, though, it does start to become a little distracting. Even worse, though, it does start to seem as though the new film is striving to include these scenes and sequences simply because they felt like they should – without seeming to give proper thought to how well it fits.

As an example, the entire sequence centred around Section 9's pursuit of the 'ghost hacked' garbage truck driver is recreated, here – but, the context in which the sequence is placed is completely different. In the original film, there was a sense of purpose behind everything that had been done to this innocent man which enhanced the drama of the moment. The false memories of a wife and child that the Puppet Master had created acted as a form of subtle manipulation which motivated him to do exactly what the Puppet Master wanted. It was cruel, definitely – but, there were actual, understandable, reasons behind it.

Here, though, Kuze's only real goal was to turn this innocent garbage truck driver into a pawn that he could send after his target – which means that the decision to also create a series of false memories seems completely unnecessary. The end result is that it feels as though this entire sequence wraps up in the way that it does simply because that's how it happened in the original film. Also, the fact that the action sequence between the Major and the 'ghost hacked' truck driver is basically a shot-for-shot remake of the same scene from the animated film robbed the scene of any real excitement, for me.

Similarly, there is also the fact that the film culminates in an action sequence that pits the Major against a massive spider-tank – an action sequence which, once again, plays out almost exactly as it does in the original film, just with some of the context behind the scene changed. Once again, this left me feeling a little underwhelmed by the entire sequence of events.

That being said, though, I am perfectly away that someone who hasn't actually seen the original film is likely to respond entirely differently to these action sequences than I did. Although, in that case, that will only be due to the fact that they will have no way of knowing that these 'exciting and original' action sequences are actually recreations.

As a final note, and moving more clearly into potential 'spoiler' territory, I will admit that the way in which the film attempts to tackle the whole 'white washing' controversy that surrounding the casting of Scarlett Johansson was interesting. Tackling the whole controversy head-on, and treating it in an 'in-universe' way which tied to the reveal of who the Major and Kuze were before their respective transformations, was definitely unexpected. It's really just a shame that the fascinating, and potentially uncomfortable, questions that this revelation raised turns out to be something else which wasn't explored in any real depth – because, it definitely seemed to have the potential to become something truly memorable.

In the end, Ghost in the Shell proved to be a perfectly entertaining film – although, it was one which, at times, did seem a little too reliant on its predecessor. It was also a film which just never managed to make the most of its own potential – simply due to the fact that it never really attempted to explore the themes that it raised in any real depth. I have no idea if Ghost in the Shell is going to be successful enough to justify a sequel, of course – but, if there ever is a follow-up film, then it really needs to do a better job of standing on its own, while also not glossing over its themes in such an off-hand manner.

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