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.