April 1, 2017 by bck1402
At the time of writing this, I’ve got ten minutes before the movie starts. I’ve been trying to manage expectations and I want to be clear about approaching this movie on its merits… but that’s a little difficult. I dropped by Rotten Tomatoes to not just get a general consensus among the top critics, but to get a sense of what others might have been expecting. Much of the fan community seem to have generally negative reactions, with from the adaptation or the other controversy surrounding the movie. I’ve done my piece on that.
I’ve been trying to set aside all that in my mind but that one thing I am worried about is more director Rupert Sanders. I’ve only seen one other movie from him, Snow White and the Huntsman, and found it underwhelming. That’s also aside the not quite subtle Hayao Miyazaki homage he managed to drop into that movie. It did speak to his appreciation for anime and perhaps it helped him snag the director job here. I’ve read a couple of articles in movie magazines and he seems to have a grasp on the subject here, so perhaps it might seem like he knows what he’s adapting.
The trailers have shown homages lifted straight from the original anime, but therein lies some concern. Adapting a cartoon, or anime in this case, to live action has never been easy nor simple. Given the complexity of the source material, any adaptation will suffer the same fate as movies adapted from books. Something gets lost in the translation, never mind the cultural aspects.
For now, as I’m about to enter the cinematic hall, I can only hope that some of the core philosophies are retained, be they from the manga, anime movies or anime series… all wrapped in a wholly different and independent story. (review continues below)
And so much for that hope.
Let’s do the review first before getting into some other spoiler-laden aspects.
Plot-wise, it uses a basic police thriller where a bad guy is attacking, and murdering, members of a company that makes cybernetic bodies and body parts. Section 9 is investigating; the team is led by one Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) who has a full cybernetic body housing a normal human brain. (sound familiar? already a step away from the original.) Her main back-up is Batou (Pilou Asbæk) who makes it his job to ensure her safety while other members (Togusa, Saito, Ishikawa, Borma, Ladriya mostly all regulated to window dressing) make up the full squad, answerable to Chief Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano).
As this is a movie and not a TV show, there’s more to the investigation than meets the eye, as the Major discovers she may not be who she thinks she is. (see the trailer above). Although TV shows have tackled far more complex and layered philosophical musings (see Westworld, even the latter seasons of Person of Interest).
Scarlett Johansson has tackled the impassive outsider before (see Under The Skin) and it comes to the fore again here, tackling a character who is somewhat uncomfortable in her own cybernetic body. While the action beats keep her in familiar environments most of the time, the quieter moments are filled with a more contemplative tone which Johansson pulls off fairly well. She carries the entire movie with a solid performance until the weight of the sub-plot bears down; you can feel the shift. Still she has very solid support particularly from Pilou Asbæk, with whom she shares the most screen time. While Takeshi Kitano feels like he’s been dropped in from another movie, speaking exclusively in Japanese and everyone understands nonetheless (probably thanks to all the cybernetic implants), but he’s one of the more solid and enjoyable characters. The rest of the (ethnically diverse and international) cast flit about the periphery and even the great Juliette Binoche seems slighted by the overall plot, try as she might.
Self-proclaimed fan, director Rupert Sanders adapts with almost a fan-boy’s eye for all the cool visuals, so a lot of what was visually impactful in the anime is replicated here. However, the editing leaves much to be desired as the visuals lack the aspect context of world-building. While I would like to let the movie stand on its own, this has to be touched on. Part of the Japanese form of visual storytelling is to give the reader/viewer a sense of the environment, by having aspects of the world around the character displayed. This also allows the viewer to contemplate the world the character inhabits, either by opening up the world or compressing it to have a sense of claustrophobia. While Sanders has lifted some of those scenes wholesale, their placement within the edit seem disjointed and superfluous.
Still, despite all that, the visual language of the movie is extremely impressive, working beautifully with a 3D presentation. The application of some practical effects (Robo-Geisha, performed by and modelled after actress Rila Fukushima) blend well with the CG effects. The world-creation effects are eye-popping with Hong Kong seamlessly blending into the future city presented. FYI – even the original anime movie was NOT set in Japan.
Sanders obviously loves the world and his eye for visuals is the boon for the movie, but his handling of the material still feels lacking. His framing, while visually impressive, also feels flat during the dialogue scenes. Some of the action set-pieces are well choreographed, utilising the supposed prowess of the Major’s cybernetic body. Only one fight in the dark is problematic with it’s strobing light effect… I had to close my eyes. I guess that needs a warning.
Overall, it is entertaining as a whole even if it leaders off topic towards the end. The lack of complexity in the villains or the overall story might be a boon, reaching for the masses, but it doesn’t help to elevate the material beyond being a visual feast. The music by Lorne Balfe and Clint Mansell is serviceable, but it did make me long for Kenji Kawaii’s score (they played the Reawakening theme over the end credits, further emphasising what was lost) or even Yoko Kanno’s GitS:SAC score.
Rating ***/5 (added a 1/2* for the visual aspects)
Stars Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt, Peter Ferdinando and Juliette Binoche
Directed by Rupert Sanders
And so.. Spoilers! (after the image break)
Given the pedigree of the property, I was really hoping for something with a little more depth. Sure, I wasn’t expecting them to get into the philosophy of the villains as they do in the other mediums, but even given the story they were working with, the dichotomy between self and memory could have been played out with a little more thought instead of dismissing it all with a line of dialogue. The idea that your memories don’t make you who you are but your actions do, seems almost trite, practically flippant.
While the first half appeared to be mimicking the anime, it devolved into a typical thriller featuring villains with cardboard motivations (#1 They did this to me, so I must have my revenge. #2 The future of my company is more important than anything else.) Meanwhile, our hero embarks on a search for identity because she may not be who she is (again, that whole memory and self idea), which makes this version of Ghost in The Shell very much an origin movie. They even threw in a moment how Batou got his eyes.
I know it might be unfair to compare this movie to the original property, but if you’re adapting a known property, you should consider its themes, right? Or at least, create some philosophy that might stand up with the original, instead of retreading over RoboCop.
Ah well… other people are going to be picking at it for other reasons, and some people just need to make a fuss over some controversy or other, probably pointing out the ironic notion within the film where a Japanese person’s brain got put into the cyborg body that looks like a Western person… for the sake of business. I doubt it will affect the international box-office much. People will still go watch an action movie if they want, just as most of us will watch the movie to weigh in some proper opinions instead of delivering knee-jerk reactions over some perceived notion that they just have to speak up for other cultures.
But that’s just me.