They didn’t save her life; they stole it. But they also might have saved it; after all, it is possible to have done both. Though this is a Hollywood big-budget blockbuster, so, probably not. Lee and Lawrence review 2017’s Ghost in the Shell.
When the true age of sentient-or-semi-sentient robotics come, will the generations of that day laugh at our constant need to define them against man’s desperate attempt to understand its own identity? The human brain, meticulous and fragile, is still a mystery and even the text you’re reading might one day be just one of a thousand other redundant ponderings based on our own lack of understanding (if not lost entirely because this internet thing is still an impermanent mess). Characterising our steps into a digital humanity is our constant fear of loss of the defining features that makes us human, and it’s important that we’ve reached a point where even the most generic and slapdash of re-tread sci-fi spectacles, in this case 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, feels like it has something to say on the matter, because now is probably a good time to get over ourselves and find some other way to bemoan the future.
Identity is a significant concern for the human race, and that we can still arguably contest a grey area of our minds as a ‘soul’, an ethereal aspect beyond the physical that stores our personality of all things, shows that perhaps we need more research done before we let Hollywood get their hands anywhere near it, because if there’s one thing big budget blockbusters often fail to do, it’s let us revel in grey areas. So here we have a film in which ‘ghosts’ are souls, bodies are ‘shells’, and the identity crisis is as simple as one woman’s struggle to find her original identity after her brain is transplanted into a robot body.
A re-tread of RoboCop rather than the original Ghost in the Shell, in that her quest for her identity leads her to climbing the corporate/government ladder in order to redeem her soul from the corruptive demons that took it from her, on paper it’s not entirely a terrible idea. Rather than straight up satire, we get an exposition-heavy thriller that leans hard on the hope that, if it absorbs you fully into its world and procedural set-up, you’ll be sucker-punched when you have to question the government-affiliated robotics company as the bad guys. The exposition, however, simply works as a bridge between accessibility and metaphorical meanings that are not nearly ambiguous or interesting enough to pique interest. Everything is spoon-fed, but nothing is deep enough to require it.
Concepts are tossed around that could actively mean something: her battle for consent being one of them. Here we have a woman whose identity is taken from her without her permission, and her battle to reclaim it leads her to uncovering the true malice of the forces that be; it’s almost empowering, until you read between the lines and realise her battle for understanding and self-respect resolve when she lets another man tell her she’s allowed to do what she proved she could already do earlier. It’s not a pretty subtext.
The villain(s) here are also remarkably damp and do nothing to supersede main character Major as the only real threat; both physically and to the narrative, as she stumbles headfirst into every trap, disobeys every order to keep the plot moving and essentially turns a routine hacker chase into a story of self-important self-discovery at the expense of everyone else. It sells the possibility that this really is just an untrained mind in the body of an expert machine, keeping her inexperience intact, but it contradicts that reading with cool action scenes spliced here and there that show her as beyond capable; it’s just a mess of contrivance, and often the plot gives up attempting to explain itself, hoping you’ll just run with it or not notice when things jump somewhere else with nary a sentence (see: ‘Major confronting her past over tea’ scene).
The biggest shame is the potential in the piece. Action sequences are interesting in motion, designs are vibrant and varied, the world itself fits neatly into that cyberpunk niche we all love so much and there’s certainly nothing wrong with a narrative that likes to ask questions. There’s just nothing beneath the surface; it’s as straightforward as it sounds, with any lingering ideology being proffered from the viewer’s behest rather than the film itself. It’s the definition of pretentious, bearing the hallmarks of the intellectual without any of the core understanding to make something of it. All of which would be fine, if it were at least more fun.
All of this before we even compare it to the original from which it draws much of its most memorable sequences. While it is cool to see ‘white’ Major rendered lovingly in real life, it has nothing of the original’s nuance. What were once thought-provoking grey areas indicative of the human experience are now shown in clear black and white, ‘us v. them’ themes. It’s an Americanised entry in a franchise, rather than a direct reboot, so we can’t complain too much, but it can’t be ignored that this film borrows plot points, key moments and lines directly from the original and misses the mark on every single occasion.
That’s just additional information however; the film at hand is a mess entirely in its own right. It should be commended for at least having a plot that, despite the noise, can be followed (or ignored) and a decent handful of memorable images to flaunt. All other aspects are dead ends, and we really mustn’t give too much praise for a film’s ability to be a film. Perhaps the robots will see this as a classic comedy of human error; file under: ‘to be reassessed’.
[Lee’s review was published April 3rd 2017]
I must confess I felt some apprehension prior to seeing Ghost in the Shell. It is a franchise with several continuities, each with noticeable differences in tone, characterisation, and design, but all with a core foundation in the same characters and themes. It is a property that invites speculation and interpretation, and is a franchise very near and dear to me. So, I was rather worried I would find some irksome concept or detail that would clash with my idea of what the series “should” be, and that I would have to confront myself with the idea that this new interpretation was a perfectly valid entry to the series, and that I would just have to reconcile it with my pre-existing views.
So it is with some subdued relief that I inform you that there really was no need for me to be so worried on account of the film being absolutely bloody awful.
This does leave me with the uneasy task of writing what is effectively two reviews: for those who don’t know about the source material and want to know if it’s worth seeing, and those who are familiar with the source material and want to know just how badly they’ve screwed the pooch.
First things first, if you’re not familiar with the franchise I’ll give you the film synopsis: It’s the far future of Probably-Japan. Human Augmentation is taking off in earnest, and the honour of the first full-body cyborg with a human mind has been given to Major “““Mira Killian””” (Scarlett Johannsen) after a tragic accident claims the life of her parents. She is then selected to lead the elite counter-terrorist task force Section 9 (with seemingly no questions asked as to why a recently bereaved civilian with no training would be elevated to such a position). Yet, as she is sent after an extremist hacker who has been targeting the very Biotech firm that developed her body, she begins to question the motives of the people in charge…
Listen, don’t be alarmed by the slightly malodorous group in the corner already grinding their teeth; they’re just here for the post-mortem. Here’s what you need to know: The acting is barely acceptable at best, the script is laughable, and all the parts that ranged from good-to-alright were done better by the original. If you want a hard sci-fi experience with some even harder navel-gazing mixed in, the superior experience is to just watch the 1995 film, preferably with subtitles if you can manage. Just don’t tell anyone if you end up watching the dub. Now get out of here, I’m about to get elbow-deep into the guts of this film for the perverse enjoyment of those nerds over there and let me tell you, it’s really going to stink.
Okay folks, spoiler time; here’s the rundown: The main story framework is a combination of the 1995 original and RoboCop, with elements from Stand Alone Complex and Innocence slotted in. The big twist is that the Major is not the American Mira Killian she believes herself to be, but one Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese runaway kidnapped off the streets for use in cyborg experiments, placed in a Caucasian body to obfuscate her identity and her memories deleted to keep her under control, though I cannot help but cynically feel this was just a ploy to deflect the accusations of “whitewashing” that this film received prior to release. In reality, all they’ve successfully managed to do is shift the question from “Why did you cast a Caucasian as a Japanese character?” to “Did you specifically contrive this plot point to justify casting a ‘marketable’ Caucasian actress?” It was a matter to which I was indifferent previously, but I resent having the wool pulled over my eyes, and I don’t believe I am unique in this regard.
I said earlier that she had her memories deleted. Indeed, this is a universe where the entirety of the human mind can be digitised and altered; it’s a point of considerable philosophical interest for the series as a whole. And yet, Motoko’s true memories “breaking through” via hallucinations is what ultimately leads her to the truth. Pardon me, “breaking through”? They were wiped so she could be weaponised. What is there to break through? Why, it was her “Ghost” of course. This film treats the idea of someone’s Ghost as though it was a literal soul, rather than the deliberately ambiguous notion of self-identity alluded to in the rest of the series. This is an implicit admission of an unexplainable “magic” that completely undermines the philosophical foundation of the story.
Speaking of undermining foundations, the characterisation is all over the shop. Most of Section 9 don’t even get a character at all, just a face, a name, and if they’re especially lucky, a throwaway line. The only members of the crew to get some room to breathe are Batou and Aramaki (Pilou Asbæk and “Beat” Takeshi Kitano respectively). The Major is fumbled entirely. I get this is early in her career, but she splits off from the squad and gets captured a total of three times, requiring her to be rescued; her big hacking scene results in her almost dying; and she disobeys orders at key moments. How has she achieved the rank of Major? She lacks any kind of commanding presence, and lacks any form of social grace. Even the alien and aloof Major of the 1995 original had the air of a seasoned and reliable professional.
The Puppet Master storyline is present, but with Kuze from 2nd Gig instead, who has been downgraded to a fellow kidnapped-runaway cyborg. This means that instead of a human mind fusing with an AI to form a new kind of intelligence, we are instead tantalised with what feels like a last-second “Hey babe let’s hook up”. She doesn’t even take the offer, so we don’t even get that much. We’re treated to recreations of the “Making of Cyborg” and Garbage Man Chase, but they feel limp in comparison, with a sterile soundtrack and lacklustre action choreography. The fate of the garbage man is especially perplexing; he used his restraints to hang himself. Why would a harness designed to hold prisoners allow them to commit suicide so easily? Batou expresses envy that this man, even briefly, cared for and loved his fictional daughter, while Batou could never have that kind of contentment. Err, are you sure that’s want you really want there, big guy? Did you not see the emotional train-wreck of a man that offed himself right in front of you?
This ties into the film’s Big Message of “It’s not your memories that define you, it’s your actions”; a sentiment of which they were so proud they made it the ending monologue. Let’s break down exactly why this makes absolutely no sense:
- How can your memory not define you when the sum of your experiences is what forms the entirety of your identity?
- How can your actions define you if you cannot remember them?
- Don’t be fucking daft.
- That’s it.
This isn’t to say the film is wholeheartedly without artistic merit, there are some original ideas at play here. The cyberpunk neon cityscape is certainly nothing new, even the hologram twist has been done, but closer inspection shows how all the colour and light only serves to mask the sheer poverty of the city and you really wonder just how dismal the bustling streets would really look without them. This is an interesting idea, even if at times it makes for a lot of screen clutter.
Unfortunately, that is the extent of the original visual storytelling, everything else is told right to your face, just to be sure you got it: What a Ghost is, what a badass the Major is, the themes of the story, etc. Nothing is left to interpretation, and any unexplained meaningful symbolism that slips the net is only a holdover from older material. They couldn’t even keep a sense of antagonism without the inclusion of a sneering corporate mogul for our heroes to simply shoot and call it a day.
I didn’t keep up with the media cabaret leading up to the release of the film, I can’t tell you the intent of the director outside of his directorial presence, but I really got the impression that there was an earnest intent to make a good adaptation here, just hampered by that distinctly clammy handprint of anxious executive meddling. Ultimately, you’re left wondering whom this film was intended to be “for”. Is it for Ghost in the Shell fans? Evidently not, considering the heavy dilution of the story and themes. General audiences, perhaps? If so, the numbers aren’t looking good. It was outsold by the goddamn Boss Baby of all things. I hope the suits feel that their removal of any challenging or risky material was worth it.
And really, including Kenji Kawai’s soundtrack from the original over the credits just felt like a wheedling last-ditch attempt to pander. It’s a real damn shame folks, but this one’s a stinker.