Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review - Alien: Covenant

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

          It is a clear day in Seattle - those darkened rain clouds that this city is so famous for have, for the time being, ceased to blanket the sky with grey and instead have left us with a bright and pale azure. As I casually walk down the bustling avenues in this sprawling metropolis, a crisp breeze rustles through the tree-lined streets, and I am once again reminded why this place is sometimes called "The Emerald City" as I look up at the shivering leaves, fully grown and lush on this weekend afternoon. Alas, such a picturesque scene is my indication that summer has begun to creep into the Puget Sound area. And with the onset of summer come all of those traditional activities that Americans are apt to partake in this time of year. Hiking in the Cascade Mountains. Having a picnic with friends and family on the 4th of July along the shores of Lake Washington at sunset, anxiously awaiting the firework extravaganza. Navigating one's way through the hustle and bustle of Downtown trying to take advantage of this year's summer sales in Seattle's cosmopolitan shopping districts. Preparing brisket and ribs on a charcoal grill or in a smoker, and serving them with a side of cornbread and coleslaw on checkered plates at the neighborhood barbecue. Windsurfing or sailing out on the shimmering waves of Lake Union with the sun looming gleefully overhead. Friends sharing stories with a couple of beers around the fire pit at dusk. Indeed, many Americans have a lot to look forward to this summer. Meanwhile, while all of this is happening...I will be sitting in a darkened theater watching people getting their faces ripped off by Xenomorphs in Alien: Covenant.
          Yes, the 2017 summer movie season is finally upon us! And I underscore the "finally" in that previous statement - cinematically speaking, 2017 has been off to a sluggish start, with very little in the way of movies being released in January and February (at least, very little of anything that looked remotely interesting), and only a small handful of decent titles being released in March. Now, however, we have arrived at that time of year where film studios will try to capitalize on the extra free time families have, now that the children are out of school and adults tend to take advantage of their employer's PTO, and release a number of what are often billed as this year's "blockbuster" films between the months of May and August. Naturally, leading into this year's summer movie season, I reflect on previous years. I distinctly recall declaring 2015 one of the best years for film that I have seen in a long time, with the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, Spectre, Crimson Peak, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens leading the charge into the future, handing off the banner to 2016 to continue down the path of innovation. Unfortunately, in stark contrast to its decorated predecessor, 2016's dramatic charge was cut short when its fearless steed stumbled right out of the gates and fell face-first into a pit of quicksand and died, as 2016 was an absolutely abominable year for film. The 5th Wave, my first cinematic outing of 2016, remains one of the worst films I have ever seen, with the likes of Gods of Egypt, Batman v Superman, Ghostbusters (2016), and Suicide Squad serving as additional dead weight to make sure that no part of the sinking horse is left sticking out above the sand. It wasn't until the closing months of 2016, when we were served Doctor Strange and Rogue One, were we offered any glimmer of redemption (I will grant Deadpool honorable mention as well). What is reassuring, however, is that, unlike last year, where my Spidey-senses allowed me to intuit that 2016's summer offerings were going to crash and burn before they even took off, I cannot sense such an omen hanging over 2017. My optimism is further reinforced by the fact that my summer kicks off with an entry in the Alien series, a series that I have long been a fan of.
          Now, having seen Covenant, I can say that my faith has been rewarded. Alien: Covenant is the sixth installment in Ridley Scott's acclaimed Alien series, a series that dared to blend science fiction with elements of the most shocking and atmospheric horror, the first of entry of which, 1979's Alien, has become the standard-bearer for the "lost in space" sub-genre of science fiction. Serving as a follow-up to 2012's thought-provoking Prometheus, Covenant continues what has been dubbed the "prequel" series of the Alien brand, serving as a kind of origin story for the Xenomorphs (the eponymous aliens). And Covenant certainly has some colossal shoes to fill. Alien and Aliens (1986) featured so many elements that have since come to define the series, allowing it to stand out from what can be considered your other "run of the mill" science fiction films: a strong female protagonist (this was virtually unheard of in science fiction before Sigourney Weaver's portrayal of Ellen Ripley), a successful blend of the slow, heavy atmospheric pacing of horror with the otherwise worn-out science fiction blueprints of the time (exemplified by the darkened, dangerous corridors of the ship where the mysterious Xenomorph could be lurking around every corner), and an approach to art design that pushed the limits of imagination (H.R. Giger's designs for the Xenomorphs and alien technology were famously both laughed at and deemed too spooky for audiences by Fox Studios). While reception of Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection has been mixed, Prometheus again renewed interest in the series, juxtaposing the verdant hills and flowing rivers of intergalactic landscapes with the dark, bio-mechanical, psycho-sexual demeanor of the Xenomorphs, presenting a yet-unseen artistic contrast in the Alien series. Prometheus also introduced a new layer of philosophical abstraction to the series by introducing the "Engineers", an advanced race of humanoid aliens, as a much more civilized foil to the primal Xenomorphs, and asking the question of where both the Xenomorphs and humans come from, the answer to which supposedly centers on the mysterious Engineers. Covenant continues this story of evolution where Prometheus left off.
          Alien: Covenant opens up in a bright, white, and semi-rotund room, with a grand piano tucked off to the side, a replica of Michelangelo's statue of David in the rear, and a soft, high-backed chair in the front, facing a large, panoramic window overlooking a green mountain landscape outside. Megalomanic Peter Weyland activates a new android (referred to as "synthetics" in the series), who quickly adopts the name of "David" after looking at the statue, to serve as his new companion in his quest to answer the ultimate question of where humans came from, refusing to accept that human genesis was a mere accident of nature.
          Fast forward several decades. In an effort to propagate the human species, the colonization vessel "Covenant" has charted a course for the uninhabited planet Origae-6, carrying roughly 1000 human embryos and 2000 colonists, including about 10 crew members suspended in a stasis sleep. Synthetic Walter, along with an AI simply known as "Mother", oversee the operations of the ship while it embarks on its journey to Origae-6, scheduled to take another 7 years. During its voyage, a nearby neutrino burst rocks the ship, damaging its power structures and the hibernation capsules of several of the colonists, including the ship's captain, Jake Branson, who perishes when his capsule bursts into flames with him inside it. The remaining crew are awakened from stasis just in time for terraforming expert Daniels "Dany" Branson to see her husband get cooked inside his capsule. Chris Oram, man-of-faith and first mate of the Covenant, assumes command of the remaining crew and they set out to repair the ship before continuing their voyage.
          While repairing the exterior power structures of the ship, chief pilot Tennessee's communication signal with the rest of the crew is interrupted by a rogue transmission broadcast into deep space. Back inside the ship, Tennessee shares a replay of the transmission with the rest of the crew, which is very distorted and fuzzy, but complete enough for them to make out that it appears to be a human signal. Mother is able to trace the signal to a nearby planet, which the crew is shocked to find is both uncharted and merely weeks away. Despite some passionate protest from Dany, Oram makes the executive decision to reset the Covenant's course for this new planet.
          Upon arriving above the planet's stratosphere, a portion of the crew descend from the Covenant to survey its surface. After struggling through a bit of turbulence descending through the clouds of an ion storm, the crew land on the planet's surface, which is covered with high mountains, thick vegetation, and crystal-clear lakes. While marching through the surrounding woods, a member of the expedition team, Ledward, ingests a thick, black, airborne spore spurted by a bizarre grey fungus while Dany makes the observation that there don't appear to be any native fauna on this planet - just native flora. Ecologist Karine and Ledward break away from the rest of group before the expedition comes across what appears to be a crashed alien ship. While exploring this inside of this mysterious vessel, another member of the team, Hallett, ingests the same black spore while Dany discovers the identification card of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, a member of the science vessel "Prometheus", which disappeared some 10 years earlier. As the team finds the source of the rogue transmission inside the ship, both Ledward and Hallett begin exhibiting symptoms of some kind of severe illness. Karine escorts Ledward back to the landing ship while the rest of the expedition team begin their trek back with Hallett.
          After the landing pilot and Tennessee's wife, Faris, fearfully quarantines Ledward inside a medical cabin aboard the landing ship, inadvertently locking Karine inside as well, a small, albinoid creature, erupts from Ledward's back, killing him. The creature proceeds to maul Karine before breaking through a window in the locked door of the medical cabin. Faris attempts to hunt down and kill the pale Neomorph using one of the military-grade rifles aboard the ship, but ends up blasting the very large canisters that read "EXPLOSIVE MATERIAL" in big, bold letters, ultimately blowing herself away while destroying the landing ship and their primary communication channel to the Covenant. The rest of the crew makes it back to the landing ship in time to witness it being engulfed in flames while, at the same time, Hallett violently coughs up another pale Neomorph, which scurries away into the tall grass as Hallett dies. While attempting to radio a distress call to the Covenant, the two Neomorphs return and attack the crew, killing a crew member by the name of Ankor and eating Walter's left hand. The crew manager to kill one of the Neomorphs, but the other proves difficult to hit. Before long, however, a bright flare explodes overhead and the remaining Neomorph disappears, and a mysterious figure emerges from the light and beckons what remains of the crew to follow him.
          This mysterious figure leads the crew to a dark and derelict city, populated only by himself and thousands of petrified, humanoid statues. He reveals himself to be the Synthetic David, the sole surviving member of the Prometheus, who had crash-landed on this planet in an Engineer ship with Dr. Shaw. During the crash, says David, Dr. Shaw perished and the black spore was released on the planet, killing all the natural fauna. At this point, Rosenthal, a member of the expedition's security unit splits from the group. Unfortunately for her, she encounters the remaining Neomorph, which decapitates her. Later, David finds the Neomorph hovering over the pieces of Rosenthal's body and tries to befriend it just before Oram arrives and kills it. Demanding answers, Oram pressures David into revealing what he has been up to these past 10 years: David has been secretly incubating the black spore and aiding in its evolution process, and that, contrary to the previous account of Dr. Shaw being killed in the ship crash, David had actually killed her and subjected her carcass to experimentation. Oram is then escorted down into a cellar-like chamber and shown a number of large egg pods by David, who claims they are the apex of his experiments. While peering into the top of one of the egg pods, a Facehugger erupts and latches onto Oram's face, implanting him with an embryo. Meanwhile, the few remaining members of the crew manage to re-establish communication with the Covenant and indicate they need an immediate evacuation. David stumbles across Dany who also learns of David's deceit, having found the mutated body of Dr. Shaw. Walter arrives to save Dany from David and a fight between the two synthetics ensues, all while a newly evolved Xenomorph erupts from Oram and begins hunting what remains of the crew, killing security operative Cole and injuring another security operative, Lope.
          Tennessee arrives on the surface in a small mining vessel to try and evacuate Dany, Lope, and Walter, who appears to have survived his fight with David. The Xenomorph also manages to hop on to the ship as it is trying to take off, causing Dany to go full Ellen Ripley and take on the Xenomorph outside on the ships mining deck. Dany manages to eventually crush the Xenomorph using the ships crane and the team is able to return to the Covenant. Not too long after arriving back on board, however, Lope dies as another Xenomorph erupts from his body, presumably from an embryo that was implanted in his injury. With the help of Walter, Dany and Tennessee manage to lead the Xenomorph into a large hangar, where, once again, Dany works up the courage to antagonize it, this time culminating in the Xenomorph getting impaled by a giant truck and knocked into space through the open hangar door. At the end of the day, Tennessee and Dany return to stasis to continue their journey to Origae-6. Just before Walter hits the button to force her to sleep, Dany asks Walter about a plan she had with Jake to build a cabin on Origae-6, a plan she had revealed to him earlier. Noticing Walter's lack of knowledge about this, Dany realizes that she is actually talking to David, not Walter, who then forces her to sleep. Alien: Covenant ends with David putting two Facehugger embryos in the refrigerator with the human embryos and asking Mother to continue the voyage to Origae-6.
          Despite my reverence for the Alien series, Covenant is not exempt from my normal modus operandi of weighing the pros and cons of a film in order to determine whether or not it is actually good. Fortunately for Covenant, however, its pros do indeed outweigh its cons. In particular, Michael Fassbender delivers what may very well be the best performance I have seen from him yet, and the art direction and design of Covenant remain faithful to the precedent set by Prometheus. This is not to say, however, that there aren't any questionable moments in Covenant. The overall plot seemed rather stock and generic, with the only real depth in the story centering around the motives of David. As a side effect of the comparatively shallow plot, Covenant doesn't seem to ask the same kind of thought-provoking questions as Prometheus, which I thought was one of the highlights of its predecessor.
          Michael Fassbender's performance in Covenant may very well be one of his best. Fassbender had the unusual task of portraying two characters, both synthetics David and Walter. The challenge in such a task is to portray them as two wholly distinct characters in the same film, which may not seem like a large hurdle for an actor, but the twist here is that they also have to be similar enough as to preserve those characteristics that mark them as synthetics. Fassbender, however, seemed to be able to do this with relative ease. Both Walter and David, for example, approach the world around them with the calm, calculated, and semi-indifferent demeanor that you would expect from an android - as soon David is activated, he seems to acquiesce to Weyland's commands without any kind of emotion or preponderance, much in the same way that Walter is able to calmly and coolly strut down the decks of the Covenant as the neutrino burst rocks the ship and the colonist capsules are damaged. Of course, all of this changes for David by the time of the events of Covenant, as his relationship with Weyland and the events of Prometheus have caused him to seemingly develop human traits and emotion, as demonstrated by his admiration for Shaw, an aspect of David that Fassbender is able to capture flawlessly. Even Fassbender's decision to create a contrast between Walter's and David's speech (Walter has an American accent, while David has a British one) helps to establish the distinction between the two significantly (I may also point out that I recently watched another film, The Circle, in which a noteworthy British actress, Emma Watson, attempted to do an American accent...let's just say that Fassbender's accent for Walter was more convincing). It is not too often that actors are tasked with portraying two different characters in the same film with virtually no change in their physical appearance, leaving it solely up to the behavior and mannerisms of the actor to mark the difference. As such, Fassbender's success in doing this adds a layer of depth to Covenant unseen in any recent science fiction entry.
          The aesthetics and art direction of Covenant also live up to the expectations set by previous installments of the Alien series. There is a principle in art known as contrast - the idea that human perception better notices those areas where colors and tones differ from each other markedly, as opposed to those areas where colors blend in or are harder to detect, subliminally resulting in the psychological side-effect of humans tending to remember those areas or events more. It is a very primitive and rudimentary principle, a principle that Covenant takes advantage of and utilizes to its maximum potential. I think both Prometheus and Covenant can be considered a "clash of tones" - on the one hand, we have the peaceful, verdant landscapes and natural beauty of the planets explored in both films, on the other, we have the advanced, white, pure, and digital beauty of human technology, as exemplified by Mother and the Covenant's computer systems, as well as the technology of the Engineers, and in a third hand, we have the dark, sweaty, distorted countenance of the Xenomorphs and their bio-mechanical domain, serving as a kind of chaotic virus infecting the perfect order of the other two. All three of these tones contrast in Covenant in the same way that white text contrasts with a black background, or red stars stand out against a backdrop of blue, a very simple yet profound contrast. And, as a further testament to the lasting impression of H.R. Giger, Covenant remains faithful to his works, presenting us again with the images of humanoid beings tainted with an appearance sometimes Lovecraftian (the Engineers' space suits come to mind), sometimes Freudian (many have pointed to the phallic shape of the Xenomorph's head as an example of the psycho-sexual undertones of Giger's work).
          Of course, Covenant is not without its flaws. Particularly, the plot this time around struck me as much more lackluster than its predecessor. Prometheus presented us with a very provocative narrative, asking the right kinds of questions and, at times, asking the audience to piece together events. A megalomaniac who refuses to believe that humans evolved from a primordial soup by mere chance sends an expedition into space to try and find the origins of life on Earth, an expedition that learns of the existence of a race of highly advanced humanoid aliens that have the ability to manipulate biological and genetic structures, even at a microscopic level. Wrapped in layers of religious allegory, these "Engineers" eventually become angry at humans and develop a biological weapon to exterminate them, but, much to the horror of both humans and the Engineers, they lose control of this "sin virus", a pestilence which brings about a destruction that actually constitutes the evolutionary steps of something more sinister. Indeed, reflecting back on Prometheus, I may be audacious enough to say that it may have had one of the better narratives we have seen in recent years. In Covenant, however, it wouldn't be too disingenuous of me to summarize the plot by saying that a team of human colonists land on a planet where a crazy android cultivated the evolution of the black spore and that "something more sinister" came along and wiped out most of the humans (i.e. they all get killed by a monster created by a crazy guy). There is just no depth to Covenant's story, save for maybe the mystery surrounding David's true intentions, but even this plot point is not enough to bring Covenant up to the level of Prometheus. Granted, Covenant's story is already leagues ahead of almost anything that came before it in 2016, and is not any more or any less engaging than Ghost in the Shell from earlier this year, which I enjoyed. However, I must refer back to those "colossal shoes" that I mentioned several paragraphs back - if a film is going to serve as an installment of the Alien series, and directly follow in the footsteps of Prometheus, it has to have a plot that does justice to its roots, lest it inadvertently undermine those roots and ruin all that was captivating about its predecessor.
          Overall, Alien: Covenant gets a recommendation. While the depth of its narrative may not live up that of Prometheus, all of the very basic things that you would expect of the Alien series are there: slow, atmospheric horror, vivid landscapes and imaginative technology, solid acting, and a faithfulness to Giger's art design. These things alone are already enough to make Covenant stand out from the rest of the sci-fi lot in recent years, and put it on par with most other big films that came before it in 2017, such as Logan and Ghost in the Shell. This leaves me optimistic for the rest of the summer movie season, and really gives me a good point of comparison as I expect the rest of the summer's offerings to be very eclectic and diverse, from the international indie films I will be seeing at the Seattle International Film Festival to the remake of The Mummy.

Monday, May 1, 2017

In the Field - May Day 2017, Seattle

          It's that time of year again: May Day. Yes, May 1st, that day where members of the working class and disillusioned activists organize themselves in protest against those societal institutions from which they believe injustice, inequality, and oppression spawn, from capitalist economic systems to gender discrimination. Dating back to the 19th Century, May Day protests and celebrations have become an international phenomenon, with demonstrations having taken place in locations as far apart as Minneapolis and Moscow, from Canada to the Middle East. As such, given their revolutionary message, many May Day events are very politically charged, and are oftentimes at odds with the status-quo.
          It's no secret that, in the United States and Canada, May Day protests tend to tilt towards the left side of political spectrum, with many activists advocating for policies ranging from the rather innocuous expansion of social welfare programs to the more extreme implementation of socialist or communist economic systems. That said, May Day is not an exclusive event, having been frequented by anarchists in the past and even used as an excuse for those whose ideals tend toward the right side of the political spectrum to organize.
          In recent years, May Day protests have become a topic of controversy as they have become increasingly violent, and have put many American cities on edge. Video from May Day 2016 shows that police in Seattle utilized flash bang grenades, tear gas, and pepper spray to keep marchers corralled in a shopping center in Downtown Seattle [1]. Meanwhile, as calls from Seattle councilwoman Kshama Sawant to push the envelope of civil disobedience for May Day 2017 intensified, some critics have pegged the councilwoman as "dangerous" [2]. In 2012, May Day protesters in Portland marched through a mall downtown while simultaneously trying to keep the mainstream media out, claiming that the media is "bought" by "the corporations" [3]. Also in 2012, activists in Oakland were greeted by riot police with tear gas and zip-tie handcuffs [4]. A splinter group of protesters stormed a GAP store while white supremacists lined up for a confrontation with activists in Washington D.C. for May Day 2013 [5][6]. Indeed, there hardly seem to be a May Day that goes by without some kind of chaos somewhere.
          And at the end of the whole mess, there are always questions about who the martyrs were and who the antagonists were amidst the maelstrom. Were police displaying excessive force when apprehending protesters and stifling their 1st Amendment rights? Did protesters devolve from organized activists into an unruly and violent mob? Were activist groups responsible for the vandalism that occurred, or was it a lone-wolf who decided to take advantage of the situation and frame the protesters? In order to uncover the truth behind the answers to these questions, I decided to witness these events for myself first-hand. Seattle has a reputation for vibrant social activism, and has arguably had some of the most...exciting...May Day events in recent history. As such, I left my apartment this morning on May 1st, 2017, and ventured out into the city. Here is what I found:



My journey began at the University of Washington, where small groups of students were scattered throughout the university's Red Square in protest of unfair labor practices.


Squads of police were stationed around Red Square in the event that student demonstrations got out of hand, but...


Events at UW were so peaceful that many police ended up just relaxing inside, drinking coffee and playing with their phones.


I next made my way over to Judkins Park, just as the largest event of the day, the Immigration and Labor March, was emptying out of the park and making its way toward Downtown...


While still at Judkins, I caught a glimpse of this anarchist slogan on the side of a building.


While following the march, I sometimes had to cut several side streets in order to get ahead of police barricades. At one point, I came across these really curious characters...


The march eventually made its way into Downtown Seattle.



Even Antifa activists took part in the larger event (this image catches only some of them sprinkled throughout the larger group).


Speaking of Antifa, one of them had created this very intriguing sign, seen here at Judkins Park.

          By the end of the day, I had been following these events from about 10:30am to 6:00pm and had walked halfway throughout the city, from Judkins Park to Queen Anne. And, despite the reputation that May Day has in Seattle, May Day 2017 was much more mellow than previous years. There were no instances of violence during the time that I was running around the streets, but there were several tense moments when pro-Trump/pro-government activists led a counter-rally that crossed paths with the larger event, but these moments took place much later in the evening and were quickly handled by police, resulting in only 5 arrests [7]. That said, reports indicate that events in Portland, Oregon, and Olympia, Washington, were not as peaceful, and were in fact more in line with what one might have expected based on previous years, with protests in both cities being declared a "riot" [8]. As such, since events in Seattle were, well, uneventful, I still don't know what to make of the May Day protests, and the questions I had at the outset of my inquiry still remain.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WOvaT_IB-c
[2] http://mynorthwest.com/613988/dagerous-kshama-sawant-may-day/
[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHtwNdV6mmo
[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3iB01IrA10
[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQ5Q8-1yfyI
[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_anCrs65930
[7] http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/live-updates-from-may-day-in-seattle-thousands-expected-for-marches-rallies-in-seattle/
[8] https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/oregon/articles/2017-05-01/big-may-day-crowds-expected-in-seattle-portland

Friday, April 7, 2017

Review - Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!!!

          It has been a very interesting three months of radio silence since my last blog entry, my review of Rogue One. Perhaps the biggest reason for my absence is that fact that I have actually spent the past few months researching and writing what will likely be my next entry in the "Philosophy" category, a project that is turning out to be much more ambitious than any of my previous philosophical endeavors (save my master's thesis), even slightly overwhelming. I will not reveal it here, as I don't like to make promises and not deliver, in the event that I end up dissatisfied with the final product and scrap it. Fear not, however, for, if it turns out to be to my liking, it will be revealed in due time. The other important reason for my radio silence has to do with the fact that I had a series of medical episodes throughout the month of March, one of which resulted in an injury to both my hands that, in turn, severely inhibited my ability to write for a brief period of time. Also fear not, though, for I have more less recovered from these medical complications and am now finally able to return to my normal routine in life. Lastly, the reason that I hadn't even ventured to write a film review for the past few months is merely a result of the fact that fuck all for movies actually came out before the first couple weeks of March.
          I cannot recall any title throughout the entirety of either January or February that even remotely interested me, except for perhaps The Great Wall, a film that only grabbed my attention insofar as it was a Chinese produced and directed film, and I was interested in seeing how the film production capabilities of the second largest film consuming nation have evolved in light of such progress. But, alas, I didn't end up seeing it and, according to most other critics, I didn't miss anything special. It is in March, however, that the 2017 film season really started to take off. We were served Logan in the early days of March, the latest entry in the X-Men film franchise and Hugh Jackman's last outing as Wolverine. This one I actually did manage to see, and I must say that I was rather impressed. Logan actually managed to break away from the senseless action sequences that tend to characterize superhero movies these days, instead presenting us with actual drama and character development, and approached the superhero formula from a different perspective. After Logan, the Power Rangers reboot was released around the middle of the month. I will admit that there was a part of me that was interested in actually going to see Power Rangers, not because I was expecting it to be a great expression of cinematic art, but rather because I was hoping it would be a mindless throwback to the original series from the 90s, complete with all of the cheesy and colorful action that makes films like 80s Arnold Schwarzenegger movies entertaining. However, also according to other critics, the new Power Rangers reboot doesn't even do that, with one review calling it "sadistic, ugly, and incompetent" [1]. So, instead, I actually saw Life, that movie where Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds are astronauts among a larger team of astronauts in the very near future who get trapped aboard the International Space Station after their team stumbles across a dormant alien life form and reawakens it. That one was palatable, if very mediocre - it was a very "by the book" entry in the "trapped in space" genre of science fiction, and was nowhere near as innovative as, say, Alien was in 1979. That brings us to March 31st, the closing day of what I would call a very cinematically active month, and the release of the remake of Ghost in the Shell.
          Ghost in the Shell (2017) is directed by Rupert Sanders and stars Scarlett Johansson, and is billed as a live-action remake of the Ghost in the Shell anime film from 1995, widely considered to be one of the most innovative anime films of all time, as well as a visionary entry in the science fiction genre. In the anime, Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg whose body is virtually all machine, save her brain, is part of an elite government public security force, known as Section 9, and is tasked with finding an enigmatic hacker referred to simply as the "Puppet Master" in a distant-future Japan. In Sanders' remake, Johansson portrays Major Mira Killian, a woman whose body was irreparably damaged in a terrorist attack, thus leading to her brain being recycled in a new prosthetic body, her memory corrupted, and her new persona being enrolled in the Section 9 anti-terrorist project to hunt for a terrorist hacker known as Kuze. I will admit to not being the most familiar with the original anime, having seen it once when I was much younger. However, its reputation proceeds it well, so, when word had reached my ears that there was going to be a live action remake, I, of course, felt inclined to develop an adequate background on the series and attempted to watch the original film as a refresher. It turns out, however, that the original anime proved extremely difficult to find, with only bits and pieces appearing on YouTube and little in the way of Netflix. Ultimately, I had to settle for Ghost in the Shell: Arise, an OVA that debuted in 2015 and served as a reboot of the series, attempting to keep all of the same themes as the original, but presenting it using the current trends in anime production. From Arise, I was able to parse out the general nature of the series and develop a foundation on the kinds of questions the series asks. I suppose the concern would be whether or not the Arise OVA is genuinely faithful to the original anime, but, reasonably enough, I can't address this concern without the original anime to compare it to. Still, some background is better than no background, so even if there is some dissent among Ghost in the Shell purists as to whether or not Arise does justice to the original, approaching Ghost 2017 from Arise is better than not being familiar with the series at all.
          My expectations going into an early afternoon matinee on release day I think were reasonable enough, and, coming out of it, my final verdict on Ghost in the Shell 2017 is a positive one. Ghost in the Shell 2017 excelled where I thought it would excel and was lackluster in those areas where my expectations weren't particularly high to begin with. I believe it goes without saying that it doesn't quite live up to the precedent set by Ghost in the Shell 1995 (I'm still deciding whether or not it even lives up to Arise), but I also think that those who expected it to were perhaps a little too optimistic in their preliminary appraisal. Particularly, the level of attention given to the aesthetics of the film merits praise, as the film was a visually stunning experience, and did an adequate job of sucking the audience into a semi-utopian cyberpunk future, where a city of seemingly perfect order teeters on the brink of dystopian chaos, and the people are so drugged up on cybernetic enhancements that the line between man and machine is blurred. And, despite several cries of whitewashing and cultural appropriation, Ghost 2017 makes several very interesting production moves that hearken back to Ghost 1995, and serve as a subtle reminder that Ghost in the Shell is, first and foremost, a Japanese vision of the future. That said, the one important area where I wasn't expecting anything spectacular, and, sure enough, Ghost 2017 failed to deliver, was illustrating a story that really asks and explores those profound philosophical questions about identity, reality, the direction that humanity seems to be going, and what it means to be a person.
          Ghost in the Shell 2017 opens up with the first-person view of a woman on a stretcher and various doctors around her discussing whether or not her brain should be salvaged. Predictably, they go through with it, and the woman's brain is then harvested and inserted into a fully mechanical prosthetic body in the image of Scarlett Johansson. During the birth and awakening of this new cyborg, the scientist spearheading the operation, Dr. Ouelet, praises the feat as the first successful brain transplant into a fully-functional mechanical body. However, her pride is quickly cut down as the CEO of Hanka Robotics, the group that designed the body and envisioned the project, a man simply known as Cutter, declares that the body was specifically designed to be part of a covert counter-terrorism cell, Section 9. Fast-forward one year. Major Mira Killian stands vigilant on the rooftops of skyscrapers that seem to phase in and out of reality, port scanning all open communications frequencies for any malicious cyber activities, quickly uncovering a developing terrorist attack on Dr. Osmund, a scientist formerly involved in a Hanka research project, who also happens to be hosting the President of the African Union. (If I may also point out, I immediately noticed that Dr. Osmund was portrayed by Michael Wincott, the same grisly voiced actor who portrayed Top Dollar in The Crow.) Section 9 springs into action, with The Major showcasing her ability to cloak and diving head first from the roof of a skyscraper into the thick of things, guns blazing, eliminating several terrorists, but not before Osmund is killed by a hacked Geisha robot. The hacked Geisha is disabled, with Section 9 suspecting the enigmatic hacker known as Kuze to be behind the attack. The Major and her comrade, Batou, then take up the responsibility of investigating Kuze further under the guidance of the head of Section 9, Chief Daisuke Aramaki. Their search leads The Major to "dive" into the digital memory of the hacked Geisha by connecting her brain to its A.I. The experience provides her with clues as to Kuze's whereabouts, but also leaves her memories corrupted, causing her to have mysterious hallucinations that get progressively worse as the film goes on.
          Section 9 eventually manages to track down Kuze, where they learn that he has an extensive cybernetwork that connects his mind to all sorts of nodes and endpoints, including the minds of other individuals that have been cybernetically enhanced. Momentarily isolated from the rest of her team, there is a brief showdown between The Major and Kuze where The Major learns that Kuze is also mostly cyborg, and that he is targeting Hanka researchers that were involved in a project known as "2571". Noticing several of her hallucinated images tattooed on Kuze's body, The Major realizes that, while she may have been the first successful full brain transplant into a cybernetic body, she was not the first attempt, when Kuze then reveals that he was rejected by Hanka as a failure. The Major lets Kuze escape as the rest of Section 9 shows up, and The Major herself then flees, now confused as to how she truly came to be. She eventually meets with Dr. Ouelet, who reveals that Project 2571 was a project commissioned by Hanka to try and augment a fully optimized robotic body with a human brain, and that The Major's original body was not actually damaged in a terrorist attack as she initially believed. Noting that The Major was the first success after 97 failures, Ouelet is unable to reveal who The Major actually was before the operation, as this information was not provided to her by Hanka. Now fearing that The Major knows too much, Cutter orders her captured and for Ouelet to terminate her. Before injecting The Major's brain with a destructive serum, Ouelet has a change of heart, and instead lets The Major escape after giving her the key to a mysterious apartment, just before Cutter kills Ouelet. The key leads her to an apartment in the slums of the city, inhabited by an elderly Japanese woman. The woman gives The Major a brief tour of the apartment, where she points out her daughter's old room, noting that her daughter had run away and never came back, now presumed to be dead. Noticing that many of the trinkets in this room correspond to images from her hallucinations, and the elderly woman revealing that her daughter was an anti-augmentation radical named Motoko, The Major starts to see the full picture. She communicates with Aramaki to reveal that Hanka had kidnapped runaways in order to harvest their brains for Project 2571, erasing their memories in the process, a project of which both her and Kuze were a part, and that her real name is Motoko. At the same time, both Kuze and Cutter overhear her conversation with Aramaki. Kuze meets with The Major at the location where they were kidnapped from while Cutter orders an assassination attempt on Aramaki, which fails, and orchestrates an attack on The Major and Kuze. Kuze's body is killed in the process, though it is implied that he lives on in his network, while the rest of Section 9 arrives to help The Major thwart the rest of the attack. Aramaki reveals Hanka's operations and Project 2571 to the Prime Minister and is authorized to execute Cutter, with The Major's permission. Ghost in the Shell 2017 ends with The Major embracing her identity as Motoko Kusanagi, and her mother in the slums, before returning to work with Section 9.
          As mentioned, there are a number of things Ghost in the Shell 2017 does well. The consensus seems to be that Ghost 2017 delivers aesthetically, with visuals unparalleled in any recent science fiction entry, a sentiment that I will quickly second. What is perhaps one of the most interesting things about the Ghost in the Shell series is that it is built on elements of the cyberpunk sub-genre of sci-fi, a sub-genre that, when compared to many other recent sci-fi films (see Life), gets very little cinematic representation. There is a sense in which this may be considered a virtue - cyberpunk, by its very nature, explores the relationship between computers, technology, and humanity, and the deep philosophical questions that arise therein, which, expectedly, requires the audience to have at least some interest in computers, technology, or these related philosophical questions in order for them to find it palatable. Accordingly, cyberpunk is great as a literary genre, but is very difficult to represent cinematically, with only Bladerunner and The Matrix coming to mind as the only two successful presentations of cyberpunk in film. Ghost in the Shell 2017, however, manages to succeed in at least capturing the cyberpunk visuals that defined the 1995 anime. Newport City (the city where the film takes place) blurs the line between reality and the digital world, where pixelated holograms of individuals walk casually amongst the metropolitan crowds of the early morning hustle and bustle, occasionally phasing in and out of existence in brief clouds of white static as if they were suddenly disconnected from the server of reality. Fully animated and interactive advertisements have replaced the traditional billboards that adorn the summits of monolithic skyscrapers, metallic and chrome. Human brains have achieved (or, depending on how you want to look at it, have been demoted to) a status equal to that of a hard drive, where one's thoughts can be erased with a mere press of the DEL button and one's memories manipulated by simply altering their mental source code. Children can be taught French or Japanese by simply downloading the language to that same cerebral storage unit (Ghost in Shell had introduced the "mental download" concept well before Trinity learned how to fly a helicopter by way of file transfer in The Matrix). All of this is presented visually, and presented well, in Ghost 2017, preserving some of the original aesthetic of the anime and giving us a refreshing presentation of cyberpunk in a mainstream film entry.
          Speaking of its roots in a Japanese anime, Ghost 2017 actually did a fairly good job of acknowledging them and expanding on Ghost 1995, contrary to the assessment of several other critics. Early on in its production, there was a noticeably loud outcry over Johansson's casting as The Major, with some arguing that, since Ghost in the Shell is a quintessentially Japanese work of science fiction, a Japanese actress should actually be cast in the role, and others going so far as to accuse Dreamworks of attempting to "whitewash" the series [2]. While I agree that it would have been very interesting to see an Asian actress lead a large Hollywood project, I also agree with a particular statement made by Marc Bernardin of the Los Angeles Times, that "the only race that Hollywood cares about is the box office race" [3]. For better or for worse, it should come as no surprise to anyone that a major Hollywood studio would cast Scarlett Johansson, an actress whose filmography includes a number of highly successful sci-fi roles (such as Black Widow in Marvel's Avengers and the titular character in Lucy), and whose name alone will undoubtedly lure in thousands of otherwise skeptical casual movie-goers. Again, it would have been quite a statement to cast an Asian actress in the lead role, a statement I would readily get behind, but I don't think Dreamworks' decision to cast Johansson in the role is so much a testament to some kind of sub-conscious racism on the part of Dreamworks as it is an insight into the one-dimensional minds of American movie-goers - instead of being intrigued by the story of a woman whose identity is transplanted into a machine in a future city that eerily parallels our own, regardless of whether or not that woman is white or Asian, American movie-goers are instead drawn to the mere presence of Scarlett Johansson, like a child distracted by a squirrel or a shiny object. Perhaps the lack of an Asian actress in the lead role would be more egregious if there were absolutely no references to the Asian culture that gave rise to the Ghost in the Shell series to begin with, but this is also not the case. Despite the casting of Johansson in the lead role, there are still a number of Asian actors in the film. Takeshi Kitano (a popular filmmaker in Japan) portrays Chief Daisuke Aramaki, The Major's commander, while we see Chin Han in the role of Togusa, one of The Major's cohorts in the Section 9 task force (most Americans would recognize Chin Han as Lau in Chris Nolan's Dark Knight series) and Kaori Momoi (another popular Japanese actress) in the role of Motoko's mother, first introduced in the mysterious apartment. Speaking of Aramaki and Motoko's mother, one of the most notable aspects of the film is that a large chuck of it is in Japanese, and not solely in English, particularly when it comes to Aramaki's dialogue, which serves both as a clear throwback to the original anime as well as a suggestion that the various themes and dilemmas presented in the film are not unique to the insular demographic of the English-speaking white American movie-goer, but all of mankind (something that, given Americans' near-sightedness with regard to the important aspects of a film, such as the plot as opposed to its casting, we apparently needed a reminder of). Lastly, it should also be noted that, contrary to the forecasted "whitewashing" of The Major's character from Japanese Motoko Kusanagi in the original anime to American Mira Killian in Ghost 2017, we actually have a regress by the end of the film, where The Major abandons the name of Killian and now responds to the name of Motoko while embracing her mother.
          All of that said, I can't completely defend Ghost in the Shell 2017 in every regard. My biggest criticism of it is one that I have also leveled at many other recent entries in the science fiction genre: if a film is going to explore very deep philosophical themes and questions, which Ghost in the Shell aims to do, those themes have to be presented and explored organically, and flow from the drama and the interactions of the characters. A film cannot simply tell us about these issues - it has to show us, to illustrate these ideas in palpable scenarios and make the audience do the brainwork. I posed this same kind of criticism of the character development of Jyn Erso in Rogue One. Rogue One simply told us that Jyn was an orphan hardened by the mean streets of whatever societal underbelly she grew up in, but we never actually saw that. We never got to see Jyn Erso make the questionable decisions in ambiguous moral dilemmas that we would expect from that type of character. Instead, we got a generic heroine archetype who we were lead to believe was the unquestionable protagonist throughout the film. A similar phenomenon happens with Ghost 2017. Very little is left up to the imagination or interpretation of the audience when Dr. Ouelet and Cutter are literally referring to The Major's brain transplant as like "putting her ghost in a shell" within the first five minutes of the movie. It's also very superficial to introduce the idea of "a ghost in a shell", teasing a potential discussion of the extent to which The Major is still a person, only to not actually have that discussion, or even address that point again, throughout the rest of the film. The Arise OVA at least touches on this question as a sub-plot, pitting The Major against that segment of the powers that be that consider her to be more of a machine than a person, thus rendering her as property of the state as opposed to an autonomous individual. It's a pity because there was the potential to explore a number of scenarios that really test this idea of personhood, and what we consider to be a person, scenarios that the original anime explored, that we just don't get in Ghost 2017, like when Batou transfers The Major's head to a completely different body at the end of Ghost 1995.
          In the end, Ghost in the Shell 2017 still gets a recommendation. What the film lacks in story and plot development, it makes up for in stunning visuals and it's treatment of the Japanese source material, which I think it acknowledges well, contrary to what several critics have claimed. One of the advantages of film as an artistic outlet over a piece of literature or poetry is that, like a painting or drawing, it is a visual medium. Dreamworks at least understood this much, providing us with a film in which virtually each frame carried with it an aesthetic virtually unseen in many other recent science fiction films. And again, the claims of "whitewashing" that have been thrown around are unfounded, as Ghost in the Shell 2017 in not an English-only production with some ensemble cast of American all-stars that I am sure many in the American public would have preferred to see, but rather an (attempted) exploration of some very important and very provocative philosophical themes, through both the English and Japanese languages, with a cast that, despite the casting of an American in the lead role, remains true to the Asian origins of the original Ghost in the Shell anime.

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/power-rangers-review-sadistic-ugly-incompetent-reboot-even-worse/
[2] http://herocomplex.latimes.com/movies/ghost-in-the-shell-scarlett-johansson-casting-a-blow-to-diversity/
[3] http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-racial-erasure-essay-20160418-story.html