Skip to main content

Well, maybe next time you can design me better.

Ghost in the Shell
(2017)

(SPOILERS) The original anime isn’t exactly the most emotionally enriched of movies. Its themes are rather of the cool, cerebral variety, particularly so with its characters’ didactic (some might say long-winded) conversations and exposition. As such, you might have expected the Ghost in the Shell remake, expressly repositioning itself as a hero(ine) narrative of self-discovery and realisation, to chart its own distinctive trajectory, perhaps even sufficiently to succeed on its own terms. It's failure, in part, is likely because this change in direction is suggestive of committee decision making, rather than dictated by someone with a strong idea.


And make no mistake, Ghost in the Shell is entirely absent its own strong idea or direction. It has plenty of ideas and decent direction (from Rupert Sanders, although most impressive – sort of backhanded, really – is how he precisely replicates shots from the anime, that and how he replicates action from the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy, who were, in turn, hugely influence by the anime), but they’re all second or third hand by this point. This movie’s prime window was probably 2000 at the latest, rather than eventually crawling to the screen after a decade of development hell (perhaps surprisingly, it was only snapped up by DreamWorks in 2008, a sign that Spielberg isn’t as sharp as he once was, either that or he just takes a vacuum cleaner to potential properties). Perhaps the only positive to come of this is that it ought to put the kibosh on Warner Bros’ Akira – which has been gestating since 2002 – getting made.


I’m possibly being unnecessarily harsh. I didn’t dislike Ghost in the Shell. Moment to moment and scene to scene there were aspects that kept my attention, and fitfully it stirs itself with a flourish, but I was uninvested in either plot of character, and pretty visuals – pretty, derivative visuals – can provide only so much compensation. The screenplay, refashioned from the original, with a splattering of elements from the Mangas, by Jamie Moss (Street Kings), William Wheeler (the actually pretty good The Hoax, about Clifford Irving faking Howard Hughes’ autobiography) and Ehren Kruger (who counters three Transformers among his litany of achievements), ditches the AI Puppet Master and the wheels of conspiracy within government agencies, and instead comes up with a decidedly more mundane evil corporation (headed up by the rather dull Peter Ferdinando; it would have been much more fun to have Michael Wincott in the role, exercising his well-established villain chops – alas, he’s iced in the first scene; poor old Tricky doesn’t even make it that far, his monk was deleted).


On top of which, this is that most rote of Hollywood staples: an origins story. The anime neglects to reveal where the Major comes from, and she isn’t on a quest to find out. Like Alex Murphy/Robocop, she’s the first (successful) of her kind (the comics’ Motoko character may have been, or at least one of the first, but there’s no reference to this in the anime itself). So the plot revolves around the protagonist, invested with fake memories, finding out who she is, to the closure point where she is reunited with her mother (Kaori Momoi). The more abstracted philosophising about the nature of humanity that came with the original is thus surrendered for yet another movie about family (another current Hollywood fave), reinforced by replacing the AI with by Michael Pitt’s Hideo Kuze (a character outside of the 1995 film) – even the merging aspect is apparently neglected (Kuze’s offer doesn’t appear to be taken up, although that might have been addressed in a sequel).


This wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem if Sanders had taken the bit between his teeth and explored where this left Major Mira Killian, but he doesn’t. The character is only ever a void, and neither the screenplay nor Scarlett Johansson are able to convey an inner life or process. There’s no journey here – to use Murphy in Robocop as an example again, particularly as both pictures end with the main character apparently accepting their law enforcement fate – aside from a Kate Perry moment and brief bonding with animals. Sanders must definitely cop the blame for at least some of this – he’s so intent on fashioning the visuals that he fails to come to grips with theme and tone. Sure, I was wowed by his replication of shots, from the hover copters to the pursuit of a suspect down a street, of the diligence to design (from the spider hands, to the appearance of Pilou Asbæk’s Batou, to Mira’s body buckling under the strain of tearing apart the tank), but it’s all on a hiding to nothing if you don’t care about what’s going on.


It’s also a problem of casting. I’m not, as I’m wont to mention whenever she shows up in something, the greatest fan of ScarJo, although I’ll hasten to admit when she suits a part (Under the Skin, Her). Here, Margot Robbie, who dropped out to make Suicide Squad (probably a take your pick qualitatively, but definitely the better choice in terms of bank balance) would surely have been better than blank Scarlett. And I don’t mean blank to compliment her insightful performance as a confused cyborg, rather to describe the lack of energy at the centre of the picture. Sure, she fills out a flesh-coloured body stocking, but that’s about all. Admittedly, she’s mastered some slightly robotic movements, but she moderates these with the same slightly witless expression she employs for all her roles.


In contrast, Asbæk is note-perfect as Batou; he understands the level at which this should be played in a way no one else – not the star, not the director – does. Michael Carmen Sandiego Pitt, as he’s now apparently known, is fine, I guess, although the potential for the character, particular given the early portents, is rather diminished by his generic, sub-Terminator/ Cyborg/ Frankenstein’s monster look. Juliette Binoche gives some substance to a clichéd guilty scientist, required to atone for putting ethics on the backburner, while Takeshi Kitano, quite rightly speaking subtitled Japanese (of all the elements here, this is one that entirely fits, however much it may have been a matter of practicality) scores in a nice little scene where he uses a brief case as a shield during a shootout.


Of course, the biggest conversation to have resulted from a largely-ignored movie thus far (it remains to be seen if it will be shunned by Asian audiences; Paramount will be praying not, but the press is acting like its done and dusted), is the accusation of whitewashing. It would be a rather tiresome subject – really, what did anyone expect, it’s a Hollywood studio with its eye on demographics, they were never going to serve the source material in that regard, unless they could guarantee Rinko Kikuchi would put bums on seats globally – if not for the foot-in-mouth manner in which the studio has invited further criticism.


Starting with reports of tests to turn Scarlett Japanese – I don’t think so; the only time that worked was with Sean’s amazing transformation in You Only Live Twice – then the “I am Major” meme generator that backfired disastrously – typically, respondents offered photos of Asian actresses with comments along the lines of “I am the woman that should’ve been cast” and, most pointedly, and amusingly, “I am the face of Asians in Hollywood” showing Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – and now with movie’s revelation that Mira is in fact Motoko Kusanagi (the anime/Manga character) in a western shell, they’ve not so much stepped as fallen flat on their faces into a great steaming pile. I can quite believe, in their own blinkered way, that the makers thought Mira’s true identity was some sort of ameliorating, inclusive gesture (and certainly, it’s one that at least makes sense narratively), but it comes across as simply rubbing salt in the wound.


I’m not overly exercised by the issue, particularly since there’s almost always a blue touch paper aspect to inflaming these kinds of media firestorms (as Oshii said, not quite Jim Cameron giving his blessing to Terminator Genisys, “I can only sense a political motive from the people opposing it, and I believe artistic expression must be free from politics”; I trust he was paid handsomely for his quote); I’d probably be more inclined to defend the choice if the picture as a whole had risen to the potential of its source material. Sanders handles the action sequences entirely competently and knows how to integrate his special effects (as Snow White and the Huntsman also evidenced), but he displays little evidence for having a grasp on basic storytelling. The visuals are frequently fantastic but mostly familiar. Occasionally, something stands out (Mira being dragged into a mire of grabbing hands when she dives into the geisha’s AI; of which, the spider geisha is tremendous), but too much of the movie is reliant on sumptuous art direction. The music, from Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe is solid, but the anime’s superlative Utai IV: Reawakening by Kenji Kawai, played over the end credits, highlights just how lacking in its own distinctive personality the picture is.


Does that explain audiences’ lack of appetite? The post-mortems on bombs are invariably “I told you sos” that clutch at straws. Poor reviews are only cited as a factor when something bombs, not when it’s a hit. The whitewashing controversy is important to just about no one, in terms of a general audience actually caring about seeing a movie or not. Citing a star’s failing status is only significant until the next hit (somehow Lucy evidently managed to whet appetites in a way this plain didn’t). I suspect – since it was my first reaction on seeing the trailer – that it’s mostly that this looks like a movie transported from 20 years ago, so indebted is it for ideas and visuals to The Matrix and the preceding Ghost in the Machine (which has filtered into so much else, as well as itself being influenced by Blade Runner). But you never can tell what will hit the spot, and it would only take Sander’s movie to have the kind of reception in Asian markets as Pacific Rim (let alone Warcraft) for the takeaway to be more forgiving. Which leads to the consideration that perhaps it would have done better with Rinko.


The not-especially-original conclusion of many a review has been that this is a shell lacking a ghost, and it’s unfortunately apposite. I mentioned Elon Musk and his transhumanist vision in my review of the original, but the remake is so functional in approach, this aspect barely merits mention. Failing to translate ideas isn’t necessarily the worst offence, not if a picture has sufficient momentum and proves a decent ride. Sadly, while Sanders can put an action sequence together with aplomb, its what’s in between that stuffs up Ghost in the Shell. There’s nothing propelling the plot, no kineticism. It’s nice to look at, but that isn’t enough.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Courage is no match for an unfriendly shoe, Countess…

No, it’s not about the bunny.

Twin Peaks 3.3
If the first two episodes tend to the weird/dark, then the second couple are more in favour of the weird/light, once we get past the Eraserhead stuff with the girl in the radiator, I mean Naido (Nae), who is replaced by Teresa Palmer doppelganger American Girl (Phoebe Augustine). The proceedings come complete with staggered editing that’s enough to give you rolling vision and detached retinas, if you’re lucky, as we continue Cooper’s extended mission to return to the real world, or something approximating it.

American Girl: When you get there, you will already be here.
Some of this material is impenetrable and will surely remain so, as he and Naido go up to the roof, which is floating amid the stars, to connect circuitry that will allow Coop to journey back via the mains, and she is thrown off, only for him to now encounter American Girl down below (“You better hurry. My mother’s coming”). The device(s) that sucks Cooper in alternately displays the numbers 3 and 15 on it …

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

What, no cheese and crackers?

Twin Peaks 3.4
If anything, the fourth episode goes even goofier than the third, before sobering up dramatically for the final scene. There’s at least one innocuous cameo here, Richard Chamberlain pulling the equivalent of George Hamilton in The Godfather Part III, but it’s most notable for the arrival of Naomi Watts and Robert Forster, and the return of Dana Ashbrook and David Duchovny. And… Michael Cera?

Wally: My shadow is always with me. Sometimes ahead. And sometimes behind. Sometimes to the left. Sometimes to the right. Except on cloudy days. Or at night.
Maybe the battiest thing in the third season to date, and that’s saying something, is Cera’s appearance as Wally Brando (born on the same day as Marlon), Andy and Lucy’s son, his appearance plays like an extended skit, with Lynch cackling away behind the camera, eager to see how long he can string it out. You pretty much get the impression that, when Forster’s Sheriff Frank Truman, Wally’s godfather, turns heel and walks off, For…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

I'm Mary Poppins, y'all.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Most of the time, we’ll settle for a solid, satisfying sequel, even if we’re naturally going to be rooting for a superlative one. Filmmakers are currently so used to invoking the impossible standard of The Empire Strikes Back/The Wrath of Khan, of advancing character and situation, going darker and encountering sacrifice, that expectations are inevitably tempered. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is indebted to at least some of those sequel tropes, although it’s arguably no darker than its predecessor, if more invested in character development. Indeed, for a series far more rooted (grooted?) in gags than any other in the Marvel wheelhouse, it’s ironic that its characterisations thus far have been consistently more satisfyingly realised than in any of their other properties.

Perhaps the most significant aspect writer-director James Gunn is clearly struggling with here is how to keep things fresh knowing he’s developed an instantly satisfyin…

I’m supposed to watch the box and see if anything appears inside.

Twin Peaks 3.1 & 3.2
(SPOILERS) Well, Lynch hasn’t lost it, that much is clear. Not his marbles, which he never had, of course, but his capacity for weirdness, hilarity, discord and the outright disturbing, all of which are brewing away potently in Season Three of Twin Peaks. What’s most striking, though, and something I’ve occasionally found a detraction from his work, is that the presence of Mark Frost ensures there’s a lucid narrative thread upon which to hang his strange fascinations. It means that, even when we go on a diversion into five minutes of plot-free surrealism, or one of Lynch’s trademark crawl-act comedies (which are sublime, as long as you’re willing to pace yourself), it won’t be long before (potentially remaining unanswered) mystery and intrigue will pull us back on track.

I’d read, not least from Lynch himself, that his prequel movie Fire Walk with Me would indicate the tone of Season Three, but that might be a touch misleading. If you took the first act, the no…

Slice him where you like, a hellhound is always a hellhound.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.1: Jeeves Saves the Cow Creamer
(aka The Silver Jug) Season Two of Jeeves and Wooster continues the high standard of the previous year’s last two episodes, appropriately since it takes after its literary precedent; Season One ended with a two-part adaptation of Right Ho, Jeeves, which PG Wodehouse followed four years later with The Code of the Woosters. Published in 1938, it was the third full-length outing for Bertie and his genius gentleman’s gentleman, and the first time Plum visited Totleigh Towers, home of imperious nerve specialist Sir Watykn Bassett. If I say “Spode”, and add “Eulalie”, its classic status in the canon will no doubt come flooding back to you.

Sir Watkyn has already graced our screens, of course, in the very first episode, adapting Bertram Wilberforce’s recollection from this very The Code of the Woosters of his policeman’s hat-stealing incident, and for the most part, like the season finale before it, Clive Exton recognises a good thing when he …

Jeeves, you really are the specific dream rabbit.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.2: A Plan for Gussie  (aka The Bassetts’ Fancy Dress Ball)
The cow creamer business dispatched, the second part of this The Code of the Woosters adaptation preoccupies itself with further Gussie scrapes, and the continuing machinations of Stiffy. Fortunately, Spode is still about to make things extra unpleasant.

Sir Roderick delivers more of his winning policies (“the Right to be issued with a British bicycle and an honest, British-made umbrella”) and some remarkably plausible-sounding nonsense political soundbites (“Nothing stands between us and victory except our defeat!”, “Tomorrow is a new day; the future lies ahead!”) while Jeeves curtly dismisses Spode trying to tag him as one of the working masses. It’s in Spode’s ability to crush skulls that we’re interested, though, and it looks as if his powers have deserted him at the start.

Jeeves has given Gussie a pep-talk in how to get over his terror of Spode (“We don’t fear those we despise… fill one’s mind with scorn…