Friday, March 31, 2017

Ghost in the Shell (2017) [Midnight Movie]



I have a problem... call it cyberpunk addiction. Not only is cyberpunk my favorite setting for a story, it renders me completely incapable of being objective. What this means for me, the afflicted, is I somehow love Freejack, Johnny Mnemonic, Highlander 2, dozens of B-movies which played heavily on 1990s Cinemax, and at least a few questionable Billy Idol videos. I've got a fetish for anti-heroes, chrome, Japanese uber-corporations, questions about consciousness, and bio-electric peripherals which plug directly into the brain.

I want to turn on, jack in, and drop out. (Timothy Leary, by the way, was a pretty big fan of William Gibson's Neuromancer.)

If that description reminds you of yourself, then stop reading this and go see Ghost in the Shell. Yeah, I know: remakes suck. Fortunately, this one feels more like an honest attempt at honoring the source material rather than a cheap cash-in (for what it's worth, the original filmmakers seem to be giving this one their blessing). This ain't Chips or Baywatch and, frankly, I want to see more cyberpunk in theaters (and more genre roles for Scarlett Johansson).


The original Ghost in the Shell is on my short list of favorite movies. The American remake, which initially sounded like a terrible idea (as all remakes do), looked surprisingly great judging from the abundance of promotional materials. For the record, I don't mean it looked like a great movie; I mean it literally looked great, as in the trailer's visuals were stunning. (I watched damn near every single one of the clips and trailers, and feel like they spoiled very little.)

And the movie itself is stunning to look at, too. The futuristic cityscapes just don't feel like they were made with CGI... the neon, the towers, the holographic signs—every bit of it looks convincing in the way the camera and the characters move through it all. There are details here you simply wouldn't see in most of today's visions of the future: perfectly placed graffiti, realistic weathering, storm drains, antennas, cables, etc. (How often do you see window-unit air conditioners in futuristic movies? Not very often, I reckon.) If I had to guess, most of this stuff was actually photographed in real life and manipulated in post, rather than built from scratch like a phony-looking Star Wars prequel.

On the other hand, there are some aspects which come off a little wonky. Some of the things the actors do, particularly later in the movie, look a lot more believable in animation than they do in live-action. Meanwhile, the borderline Matrix-y stuff seems a little at odds with the movie's serious, anti-fantastical tone.

So if you're new to the franchise, all you need to know is Scarlett Johansson plays The Major, a mostly cybernetic agent for Security Section 9, which is kind of like a futuristic SWAT team that does a lot of work in cyber-intelligence and espionage. (When I say she's "mostly cybernetic," I mean she's essentially a human brain in a robot's body.) She and her optically-enhanced partner, Batou, are trying to track down a terrorist who's hacking into the brains of the scientists who created The Major.


Whereas the original film ("original" to the degree it was based on the 1989 manga of the same name) was fairly dense and often ambiguous, the American version is unsurprisingly simplified and streamlined, though not insultingly so. A lot of the original questions and motifs remain, but the characters tend to dwell on them in dialogue (they say "ghost" and "shell" an awful lot, which kind of feels like Will Smith's "suicide squad" line even when it's coming out of the mouths of Juliette Binoche and Beat Takeshi). Other than that, I really don't have any complaints. I really enjoyed this movie, though I don't think the scripted content was as compelling as the visuals.

I honestly can't tell if the average moviegoer would like Ghost in the Shell. I don't even know if I would like it if I weren't such a fan of the genre, and I tend to like damn near anything. This is old school cyberpunk, not the sleek, action-oriented post-Matrix stuff. Which makes it a shame that you can sometimes see the studio's fingerprints on it... they obviously pushed for something more commercial than the original, but I have a feeling that and the watered-down rating are going to work against it finding the viewers who would appreciate it the most. Otherwise, it's the rare remake which compliments the original... if you're not automatically insulted by its existence, that is.

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