♦ Tripwire’s Contributing Writer JAMES DC took a look at Scarlett Johannson’s new sci-fi action movie Ghost In The Shell, based on the acclaimed anime and manga of the same name…
Ghost In The Shell
Director: Rupert Sanders
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Juliette Binoche, Takeshi Kitano
In cinemas now
In a nutshell: visually astounding, yet flawed, live action version of cult cyberpunk anime.
The initial (animated) Ghost in the Shell film, directed by Mamoru Oshii – on which this new live action version is based – came out in 1995, itself based on the Japanese manga by Masamune Shirow, first serialised in 1989. So, in effect, this latest iteration is based on concepts which are now almost 30 years old, and it does show, to a point, in a detrimental sense – but more on this in a moment.
The first film was made during the original and exciting anime/manga boom – which was imported, mainly from Japan into the UK, Europe and the States, in the 1980s and ’90s – and was followed by a number of sequels and TV offshoots, building to a cult franchise. Along with Katsuhiro Otomo’s groundbreaking film version of his own manga Akira, in 1988, it was one of the most popular anime films, at the time. Akira was, and still is, the pinnacle of anime science fiction, towering over lesser works like Ghost in the Shell and Battle Angel (1993). Despite this, Oshii’s film was still at the vanguard of ’90s Cyberpunk, and has its place in cinema history as an influential game changer, with its themes of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, cyberspace (pre-global internet usage, remember), cyborgs, and a technology obsessed world. Suffice to say, without Ghost in the Shell before it, 1999’s The Matrix – that other SF game changer – would have been a very different kettle of fish.
Another movie antecedent would be Robocop, from 1987, but, of course, the indispensable granddaddy of them all is 1982’s Blade Runner, and its influence can be seen all over this film, like sticky, luminescent cellophane. Moreover, one can trace the line of descent of Ghost in the Shell and its earlier versions even further back to that other seminal, proto-cyberpunk SF film Metropolis, from 1927; many overhead shots of the futuristic city are redolent of similar cityscapes in Fritz Lang’s silent magnum opus. If this new film is meant to be the latest thing in SF, then we haven’t moved on much within the genre, in 90 years. Then again, the best science fiction is only a distorted, insightful reflection of contemporary concerns, and as most of us still live in cities and urban areas, as we did decades ago, it is only so far ‘urban’ science fiction of this type can be pushed, without venturing into the realms of complete fantasy, and perhaps this is an inherent limitation of the genre which overly critical reviewers of this film should be more aware of.
The plot basically follows the main arc of the 1995 film, but streamlines and excises a lot of the slightly confusing narrative twists and turns, and arcane, secondary details, which simultaneously makes it a more comfortable and slick viewing ride, yet dilutes the more challenging, existential undercurrents of said first film.
Major Motoko Kusanagi (Scarlett Johansson) is an elite security agent dedicated to fighting criminals and terrorists in a sophisticated, near-future metropolis, somewhere in East Asia. She doesn’t remember her past and knows only that she was – apparently – rescued from a near death accident, her brain inserted into a state-of-the-art cybernetic body by an amoral megacorporation, Hanka, which is experimenting with new forms of cybernetics and A.I. She has superhuman, hi-tech abilities and ruthlessly dispatches her opponents, yet is troubled by nagging doubts and strange ‘glitches’ in her computerised perceptions.
Along with her cyber-enhanced partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk), ‘Major’ is sent on a mission to locate and destroy a hacker-terrorist known as Kuze (Michael Pitt) who is eliminating the bosses of Hanka, one by one, via the sabotage and infiltration of the cyberspace mainframe which facilitates citizens’ consciousness downloads into robots.
But, as Major digs deeper into the ignominious mystery surrounding Kuze, she uncovers a murderous trail of crimes concerning the nefarious corporation Hanka and, ultimately, the puzzle of her own true identity.
Fundamentally, what we have here is a rebooted ‘Frankenstein-complex’ plot, investigating the ethical quagmire of playing God with humanity’s technologically driven progeny and the ensuing identity crisis such beings would encounter; then tacked on top of these more cerebral ideas is a simple revenge story, essentially involving ‘cops and robbers’. Seemingly all well and good, as the history of film is replete with many such genre and format hybrids, all successful, in their own way. (The B-movie, mash-up artistry and philosophically tinged subtext of Film Noir comes instantly to mind, from which the Noirish components of this film are no doubt descended.)
In this case, however, the ‘deeper’ and ‘shallower’ components do not really fuse together, with the more intellectually discursive qualities of the ’95 original downplayed to the point of being almost non-existent, save for a few philosophy-lite, portentous ‘Twitterisms’, here and there. Not surprisingly, the polished surface sheen of this version’s shoot-’em-up armature has left many decrying the anodyne Hollywoodisation of the original, well-loved story. I understand and empathise with such fans’ concerns (most of my journalist friends were highly critical at the recent press screening), but I feel they are taking this film, which essentially is an SF action-blockbuster and not much more, far too seriously: for me, it is always a case of properly contextualising the film I have just experienced, in order to precisely pry out its positive and negative attributes. In other words, when you buy a stick of candyfloss at the funfair, you should expect only a two-note thrill of instant, intense sweetness-overload, not the nuanced, diverse flavours of gourmet cooking. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t expect intelligent and subtle SF, like recent standouts Under the Skin or Her (both from 2013 and also starring Johansson), and it is entirely correct to rigorously pick apart the endless conveyor belt of multimillion dollar, Hollywood tent-pole movies. But we should also limit our expectations, to a degree, in tune with some films which were not, in the first place, meant to be something they patently are not. (Though it must be said that to assess a film in such a way is a very fine balancing act and not always easy to accomplish!)
So, what are the ‘candyfloss’ merits of Ghost in the Shell: 2017? Well, if you are up for it, there are quite a lot. Primarily, the film’s often incredible visuals and muscular action set pieces are its forte. Sure, pretty much everything we see here is built on the back of countless cyberpunk infused SF films of the past, which were intrinsically linked to the ’95 version, itself; nothing that radical or innovative is on show, only a souped-up cyberpunk aesthetic. But if you are willing to just ‘let go’, and let the psychedelic, complex 3D Imax imagery wash over you, in a ‘Zen’ like, minimally analytical state, then you will be amply rewarded. In a stand-alone sense, some of the scenes and vistas are simply stunning and the best of their type I have seen in an SF film, for a long while. Contrary to this, some have complained that the constant shots of the cityscape, with its huge, holographic advertisements – the human figures which enact out their shtick, towering over the other buildings – rapidly get tedious. But I disagree: I often get frustrated when an obviously expensive and detailed special effects sequence is glossed over in films, but, for once, we get to submerge ourselves in the eerie, other-worldly atmosphere of a futuristic society, expertly delineated. This is what seminal films like Blade Runner, Tron (both 1982) and 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968), with their distinctive focus on enigmatic, non-verbal narrative, achieved at the time, and I believe that Ghost in the Shell – partly – is attempting to continue that grand tradition, rather than simply providing superficial eye candy, as many will assume. (Obviously I am not saying it is of the same quality, overall.) And, yes, the aesthetics of such cityscapes are hugely indebted to Blade Runner, and others, but then which contemporary SF films aren’t, in one way or another? Such observations aren’t enough to totally poo-poo this film, straight off the bat.
The director Rupert Sanders, whose last film was the snazzy, relatively ‘dark’ Snow White and the Huntsman, of 2012, is pretty good at handling action sequences, the highlight here being a sensational scene when Major attempts to sabotage an assassination of mafia-leaning, corporate bosses – the robot-arachnid-geisha-hitwoman is a very cool character I would have liked to have seen a bit more of. Yes, we get the usual slow-mo, high-wire, CGI enhanced battle-gymnastics from almost every conceivable angle, à la The Matrix, et al, but most of it is done very professionally and believably, seemingly within the ‘Internal Logic’ rules of a fantastic setting and context, usually required by good science fiction. Although, having said that, there are a couple of blindingly obvious Internal Logic gaffes, one being when Batou is handed a B.F.G. (Big F***ing Gun) through a too easily accessible toilet window, in a Yakuza-run night club; if these future people can build extraordinary machines and cyborgs like Major, how come they can’t adequately secure a toilet window or – duh! – install weapons-scanning devices all around a night club? Such convenient plot hole plugs seriously impinge upon our suspension of disbelief.
Scarlett Johansson does a good job of imitating a slightly discombobulated, awkward personality whose brain has recently been transplanted into a robotic body – she walks around in a stern, rather crooked and aggressive manner, with a constant expression of disapproval on her face. Her retro-future Skinhead haircut and clothes are stylish and delightful too. Johansson’s skintight, latex type costumes are easy on the eye too; the overtly erotic fetishisation of the female figure in manga and anime is a given and should come as no surprise, by now (unless you have been living in solitary confinement for the last 30-odd years!). All in all, Johansson carries the film, and probably without her it would have been a big misfire, rather than a flawed but enjoyable cyber-romp; it seems like Johansson is turning out to be the cinematic Uber-Heroine of our times, and more power to her, I say. She is intelligent, canny, graceful, beautiful and kicks ass – what more do you need from a modern female icon? Takeshi Kitano, who plays the leader of the security firm Section 9, gets scant lines and is somewhat wasted, but he – unsurprisingly – comports himself impeccably, giving a mysterious, slightly eccentric gravitas to his short scenes, the finest of which is when he nonchalantly shoots a bunch of corporate assassins, as if he were simply washing his hands in the lavatory.
Certainly, the Freudian mother/daughter relationship between Major and her Frankenstein type creator, Dr. Ouelet, (played by a still-radiant Juliette Binoche) should have been given more time; if these more ‘human’ and morally complex parts of the narrative had been fleshed out with some half decent backstory, the aforementioned disgruntled naysayers may have been more attuned to the accompanying superficial pleasures on offer, but such emotional depth, in order to ground the thrills and spills, is sorely lacking.
Clint Mansell (along with Lorne Balfe), whose last soundtrack was the best thing about the muddled film High-Rise, here offers up another excellent electronica-ambient score, perfectly in keeping with the uncanny, virtual worlds scenario.
Perhaps, in the films defence, it should be stated that we viewers have been spoiled, over the years, by the cornucopia of visually extravagant SF and Fantasy films, and have become jaded with the now ubiquitous special effects which, if they had been shown to awestruck cinema audiences in the 1970s, would have seemed utterly phenomenal and unbelievable; we tend to forget how far CGI technology, since its wide application in the late 1980s, has taken the special effects industry, in turn facilitating wondrous visions that would have been inconceivable 40-odd years ago. Ultimately, maybe we take such visual marvels (and all the amazing artistry therein) totally for granted, these days. But, of course, without the flesh and blood of any meaningful depth to back up a skeletal structure, such cinematic tricks are but window dressing over an inert, simplistic or inept story, and I cannot disagree with such criticisms in regard to Ghost in the Shell, even if I am assessing it from a rather different angle, in terms of distinct, yet fleeting, pleasures to be gained.
Undoubtedly, there are some conceptual problems, underdeveloped characters and script deficiencies inherent to this live action update (and perhaps, to a point, the ’95 original?) but it is entertaining, stylish and inventive enough, and if you see it via a superior 3D screen, surrendering to much of its glorious imagery, then you will attain the full effect of such surface attributes. When examined more closely, it may be a pedestrian iteration of a cult classic, falling short of real originality or depth, but this attractive and often exciting action blockbuster has enough going for it to make it ultimately worthwhile – especially if SF is your bag.
Oh, and the less said about the ridiculous (certainly in this case, if not other examples) ‘whitewashing’ accusation aimed at this film, the better! I could go into why such claims are fallacious, but I’m going on the assumption that our readers are much more intelligent than that, hence such explanations would be superfluous.
Ghost In The Shell is out in US and UK cinemas now