Wednesday 1 November 2017

Ghost In The Shell (2017) - Movie Review

Release Date: March 30th, 2017 (AUS)
Genre: Sci-Fi, Action
Director: Rupert Sanders
Writers: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Juliette Binoche, Takeshi Kitano

Plot: Major Mira is an officer of Section 9, an anti-cyberterrorism branch of the police force. She is also a cybernetically-enhanced soldier, having lost her human body in a terrorist attack a year prior. When Section 9 investigates a series of attacks that left the victims with their “ghosts” wiped clean by a mysterious hacker known as Kuze, Mira becomes embroiled in a mass conspiracy that will leave her questioning just how ‘human’ she is in the wake of her upgrade.

Acting: Scarlett Johansson is great as the Major, nailing personal strength with a dry sense of humour that makes for an engaging presence on screen. Probably helps that, between her work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Lucy, she can sell the action scenes like the best of them. Pilou Asbæk as Batou, putting aside that the version of the character from Stand Alone Complex is one of my all-time favourite anime characters, honestly lives up to the personable and caring personality that has stuck with through most iterations of the franchise. He also has remarkable chemistry next to Johansson, resulting in the kind of double-act that the next several months worth of cinematic team-ups will have to live up to. Michael Pitt as the initial antagonist Kuze hits menace and sympathy in appropriate proportions, and his scenes next to the Major make for the most emotionally powerful moments of the film. Then there’s Beat Takeshi, a man whose filmography is as prolific as the man himself, considering how he has managed to do pretty much everything within his lifetime. His turn as the leader of Section 9, even considering how little screen time he ultimately gets, is very effective and when he gets given moments of badassery, he pulls them off superbly.

Positives: Considering director Rupert Sanders’ only other film to his name was the utterly underwhelming Snow White And The Huntsman, he definitely nailed the cyberpunk aesthetic here with how immense and alienating Neo-Tokyo looks with its looming holographic advertisements and overshadowing buildings. The action scenes are very lively and very flashy while also showing where the Wachowskis got a lot of their tricks from, considering the original Ghost In The Shell film was one of their key influences for The Matrix. At the same time, while it doesn’t shy away from their mutual predecessor, it also doesn’t make it a point to look incredibly derivative in the process. To accompany this, we have composer Clint Mansell, better known for his work for Darren Aronofsky, who likewise pays tribute to the original series while keeping things fresh. Along with LEGO Batman Movie composer Lorne Balfe, they create an appropriately glitchy and eerily beautiful texture to the film.

Through the varying tonal approaches the franchise has gone through in its many incarnations, from the dead-serious 1995 film to the more upbeat series Stand Alone Complex and everything in-between, some thematic elements have stayed consistent throughout. And honestly, going by what I understand concerning Ghost In The Shell as a whole (no doubt, I will be heavily corrected on all this because God forbid someone have a different interpretation of a work of fiction, this feels right in relation to the core elements of the story of the Major and Section 9. Personal identity, the objectification of women, the line between man and machine and the implications of where that line may be, even the increasing ubiquity of technology itself in modern society; this film manages to weave its way through these notions and, while giving them suitable breathing room within the narrative, allow them to accompany the story rather than the force pushing the characters from scene to scene. This does result in a couple of moments where the philosophical undertones are spelled out a little too clearly for the audience, but overall, it checks out. Given how the imbalanced nature of the subtext as opposed to the actual text has always been an issue with GitS media, it’s quite remarkable how well this film does in that regard. Especially considering this was co-written by Ehren Kruger, the guy responsible for some of the absolute worst moments in the already woeful Transformers films.

Then there’s the initial controversy that sprang up concerning the casting of Johansson in the lead role, resulting in a lot of decrying of whitewashing and other such uncomfortable issues. Just to be clear, my own stance on this issue is that of general apathy: The instances that usually get brought up nowadays concerning whitewash casting, nine times out of ten, are a result of kneejerk reaction and a general unwillingness to look beneath the surface to show that, no, regular whitewashing rules don’t apply. Now, with that said, I specify “nine times out of ten” because the practice is decried for a reason: White saviour narratives are unfortunately prevalent and, like with what happened with Pan back in 2015, it often shows how little real progression has been made when it comes to racial representation in Hollywood.
I bring all this up because, much like The Great Wall earlier this year, I genuinely feel like the outrage here is unwarranted and largely missing the point. Along with how culturally diverse the cast here is overall, up to having mostly Japanese actors depicting characters who haven’t gotten on the artificial enhancement bandwagon, whitewashing as a practice is actually part of the plot itself to a certain degree. What’s more, it’s depicted very much as a negative thing, playing into the questions of how much of our natural humanity could be lost in the face of technologising our lives to this extent. But the thing is that, even if the controversy held water when talking about the full-length production rather than just the marketing material, it inexorably brings up questions about personal and cultural identity. At its core, that’s what the series is all about so, whether you agree with its directions or not, it still leads to a rather integral part of the series’ mythos.

Conclusion: Continuing what I can only assume is the 2017 tradition of crushing preconceptions of art under foot, this is actually really damn good. Strong acting, incredible visuals, effective fight scenes and setpieces and an understanding of the source material and its main themes that even some of the Japanese iterations fumbled with. There’s also a certain joy I find in a film that it could be argued has failings… and yet, no matter what your stance on them, those failings end up building on the film’s own themes and adding to its strengths.

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