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Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell

They really did think they were going to get sweaty nerds in a lather with this flick

dir: Rupert Sanders


Well. That was something.

Yes, this is the part where I talk about something other than the film I’m pretending to review. I have seen the Japanese animated movie at least a thousand times, and I had the soundtrack, or at least songs from it on various music-playing devices for ages and heard those crazy Japanese wailing banshee songs at least 10,000 times. The (original) movie is in my DNA. Hearing that they were going to make a new version of it, I thought, rightly “so what?”

My relationship with the original, whatever it might be, can’t really be changed or tainted or in any way damaged or even really improved by something that comes out twenty years later, can it? Is this like what happened with the Indiana Jones flicks, where the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls made me hate myself for liking the first three movies, and childhoods were destroyed etc etc?

When they said that Scarlett Johansson would play the lead role of Major Motoko Kusanagi, I thought again “yeah, and? Does that matter in a way that makes me more or less likely to watch this film?” I can’t say that I really watch films specifically because she’s in them, but then I have enjoyed a lot of movies that she’s in, so maybe she’s a drawcard? And she has put in some complex performances, not least of which was Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin where she played some kind of alien serial killer / meat producer. She is, or at least can be, a compelling actor beyond all of the Hollywood bullshit.

From the looks of the credits at the beginning, if the figure for the film’s budget is accurate (let’s say $110 mill not including all those pictures of Scarlett Johansson at every tram and bus stop in Christendom), a lot of that money came from Chinese companies looking to make a buck. Imagine making the argument to people who supplied production money that the lead should have been played by a Japanese actor because the original animation character had a Japanese name (but, perversely, nothing physically that designates them as Japanese, which is common as fuck in anime).

These massive guys, possibly Triads, are going to say “But we paid for Scarlett. We don’t care about any of that noise. Scarlett is A-list Hollywood. Plus name a single Japanese actress with international recognition. Plus fuck you, we paid for Scarlett in tight clothing, give us Scarlett in tight clothing or we cut your fingers off using hammers.”

Or at least that’s how I imagine it to be. Of course as well the bigger problem with those companies is that this flick lost a metric tonne of money, so there probably are still going to be some awkward conversations anyway…

I can’t see, with the unfortunate and pretty stupid plot all these arresting visuals are saddled with, that casting anyone else would have made the least amount of difference. The purists were never going to like a film that varied in any way from the original, the people who see the whole enterprise as ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘whitewashing’ in casting an Aryan in a role that should have gone to an Asian actor, were never going to see it anyway, and people who think of Scarlett as an action star because of stuff like Black Widow in the Marvel flicks or even Luc Besson’s Lucy were always going to be disappointed because this is PG-13 and fairly dull to boot.

All in all, a lose-lose situation for presumably everyone except the actors who were paid a lot to prance around in front of greenscreens.

It doesn’t help that the original movie had a plot that meandered around and then just kind of finished in a completely and utterly unsatisfying way. I remember watching the flick the first time and thinking “Where’s the rest of the fucking film?” when it got to the ending. I couldn’t believe the ending the first time, and was progressively irritated by it further over the years. Since then I’ve realised that many of the aspects that define the original flick weren’t really about the source material; they were more so aspects of the director’s style / set of intentions. The other animated films of Mamoru Oshii share several stultifying elements, not least of which is characters of ambiguous origins standing around having flat conversations about dull things like one’s purpose in life, perception, existence, reality and beagles.

The other trademark is languorous scenes of skies and cityscapes, slow moving clouds and rain, and this ennui being interrupted with bursts of extreme violence. I don’t think bringing the violence level down a tad for the flick from an R to a PG really mattered that much. Sure, the original had heads bursting open like ripe watermelons and lots of yakuza getting shot just for existing, but the awe-inspiring visuals don’t need CGI blood or viscera to improve anything.

This plot is way, way lazier and easier to grasp, but no more satisfying because of that. They’ve taken a plot that can be understood (perhaps) by even the dumbest viewer, but it ain’t going to impress that viewer, because the plot seems somewhat at odds with why you would bother to make the flick in the first place.

The flick has an apparent villain, Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), who’s killing a whole bunch of people because of reasons, but the ‘real’ villain is someone whose motivations make no fucking sense whatsoever. I’m going to spoil the plot because, look, no-one should pay to watch the flick, but also to illustrate that, at least for me, if you’re going to spend all this money and time making a flick that’s trying to be all super-groundbreaking and futuristic and cyberpunk and all that bullshit, making the plot so simplistically dumb undoes all the pretense of visionary thinking.

The ‘real’ villain is a boring character who runs a corporation, which is generally fairly boring antagonist-wise. That corporation creates synthetic bodies, organs, augmentations, all sorts of technological wizardry, and basically wants everyone in the world to use their products, just like every other corporation in the world wants.

The difference is that this corporation is willing to go way further in the pursuit of its goals. Since they decide that the next stage of evolution is putting human brains in synthetic bodies, well, they have the synthetic bodies, because hey, they’re kinda DIY like that, they just don’t have the brains.

Imagine yourself at the meeting when the corporate types are hashing this one out:

CEO: I need ideas, people, think! Where are we going to get brains from?

Nervous corporate lackey 1: wa – wha… - what about people who’ve had horrible car accidents, or organ donors, maybe hospitals? Some people with quadriplegia or locked in syndrome who might even volunteer?

CEO: Fucking terrible idea! Those people sound like losers, and they’re covered in cooties, we need top quality brains!

Nervous corporate lackey2: how about we find some random teenagers, shoot them, steal their brains and hope no-one notices?

CEO: Perfect! Give that jerk a raise! No, actually, kill him and use him for spare parts.

Lackey 2: NOOOOOoooooo actually I probably deserve it…

The high-techness of the world they create for us is strongly at odds with the dumbness of this proposal. They spend the entirety of the rest of the plot leading towards the main character finding out that this is what happened to her. For every new great you-beaut form of technology, whether it’s this pallid version of the Ghost in the Shell story, or Minority Report, or Soylent Green, or the panacea viruses that turns the world into an ape paradise in the recent Planet of the Apes movies or I, Legend where everyone turns into zombie vampires, no good technological advance can come without breaking a lot of human-shaped eggs. In this particular instance, a company that wants to convince humanity that giving up their fragile bodies is now a possibility, kidnap a girl, take her brain out, block some of her memories, and turn her into a Johansson-shaped weapon.

They tried 96 times and failed. But this time it worked. And when they get found out, the evil CEO thinks “Well, there is only one example of where our ‘crazy’ technology has worked, but because I made some dumb decisions along the way, let’s kill her because….”

I’m used to villains doing dumb things, but this is just lazy, and it doesn’t lead to greatness in the action.

That being said, many of the more ‘famous’ moments from the original film are recreated here. In most cases, they have a different purpose, as in, they’re aiming at different explanations for the same situations, but it’s not to their benefit. The shot looking up at the sky as a plane flies over slowly is still there, it’s just that they got an eight-year-old boy to redesign it (“Maybe if it has like extra propellers and maybe racing stripes to look faster”?).

For lack of a better descriptor, it’s the fight with a garbageman who doesn’t know he’s a puppet, because humans can get randomly hacked in this like they’re someone’s wifi that hasn’t been locked down with a password. The confused guy, who sounded very Australian, who, in the original version, is horrified to find out that all his memories are suspect, basically is there just to die for no earthly reason that I could figure out, other than the director thinking “Well, this scene needs a full stop.”

When the seeming villain's motivation is revealed, and his connection to the Major, she starts thinking "Oh, yeah, maybe he is in the right", but that means she has to conveniently forget that he killed dozens if not hundreds of people along the way.

But it's okay because the 'real' villain is much nastier. Why can't they be both wrong?

The final battle with the spider tank pretty much plays out the same way, the scene where Motoko swims in the ocean, a lot of those well known scenes are still there, but without the purpose behind them, or the philosophical conversations about what’s left when everything organic is replaced and enhanced, it really is the shell of the movie without enough of an interesting spirit animating what’s left behind.

Johansson herself does fine in the role. There is a curious asexuality to the role that possibly comes from the manner in which they want to have their cake and eat it too, by having her wear such impossibly tight clothing, but reminding us constantly that the body she's walking around in is not really that more gendered than a mannequin.

People criticise her take, but really she did as much as she could, and the original is nothing to pin your performance on. The original has entire conversations where character's mouths and faces aren't moving at all, with a flat monotone intoning philosophical concepts in the driest fashion possible. She does better than the flick deserves.

The Danish fellow playing Batou also does better than Batou was ever realised in any of of the flicks, though he was fleshed out in the series (Stand Alone Complex and... the other ones) that came out (which always made far more sense than the movies, though they didn't have the same aimless meditative quality). It's always great seeing Beat Takeshi in anything and I won't countenance any disrespect towards the legend. Anyone criticising his performance or his hair is a jerk, a chump and possibly a jerkachump.

It took me hundreds of viewings to really enjoy the original flick. I'm never going to see this one that many times, but I'm prepared for a few viewings at least. The visuals really are that arresting. They might not really connect with the story that well, but neither did the ones in Blade Runner, and hundreds of films are still trying to rip them off, including this one.

I watched this in 3D, and it's hard to say if it really made it that much more enjoyable. Probably worked a treat on the visuals, but doesn't really do anything to enhance the plot, sad to say.

Ghost in the Shell. Rarely does a title represent truth in advertising to this degree.

6 times I'm not sure anyone could have pulled this performance off completely out of 10

"We cling to memories as if they define us, but they don't. What we do is what defines us." - and here I was thinking what defined us was how many likes we get on Instagram - Ghost in the Shell