Saturday, April 1, 2017

Ghost in the Shell Review

Today in Hollywood we are extremely obsessed with remaking everything. Sure, remakes have been happening since movies started being made, but it seems like the number of remakes has dramatically increased the last several years. This month alone, which has essentially been treated as an early summer month for Hollywood, we've had remakes of "King Kong," "Beauty and the Beast," "CHiPs" and "Power Rangers." You could also argue the lack of originality with movies like "Before I Fall," "The Belko Experiment" and "Life" as each of those, while not technically a remake, borrow specific ideas from other popular movies. So yeah, it's been a month of remakes, some working, some not. Continuing the trend of remakes to end the month of March, the latest property to get a remake is "Ghost in the Shell," a property that I haven't been super familiar with until recently. The big reason for that is that I haven't ever been huge into anime. Nothing against anime, of course. In fact, I've been trying to make more of an effort to get into anime because a lot of the anime I've watched has been excellent. Which is why I'm grateful for movies like this because, at the very least, it gives me stronger motivation to become familiar with the source material going in.

Yes, I'm at a slight disadvantage going into this review because I haven't had 22 years to let the original "Ghost in the Shell" movie sink in. But I did watch the movie about a month ago and it completely blew my mind. It's a very short movie at only 85 minutes, but it's one of those rare films where every scene, every moment and every word of dialogue felt important to the overall story and thus there's more packed into that 85 minutes than your average two to three hour movie. Even though there is plenty of fun action sequences in the movie, I wouldn't call it an action movie. It's a thought-provoking, futuristic sci-fi film. The themes in the movie were so deep and profound that I felt like I needed to watch the movie three or four times before seeing this new remake. I have not done that yet. I've just seen it the one time. But I can guarantee you that this is a movie I will be revisiting many times in the future. This has also given me the desire to dive into all the other "Ghost in the Shell" material, of which there is many as this series began in 1989 with the original manga and has since been adapted into various movies and TV shows, with the aforementioned 1995 anime film directed by Mamoru Oshii being perhaps the most well-known and well-liked of the bunch.

The big question here is how does this 2017 live-action remake hold up? While I can't speak for those who have been fans for 20+ years, I honestly think they did a pretty decent job here. Of course it's not on the same level of the 1995 film, but as I said with the "Beauty and the Beast" remake a couple of weeks ago, if your bar is that a remake has to be on the same level or better as the source material or else you will consider it a big piece of trash, well I don't think that's super fair. Yes, purely awful live-action remakes of beloved animated films or TV shows do exist, such as "Dragonball Evolution" or M. Night Shyamalan's "The Last Airbender," but rest assured that our current "Ghost in the Shell" is NOT on the level of those movies. In fact, when it comes to remakes like this, I think "Ghost in the Shell" is one of the better remakes. Sure, if I were to buy, watch and re-watch a "Ghost in the Shell" movie, it'll be the 1995 version and not the 2017 remake, but this is a solid choice if you are in need of a two hour escape into the world of cinema. This is a very beautiful world that has been set up with a lot of great characters and performances led by the great Scarlett Johansson. There's a lot of fantastic action sequences to enjoy and a solid story that gives you opportunities to think.

Let's start with this world that they setup. If you're unfamiliar with the anime, "Ghost in the Shell" is a futuristic world where the boundaries between human and cyborg are very thin. I believe the 1995 movie is set in Japan in 2029. I'm not sure if the 2017 movie said a date or not, but the point is we're in the future and there's the technology that has been developed where if you lose any body part, you can have it robotically replaced. Thus most people are at least partially cyborg while some are almost fully cyborg. The latter scenario is the situation for our main character, who for simplicity's sake, I'll just refer to as Major because that's what they call her for most of the movie and I'm not quite sure if our modern version kept her same full name. But nevertheless, the only part of Major that is human is her brain and her "ghost," which is essentially her soul. Hence "Ghost in the Shell." Her only connection to humanity is her soul, but the rest of her is in a mechanically created shell. And she has a hard time differentiating between human and cyborg as to what her true identity is. At least in the anime. I'll get to the themes of the movie in a bit, but this world that was set up is a brilliant and fascinating world, both conceptually and visually. I was really curious to see how they were going to pull this off.

At the very least we can say that visually speaking, this live-action remake hit a home run. They successfully pulled off this universe and is a visual masterpiece. The estimated production budget for this movie is around $110 million and they took advantage of every dollar of that budget to make this world look perfect. This with both the city itself and all the character designs. These part-Cyborg, part-human people are all really awesome. The scenes where we got to see them creating or fixing the people were fascinating. The interaction between everyone, from main characters down to the extras was fun to see. All the cinematography and lighting everywhere really added to the tone of the movie. The frosting on the cake for the movie in terms of the technical aspects was the score. The original score in the 1995 movie was very mesmerizing and almost haunting in parts, so there was a lot to live up to as far as that goes and I think they did a pretty good job matching that. This was a visually stunning movie with a mesmerizing score that did a great job of sucking you in. When you're adapting any animated film into live action, it's often hard to completely capture the magic of that world, which is why it's so impressive that this live-action managed to do so.

Lots of kudos to all the various teams in charge of the technical side of the movie. But what makes the 1995 film so good is not just the mesmerizing world, it's the themes of the movie. Movies about artificial intelligence have been done so often that they are practically a dime a dozen these days, but back in 1995 I don't know if that was the exact same story. I don't think "Ghost in the Shell" was the first ever movie to dive into the subject of artificial intelligence, but the ideas it brought up as well as the manner in which it did so, have been very influential to the sci-fi genre ever since its release. Fast forward 22 years and now we have a movie in a similar situation as "The Giver." As a novel, "The Giver" was very ahead of it's time, but it took them so long to do a movie adaptation that when they finally got around to it, so many other similar books had been written and movies made in that genre that the movie version of "The Giver" felt like an old rehash of something we've seen a thousand times, especially since they switched things up to make the story more modern and did more filling in the blanks that the novel left to one's imagination. Unfortunately the live-action version of "Ghost in the Shell" is a similar situation. It doesn't feel very revolutionary or any different than any other A.I. film.

Even if we were to pretend that both movies came out this year, given that I watched both of them for the first time this year, the way the live-action movie handles the depth and themes of the anime aren't nearly as compelling. The anime spends nearly the entire run time flooding you with various questions with the way Major acts and reacts in various situations as well as the way the story unfolds. And the great thing with all of these questions that the movie so brilliantly asks is that the movie never really answers them. Thus when the end credits roll, you are left stuck in deep thought about everything that you just watched. You want to study, ponder and reflect on everything followed by revisiting the movie time and time again in order to pick more things up that you missed the first time around in order to answer more of these questions that were asked. In the live-action version, most of this questions are a whole lot more subdued. I think the movie spent more time fleshing out the world that they created and putting together some fun action sequences while diving into the mysterious actions of this organization that Major is a part of rather than asking the same questions in the same way as the anime did. In fact, the overall story here is completely different.

I don't want to dive into too many details, but one of these instances for me where the live-action version didn't quite live up to the anime comes with Major herself. In the anime, you could tell that the line between human and cyborg was very blurred in the way she reacted to the world around her. In fact, she would often disrobe before going into battle. This was not done in a sexual way, but rather because it seemed more of a distraction for her to have them on and she didn't seem to fully comprehend this idea of privacy or even gender. There was a lot of confusion here. She also spoke in a very monotone way and never blinked. This complexity with her character was really fascinating. Many of these things were touched upon in the live-action film, but I felt it was more surface level as I didn't quite feel the complexity of this character. Like when she would disrobe, it seemed like it was done more out of necessity to follow the anime and didn't really fit in with the character. That and they made Scarlett Johansson look a lot more cyborg and fake to pull off the PG-13, thus if I hadn't seen the anime, I would be wondering why her character was even doing some of the things she did because I didn't get the sense of realism with the character or the depth of the story.

That said, the story they set up, which I won't dive into anymore than I already did, was good enough to entertain me for two hours. We had a well fleshed-out villain that was easy to get behind even if he wasn't quite as interesting as the Puppet Master for the anime. And all the drama and secrecy with Section 9 was intriguing enough. Scarlett Johansson as Major does a decent job pulling off this character. Any of the complaints I had that her character wasn't as interesting as in the anime certainly wasn't her fault. And yes, I did brush by this controversy of her being white-washed. In 2017 we search for ways to get offended and a lot of people hated the idea of an American actress playing a character that was supposed to be Japanese. Well, on one hand, this was a character whose complete physical appearance was created in a lab. On the other hand, the Japanese people don't seem to be bothered at all by this. In fact, they seem to prefer Scarlett Johansson as Major. So why should we Americans get so uptight? Another dumb 2017 controversy. Let's move on. In the end, will I watch and re-watch our new "Ghost in the Shell"? Probably not. But it's still a decent live-action remake of a masterpiece that's worth your time. I'm going to give our new "Ghost in the Shell" an 8/10.

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