Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Ghost in the Shell

Alternate Title:  Whites in the Film
One sentence synopsis:  A special forces operative with a cyborg body confronts the truth of her own past in a techno-futurist Tokyo.

Things Havoc liked:  Anime is not, by and large, my thing. Oh I've seen the classics, Akira, the Miyazaki films, Paprika, and so forth, but the conventions and cultural stamps of Anime just aren't really what appeal to me, absent a handful of exceptions. One of the biggest of these exceptions, however, was Ghost in the Shell, an animated series (and pair of films) about an anti-terrorist unit in nano-tech-era Tokyo, one that not only included excellent action and cool technological gadgets, but also involved byzantine political plots, and lengthy discussions on the ethics, philosophies, and new questions brought about by the logical extremes of the information age. Though, as I mentioned, the series spawned its own animated films, rumors of a live action Hollywood adaptation have abounded for years. And now they've been finally brought to fruition, albeit in a form guaranteed to piss off a huge segment of the population that would naturally be inclined to see the movie. Well done, you geniuses of Hollywood, well done.

So let's start with what works, shall we?

Ghost in the Shell, directed by Snow White and the Huntsman alum Rupert Sanders, is first and foremost a gorgeous film, stunningly beautiful in sequence after sequence. Much of the credit for this belongs rightly to veteran cinematographer Jess Hall, of Brideshead Revisited, Hot Fuzz, and a handful of other films. It showcases a futurist society in all its splendor and sleaze, but unlike the usual cyberpunk ultra-metropoli that one encounters occasionally in the movies, this one is filmed (usually) in the full light of day, or the sharp neon-tinted glow of a lit night. It's as if Wes Anderson decided to re-shoot a Ridley Scott film, it's that stylistically impressive, with a full color palate and plenty of set-piece imagery drawn, not merely from someone's vibrant (or depraved) imagination, but also from the anime itself. Indeed, several shots and even whole scenes are re-created from the original anime film shot for shot, including a couple of the most visually memorable ones from the entire enterprise, including a battle between a gun-wielding terrorist and an invisible assailant, filmed on a flooded street, and a sequence inside a ruined zen-temple-turned-arena featuring the aforementioned assailant and a walking tank designed to resemble a spider. The color palate is rich and deep and vibrant, with garish imagery that could have been rotoscoped off of a high-quality cartoon, contrasted with inky shadows and stark relief shots. Given that most cyberpunk seems to take place entirely within a New Jersey trash dump at three in the morning during Hurricane Sandy, this sort of thing is a welcome addition to the genre. So gorgeous was the imagery in this film, that I broke a cardinal rule of mine and saw it in IMAX 3D (the fake kind), and was not disappointed, though as always the 3D merely served to not suck the life out of the film, rather than adding much.

There are other matters of use here as well. The score, by veteran film scorer Clint Mansell, is superb, an electro-choral orchestral soundtrack that sets a techno-futurist patina on the entire proceeding. I've been a massive fan of Mansell's work since Requiem for a Dream, and he does not fail to deliver here, particularly during intense action sequences, which are not scored with pulse-pounding thriller beats, but with strange ethereal music, as though the action were but the surface elements of the true depths being portrayed. The actors themselves, meanwhile, vary widely in quality and usefulness, but particular mention should go to Danish actor Pilou Asbæk, who plays Batou, the second in command of the counter-terrorist unit the movie circulates around, as well as legendary Japanese actor/filmmaker "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, who plays the Section chief of the selfsame organization. Asbæk's character is not quite (or at all) the same as the one in the show I so loved, but I've never permitted myself to condemn a film for not being like another film I would have preferred to see, and his portrayal is actually fine, in keeping with the style of the movie this is, a monotone professional soldier and world-weary loner who keeps to himself and watches his teammates' back. As to Kitano, his character of Chief Aramaki was my favorite in the show, an old man whose experience in penetrating political and terrorist conspiracies to get to the truth of the matter was unparalleled. Kitano doesn't get to do a lot of that sort of thing, but he still gets several awesome sequences in his own right, where the movie laboriously reveals that he was five steps ahead of his opposition all along. It's nothing revolutionary, but I just so enjoy watching Kitano do his thing, that I couldn't help but enjoy every moment he was on screen.

Things Havoc disliked: Let's talk about the elephant in the room here.

Motoko Kusinagi, the main character of every version of Ghost in the Shell that there is, is Japanese. Scarlett Johansson, the actor who was selected to play her in this movie, is white. Not surprisingly, this has attracted a hell of a lot of criticism from a number of sources accusing the studio of whitewashing the movie to suit their own racist, or at least mercenary, ends. This is not the first film I've come across that has done such a thing. Both The Flowers of War and Doctor Strange were pilloried for supposedly placing white actors in Asian roles, to say nothing of the furor that erupted over Cloud Atlas. With all three of the aforementioned films, I denounced this interpretation, in the first case because it was bullshit (the character in question was white), in the second case because the movie could not have been made without making a change of the sort (such is the reality of PRC censorship), and in the third because the very purpose of the movie was to break the laws of race and gender. I believe I consequently have plenty of standing as not being some sort of easily-offended keyboard warrior looking to show off my progressive credentials to my echo chamber. And as such, I'd like you all to gauge my criticisms in context when I say that casting Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusinagi in a Ghost in the Shell movie is utter bullshit.

Forget, for a moment, that Scarlett Johansson is simply not a good actress, or at least is a very limited one. Forget that her vaunted "cyberpunk credentials" are based around a set of godawful movies that start with Lucy and get worse from there. Forget the thin excuses about whether a movie that didn't have a recognizable name at the top of the marquis would appeal to American audiences (because Lord knows the one we got with that name still managed to bomb severely). This casting decision is bullshit because it is not the only one in the movie. Not only is the main character of the film switched over inexplicably from a Japanese character to a white one, but so is everyone else in the goddamn film. The main villain, the secondary members of the squad, the scientists and businessmen at the heart of the conspiracy, everyone with a speaking role has been re-cast from their original race. In fairness to the filmmakers, not all of the re-casts are with white actors, yet somehow, as if by accident, all the characters that have nothing to do with anything, the bit characters that barely have lines or any purpose in the film, those are the ones with black and Hispanic and Asian actors, while all the actual roles, including multiple major characters from the original series/films, all just happen to have white people in them. Trying to play this off as nothing more than a co-incidence is worse than simple run-of-the-mill racism, it's the sort of racism that insults your intelligence while it's doing it.

And you know what's worse? The movie knows all this. Why else would they have basically built the entire plot of the story around the question of Kusinagi's origins, and how it is that she came to look like Scarlett Johansson, throwing out all of the byzantine plots, political intrigue, and cyber-philosophy that was at the core of the original series. Horrible as I found this decision, it isn't in and of itself a bad thing. There are movies (World War Z comes to mind) that have entirely discarded their source material and still made something great, and there is a version of this film I can imagine wherein the fact of casting a white actress to play a Japanese role would be used as an examination of the fetishization of white women in Japan. But this film is written by none other than Ehren "Fucking" Kruger, one of, if not the worst writers in all of Hollywood, and given that Tyler Perry and Adam Sandler still have careers, boy is that saying something. The writing in this film is consequently terrible as one might expect from the pen of the auteur of such works as Transformers 2, 3, and 4, The Brothers Grimm, and The Ring Two. Every line in the film is stilted, robotic, and entirely functional, serving to inform the audience that a certain character is the designated evil business leader, or the designated conflicted scientist, or that the plot is about to enter action section 4b (sub-paragraph nine). An example midway through the film comes when Johansson inexplicably walks into the home of an older Japanese woman, who, without prompting, invites her to have a cup of tea, and talks about how she rarely has visitors now that her daughter, who would be about Johansson's age, disappeared under circumstances that nobody knows about, and how much she misses how she used to do things that Johansson also does. WHERE COULD THIS PLOT POSSIBLY BE GOING, THE WORLD WONDERS?! As a result of all this, the entire film feels flat and empty, a soulless exercise in violence and pretty pictures, where every scene serves simply to get us to the next scene along the painfully pre-established "revelations" that anyone with half a working brainstem will have figured out five seconds into the film, and must then spend the next hour and forty-six minutes waiting for the movie to catch up. We get no sense of the character of the Major, of the villain, of anyone really, for the simple reason that nobody preparing the script had the skill to give them any.

Final thoughts:   Ghost in the Shell is a frustrating film, far more so than it really deserves, to be honest. It would be easy to dismiss it as the product of studio-sanctioned racial games, along the lines of the abortion that was The Last Airbender, or even simply as a low-rent animesploitation flick like Ultraviolet. But the sad part is that the movie does have virtues locked away inside it, namely its gorgeous style and distinctive visual world, one realized in loving, painstaking detail by aficionados of the genre and the source material. Yet all the efforts of a great many talented people have been committed in service of a film that is, when you get past the outrage, simply bad, a victim of awful writing, poor scripting, terrible casting, and hackneyed production overall.

At time of writing, Ghost in the Shell is in the process of losing Paramount roughly 60 million dollars, which is only appropriate given what it is. And yet what gets me is that the nominal argument for doing all of this crap has always been that in order to attract an audience, such films need to whitewash simply to get a big name actor. Leaving aside the question of whether this is a moral act or not, the fact that the movie did this and then lost a pile of money anyway, just like all the other movies that have done this (Last Airbender, Gods and Kings, 21, Aloha) should serve to torpedo this particular line of argument. Of course Hollywood is a place where people need a long time and a lot of failures to learn their lessons. But if Ghost in the Shell can serve as a stepping stone in that particular path, then maybe there was a point to the entire exercise after all.

And if not, well, maybe the DVD version will let you mute the dialogue.

Final Score:  4.5/10

Next Time:  A daring and fearless look into the philosophical nature of man.

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