2017.19: Ghost In The Shell (2017) – Cinema
I must confess to having experienced a horrible feeling of detachment while watching this live-action adaptation of Ghost In The Shell. It was strange, frustrating; I prefer films to have some emotional connection, here I always felt like an outside witness of proceedings rather than a participant. Visually, it was everything I could have hoped. Its quite astonishing how photo-realistic some of this imagery is nowadays; something like Mega City One from Judge Dredd with the obvious inevitable nods to Blade Runner‘s LA 2019, only turbocharged to some other level…
As someone who grew up on the bluescreen effects of early ILM, this stuff never ceases to amaze me. I’ll never grow out of slack-jawed wonder at what can be done. I dare say the current generation of filmgoers just take it all for granted, it’s all over the place now, even on tv to some degree, but I still remember locked-down camera moves, mattes painted on glass, miniatures given away by depth of field problems… Some of the imagery in this Ghost In The Shell is quite utterly breathtaking.
And yet, never did I ever really care about what was happening, never did I feel enthused by what I was seeing. There is clearly something wrong. The effects, the art direction, the cast, everything works so well, and yet it’s all undermined, perhaps by the script or the direction, both of which are perhaps a little too faithful/respectful of the original anime. I know some people criticized Zack Snyder’s Watchmen film because it followed the graphic novel original too closely. To be fair, this Ghost In The Shell does, refreshingly, veer from the original in its story although it follows the visual beats of it sometimes too closely, some sequences/images struck almost verbatim from the anime. Is this last point part of the problem, seeing some visuals that just, jarringly, keep pulling me out of it, reminding me of the original, enforcing that detached viewpoint?
Maybe its just that, as the original anime dripped its influences into so much other stuff afterwards (in just the same way as Blade Runner did a decade or so earlier), we’ve just seen too much of this stuff before- the neon dystopian landscapes, for instance. Its like this film is a victim of how great the original was, and how it spawned so much stuff after. I wonder if Blade Runner 2049 might suffer the same fate? Its a little like how John Carter seemed to mimic stuff from all those films –Star Wars, Avatar etc- that themselves had been inspired by the original John Carter books.
There have been many mixed, and some hostile, reviews of this new incarnation of Ghost In The Shell. Lets be clear here- this is not a bad movie. It could, in all truth, be much, much worse. While it may not be wholly faithful to the original, neither does it butcher it out of all recognition. No character acts totally out of character (it’s certainly no Judge Dredd with its main character not wearing his helmet for a whole bloody movie) and it isn’t some cheap disrespectful cash-in that looks awful. Fans of the original anime have little reason to yell foul at anything this film does. The nonsense surrounding Johansson’s casting as the Major is irritating, really. If nothing else, the film correctly demonstrates the globalisation of the world, the breaking down of territorial barriers and the homogenisation of society that its technologies reinforce and encourage. The Major is a shell, a construct, designed to reflect that, and I never felt the Major to be particularly asian in the anime anyway. She isn’t even human, really; rather something in between, and whether that is more or less than human is up to the viewer to decide, and maybe the point of the whole enterprise. Johansson is fine in the role, she looks like the Major and if she lacks the confidence and command of the character in the anime, that’s a reflection of the film’s semi-origin plot. She isn’t yet the Major of the anime.This one has a little more baggage. But the film is fine. It isn’t some stupid actionfest with plot-holes by the truckload. It could have been. It could have been awful.
Of course, it also could have been great, and it clearly isn’t. Otherwise I would have felt some kind of emotional attachment, some sense of involvement in it. An obvious subtext within the film is what it means to be human, about dehumanisation in an increasingly technological world, so maybe its fitting that it feels so cold. The biggest problem is an inability to really empathise with Scarlett Johansson’s Major because, well, she’s fairly cold and one-dimensional, a ghost in a mechanical shell, just beginning to discover her true humanity as she uncovers the mystery of her past. She’s a construct, a Pinocchio becoming a girl, but this is a film Pinocchio without the emotion of, say, Spielberg’s A.I., which is a good thing here, surely. It must be remembered too that the original anime was hardly a feelgood film either.
The film seems to be struggling at the box-office. Having seen it, it is clear that this isn’t too surprising. Its a cold, dark film that is dense on visuals and plot and maybe too close to the niche anime original to reach a mainstream popular audience. I’m sure it will have considerable success over time (the Ghost In The Shell franchise has long legs) and is sure to be a success on video. Its one of those films that can no doubt be poured over for all the visual details, and perhaps its cool detachment will thaw over time. After all, was part of my problem simply from watching a film based on another film that I’m all too familiar with? I like both Ghost In The Shell films, and the tv series spin-off, and its a likely a lot of baggage to take into the cinema with me (God knows how I’ll fare with the Blade Runner sequel).
I enjoyed this film and would like to see a sequel that could perhaps be improved by moving away from its almost superhero-origin plot. Alas, it suffers as many of these films do by being a little distracted with setting-up a possible franchise rather than concentrate on making just one singular film. The most irritating thing about this film for me was simply the ending- its another one of those teases, having set things up, establishing the characters and their world, for other adventures, other crimes to solve, bad guys to bring to justice, cyber terrorists to thwart. When films end like trailers for some other movie, well, thats trouble in my book.