Apr-3-2017

Reel Snippet – Ghost in the Shell

Summary: In the near future where humanity has become more and more cybernetically enhanced, an anti-terrorism organization named Section 9 works to bring down individuals who would use this brave new world to their own devices. Their greatest asset is simply known as the Major (Scarlett Johansson), who was the survivor of a terrorism attack and needed her consciousness (or “ghost) transferred into a highly advanced robotic shell, hence the title. One assignment causes her and her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk) to cross paths with a cyberterrorist named Kuze (Michael Pitt), who can hack anything and anyone and has it out for the robotics company Hanka. Hanka CEO Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) wants Kuze dead, but Section 9 Chief Daisuke Aramaki (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano) reminds him they don’t answer to him or his company. All the while, the Major keeps on Kuze’s trail and stumbles upon some disturbing information that makes her question her own path and loyalties.

Review: Ghost in the Shell left me wanting more, but not for the right reasons. This adaptation of the landmark anime/manga series certainly had a heavy burden to carry, as the original franchise had four animated movies, 62 television episodes, and and much more for fans to get very invested in. A lot of care needs to be taken to honor the source material and provide something for the casual viewers. Did it succeed? Well… maybe?

Let me start out by saying that the visuals are award-worthy gorgeous, most of them taken right from the source material. The greater aesthetic reminds me of Blade Runner, but a lot of the minor details have a style all their own. It all culminates in some truly striking imagery, like the twisting geisha-bot or Kuze in a dark cavern with glowing words connecting him to the ceiling. As I mentioned, many of these were in the original anime, but seeing them brought to life in live-action format took my breath away.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the performances. I’ve heard tell that The Matrix took a lot of inspiration from Ghost in the Shell and the same seems to be true in reverse, where the characters sound absolutely detached as they spout philosophy. I don’t know if I’ve said this before, so I’ll say it now: if the characters aren’t invested, you can’t expect the audience to be invested. As I entered the third act, I found myself getting bored because I could count the characters I I cared about on one hand. And in a movie with cool sci-fi action and some serious questions about humanity giving way to technophilia… that really sucks.

And yeah… let’s address the elephant in the room. Casting Scarlett Johansson as the Major has been controversial to say the least, as the original character is unmistakably Japanese and people saw this as the latest in a long line of whitewashing Asian characters. The nuances of the debate could take up several paragraphs, but suffice to say I was bothered at first until I saw that they westernized the name (her name in the original is Motoko Kusanagi while she’s named Mira Killian in the movie (I see what you did there) and I was considering the possibility that this might be a less whitewashing and more localization… until the twist.

[SPOILER WARNING]

It’s revealed that while her shell may be whiter than the KKK in a snowstorm, her ghost came from a young Japanese girl named, yes, Motoko Kusanagi. The movie literally whitewashed an Asian girl in-story. I don’t know what they were going for, but it feels like a slap in the face. If this was an attempt to appease those angry about the controversy, it strikes of trying to have one’s cake and eat it too (a phrase I don’t understand — what else would you do with a cake that you have?). If it’s a meta commentary about how the race change was forced on the filmmakers, that actually makes me angrier because it means an aspiring Asian actress was robbed the role of a lifetime.

[SPOILERS OVER]

I’m not sure how to feel about this movie apart from let down. There’s some quality work here, some dodgy stuff, and some other bits that scream “focus group tested,” like the completely pointless prologue that serves only to spell out the plot and could have been cut completely. As someone who hasn’t had a lot of exposure to the anime, I’m not sure if the hardcore fans would like it and as such, not sure how to recommend it. I’m certainly glad I saw it, but I feel like there was a lot of wasted potential. Part of me hopes there’s a sequel so they can step up their game, especially because there’s a lot of good material to mine from, but another part says that maybe some things are better left alone.

Fun Tidbit: Now here’s someone I never knew I wanted to talk about until he showed up in this movie: “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. This is his first American blockbuster film, so some people may think he’s a newcomer. Make no mistake — the man is a film veteran and a legend in Japan. He’s been active since 1972 as a comedian, actor, director, writer of books and films, a TV personality, and many, many more artistic occupations. He’s appeared in about 50 movies, though the only one Western audiences might have seen is Battle Royale. So yeah, he’s basically the Japanese Orson Welles and happens to be the best part in this movie. This has been Useless Film Trivia That Won’t Help You In The Real World with Colin Eldred-Cohen.


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