Returning to Ghost in the Shell

g2.jpgBack in April I saw the live-action Ghost in the Shell at the cinema. While I found it a little frustrating in places, I enjoyed the film enough to buy the blu-ray, which I watched yesterday.

Visually the film is perhaps even more impressive on disc than it was at the cinema (maybe that says something about my Cineworld): the effects and art direction are very, very impressive. Indeed, some of the visual effects of the city augmented with live action (say, with Scarlett Johansson walking down a street or sitting on a rooftop with the streets below her) are pretty astonishing, how photorealistic some of this stuff is getting. As an effects showcase or visual spectacle, this is a major achievement, really bringing the original anime to life. I think I’ll be able to rewatch sequences over and over, just soaking up all that detail, in just the same way I did with the original Blade Runner decades ago- it’s that good.  I also like how we see odd-looking characters and background stuff going on that are not explained. Its there to either be ignored or pondered over (I prefer the latter), adding little to the plot but it’s all part of that layers of detail stuff.

There is one scene, based on one from the anime, in which the Major and Batou are standing on a boat just offshore with the futuristic night-time city blazing neon behind them, which is just jaw-dropping, really, how seamlessly everything is integrated- the camera moves, the lighting of the characters, the city behind them softly out of focus. Its that stuff that impresses me more than the whizz-bang effects stuff really. It’s slow and quiet but so disarmingly perfect.

g1Deficiencies in the plot are less of a hindrance second time around, and my misgivings over a lack of empathy with Johansson’s Major are no longer the issue I felt at the cinema. It seems a deliberate choice to neuter the character emotionally- a result of having no memories and being as much an object created for a purpose  as her being an individual person. She is told she has a ‘ghost’ or soul in her fabricated body but she doesn’t feel it. She isn’t convinced she is a ‘real person’ until she has unearthed the truth about the girl she used to be. It’s rather similar to Robocop, in which even though Murphy has the memories of his past life, he is no longer that same person; his Robocop personna being subtly different, whatever his name/memories may say. It’s hardly Blade Runner-level layers of subtext but it’s interesting, even if it possibly damaged the movie regards audiences empathising with her emotionally-challenged personna/performance. As I say, less of an issue for me this time around, but even I noticed it at the cinema, feeling oddly disengaged from the proceedings. Mind you, part of that may have been from familiarity with the anime. I guess I may well feel the same watching Blade Runner 2049– how the hell do I just enjoy the film experience of that film and not get caught up in the cold objectivity of the fact of it being a sequel to the original and being utterly distracted by it?

So anyway, not a bad movie anyway, and a good first entry regards setting up the background of the Major and her future cyberpunk world. Would have been nice to see it progress to a second and even third film, expanding the story as the anime did in its own sequel and tv offshoots.

A quick trip to Box Office Mojo reveals the painful statistics though- Ghost in the Shell cost around $110 million to make (not bad, considering) so likely needed around $250 million to see a profit- the film completely tanked in America, only managing just over $40 million. The foreign total was more impressive; $129 million, but not enough to limit the damage of that woeful American take. So, no more Ghost in the Shell movies then. Likely no live-action Akira either. Good or bad thing?

One observation. Between HBO’s recent Westworld examining in such adult fashion the ‘what is it to be human?’ question and the nature of artificial memory and freewill/slavery as well as it did, and this Ghost in the Shell nailing that whole future-cyberpunk visual vibe, what’s left for Blade Runner 2049? In some ways, I have to wonder if the Blade Runner sequel is too late- a new generation of films/television has picked up the baton of the 1982 movie and moved it forward with some success.  Here’s hoping that it still has something new to say.

 

Scarlett goes Cyberpunk

shell22017.19: 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?

shell2Maybe 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.

shell3

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.

Scarlett Goes Bonkers

lucy12017.17: Lucy (2014) – Film 4 HD

There was a time when a Luc Besson film meant something rather special. I still recall the almighty stir caused by La Femme Nikita when it came out on VHS and Besson seemed to hit the international mainstream with a bang, and later films Leon and The Fifth Element only cemented him as a major director. He had an ability to make big, stylish films with an American ‘look’ while maintaining a quirky European mentality and feel. But then something weird happened. As a director, his career has followed an odd trajectory towards obscurity, as he seems to prefer to write screenplays and produce films rather than direct. If anything, this doesn’t help matters as everytime he does finally direct a film the ensuing weight of expectation becomes something that the films can rarely live up to (possibly why John Carpenter doesn’t make films anymore). Not that Besson seems to care what anyone else thinks.

So anyway, Lucy is a film I always wanted to watch but considering Besson’s fall from grace as a director I was wary of catching up with it. Mixed/downright angry reviews when this came out at the cinema didn’t help either. So after a few years it has turned up on tv and I’ve given it a shot. Glad I did. Sort of.

Lucy is bonkers . I used to think The Fifth Element was odd and eccentric but goodness, its positively restrained next to this utterly turbocharged crazy mash-up of The Matrix and Akira. The shadow of Akira in particular looms large over the film, an obvious major influence on Bessons mad story about advanced human evolution and mind-bending powers twisting the very fabric of reality.

Logic is thrown out into the street and kicked snivelling into the gutter, because Lucy is just plain nuts. Spectacular yet often oddly boring action sequences attempt to divert attention from the utterly daft premise, but it is kind of fun.Scarlett Johansson is no stranger to superheroics in films thanks to her track record in several Marvel films but as the titular Lucy she races from well-meaning dumb blonde to cosmic time-travelling Goddess in about ninety minutes. Its a breakneck pace that ultimately undermines the film as it becomes ever-more divorced from reality and more like a silly cartoon. Maybe Besson should have been happy to leave Lucy using 50% of her superpowers and left us some frame of reference and danger. Instead he goes all the way to 100% and Lucy leaves humanity far behind her. God only knows where a Lucy 2 might have headed.

But yeah, its mindless fun for much of its time, and as always Johansson is a charismatic lead. Worth a watch.

 

Hitchcock (2012)

hitch12016.22: Hitchcock (Network Airing, HD)

Strange one this. It purports to be an examination of Alfred Hitchcock and the making of his classic 1960 shocker Psycho. But it didn’t really come across like that. Instead it seems a very revisionist drama with a largely pro-feminist agenda; I know full well that Hitch and his wife Alma were a team, and that Hitch relied on her for her fine judgement, but this film seems to exaggerate this, almost to the point of stating that Hitch was an overweight, leery old goat who relied on Alma’s creative genius to actually make the movies. Hitch seems to be reduced to supporting character with Helen Mirren’s Alma being the focus of attention. Mirren is in fine, dependable form as ever, but her sheer charismatic force dominates every scene and threatens to sink the enterprise, dominating everything; maybe Mirren is just too good. Make no mistake-this is Alma’s movie.

That said, the film is a fine easy-going, lightweight drama of making movies in Old Hollywood- ‘Mad Men in Tinsel Town’ maybe. But it doesn’t really feel convincing. If there was a darkness to Hitch (his preoccupation with his leading ladies for instance) that informs his best movies, like Vertigo, then it’s largely unexplored. Hitch here is more preoccupied with raiding the fridge and drinking too much, and flailing at recreating his former film glories until Alma steps in and saves Psycho. It feels like fantasy- maybe it’s all true, but I very much doubt it; it always feels like fantasy, a lightweight Sunday afternoon drama. There’s no grit. In a film about Hitchcock, no less.

Anthony Hopkins does fairly well but he never becomes Hitch; buried under all that make-up and the fat suit he approximates the ‘look’ but the script always seems reduce him to something of a caricature, accentuating that tendency in the make-up design. Scarlett Johansson does surprisingly well as Janet Leigh and James D’Arcy’s is excellent as Anthony Perkins; both actors deserved more screentime and hint at what the film could have been. Jessica Biel doesn’t really convince as Vera Miles but she doesn’t have much to work with unfortunately. The problem is simply that the focus is never really the making of Psycho but rather the Hitchcock’s marriage and ‘fact’ that Alma was the real genius behind the scenes.  It feels like revisionist history and that rather grates to be honest.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

Say what you like about Tom Cruise, he knows how to fashion an audience-friendly blockbuster. Rogue Nation is a great summer movie, delivering everything anybody could possibly want from a Mission Impossible film. Even more remarkably, for a series nearly twenty years old now and into its fifth outing, it all somehow still seems fresh and exciting with some remarkable action sequences and a welcome return to spycraft and espionage. No small part of this is the presence of rising star Rebecca Ferguson as British Intelligence agent Ilsa Faust. Ferguson damn near steals the film from Cruise with a warm and affecting performance with a surprising physicality (I’ve seen her on tv before and this performance is a big surprise). No doubt many viewers will marvel at her performance and wonder where this new female action star has come from (it’s been a great summer for female action roles, with this, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow). Cruise has hinted at launching a sixth Mission Impossible film as early as next year and I hope thats an indication that it will be a follow-up to this one with Ferguson returning.

A follow-up would also be a welcome opportunity to bring back the Syndicate and its leader Solomon Lane (the name a riff on REH’s Solomon Kane, perhaps, or am I looking too far?) cooly played with real menace by Sean Harris. If Rogue Nation has any possible fault its the nagging feeling of anti-climax that hangs over a final confrontation that dispenses with the high-flying stunts and explosions, but that would be ably solved by it only being, in hindsight, a prelude to the next film. Who knows, as it is the finale might be considered a pleasant change from the usual OTT blockbuster theatrics, but I was left with a feeling there is more to be seen of Solomon Lane, in just the same way as the last few James Bond movies have had a more serial feel than the more individual Bond films of old.

rogue2So a great summer movie then, and one that has demonstrated the viability of its franchise just as much as Fury Road revitalised the Mad Max series (Fury Road is still my favourite film of the summer though). I’m not a great fan of endless sequels but I have to say, looking at the Mission Impossible series as a whole, its a pretty damn fine series of movies that delivers what its audience expects. Certainly it has been far more consistent than the Die Hard series. Tom Cruise seems to know what he’s doing with these Mission Impossible films, and I’m quite excited to see what he comes up with next.

Oh, and while I’m in gushing mode, the score by Joe Kraemer is fantastic action stuff too and no small part of the film’s success. Great film; roll on the blu-ray- that release may be the ideal time to get a Mission Impossible boxset to while away the Winter Blues.