Thursday, April 20, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: Ghost In The Shell

Ghost In The Shell was written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, and directed by Rupert Sanders. It's based primarily on the 1995 anime of the same name, which in turn was based on the 1989 manga by Masamune Shirow.

Moss previously wrote Street Kings, and that's about it. Wheeler previously wrote The Prime Gig, The Hoax, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Queen Of Katwe (he also wrote episodes of several TV series, including Empire, The Cape and Ray Donovan).

Ehren Kruger is a terrible, terrible writer of many mediocre films, which makes me wonder how the hell he keeps getting work, He previously "wrote" Arlington Road, New World Disorder, Scream 3, Reindeer Games, Impostor, The Ring, The Ring Two, The Skeleton Key, The Brothers Grimm and Blood And Chocolate

Then, because Kruger hates humanity with a white hot passion and seeks only to punish us, he entered his Transformers phase, "writing" Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, Transformers: Dark Of The Moon and Transformers: Age Of Extinction. For that last one alone, he deserves to be locked up for the rest of his life, away from decent, god-fearing folk.

Rupert Sanders previously directed Snow White And The Huntsman, which of course makes him the perfect choice to helm a futuristic cyberpunk mystery/action film.

I honestly don't understand why major movie studios keep handing these multimillion dollar tent pole pictures over to inexperienced directors who've only got one film (if that!) under their belt. Wouldn't it make infinitely more sense to give the keys to one of these expensive films to a more established director, one with a proven track record?

I can think of one possible reason why studios do this. These days movie executives just lovvvvvve to interfere with their films, making asinine suggestions in order to leave their mark on the project. A seasoned director would probably tell the studio to go f*ck themselves if they tried to interfere with his vision. A newbie director wouldn't want to make waves, so when the studio says jump, he's likely to say "how high?" It still seems like a risky proposition to me though.

The biggest issue surrounding Ghost In The Shell is of course the casting of white actress Scarlett Johansson as Major, the film's ostensibly Asian protagonist. It was an extremely divisive issue, as half the internet called her casting "whitewashing" and labeled it the worst thing to happen since 9/11. Meanwhile the other camp claimed the character of Major was never meant to be Asian in the first place, and Johansson was the perfect choice. Gigabytes of bandwidth was wasted arguing the matter back and forth for months before the movie ever premiered.

For the record, the character of Major is Asian in the film, but her brain is placed inside a robotic Caucasian body. So in that sense, Johansson's casting makes a certain amount of sense (to be fair, the rest of the cast is pretty darned diverse, featuring actors from all over the world, including Europe, Asia and the States).

Masamune Shirow, the creator of Ghost In The Shell, has yet to weigh in on the casting. However, many native Japanese fans of the manga and anime have stated they're perfectly fine with Johansson, as it never occurred to them that Major was supposed to be Asian to begin with.

I dunno... if Japanese fans are OK with the casting, then shouldn't that be good enough for the rest of us? Of course one could argue that this is just another example of Japan's long-standing tradition of erasing themselves from their own pop culture, but I don't have the time or space to get into that here.

It seems like the majority of people who are upset about the casting are American Social Justice Warriors. You know the type guilty white people who're compelled to become outraged on behalf of any and all marginalized groups. Seems to me though that white people trying to school the Japanese into how they should feel about the movie is pretty darned racist in itself.

Earlier this year Vin Diesel starred in xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage. It was an incredibly diverse movie that featured a multi-ethnic, international cast. And just this week Diesel starred in The Fate Of The Furious, which also featured an amazingly diverse group of actors.

I haven't heard one peep of praise about the casting in either of these films in the media or on the internet. Not a single word. Apparently the SJWs can only be bothered to bitch and moan when a movie ISN'T diverse, but don't feel the need to praise one if it IS. So as far as I'm concerned they all need to shut the f*ck up then. You can't boo unless you're willing to applaud as well.

This casting controversy doomed Ghost In The Shell from the very start. The filmmakers were damned if they cast an Asian actress as Major, and damned if they didn't.

Personally, I think Johansson was definitely miscast. Not because of her race, but because she's terrible in the part! The defining characteristic of Major is her inability to express the emotions she feels through her robotic body. The character demanded an actress who could convey inner conflict through her eyes and body language only. Scarlett Johansson is not that actress. She apparently confused "emotional detachment" with "boredom," as she seems like she's on the verge of dozing off all through the movie. Seriously, my computer's text-to-speech function has more vocal inflection than she does. If she couldn't care less about the film, then why the hell should I waste my time watching it?

In the end, Ghost In The Shell has far bigger problems than the color of the lead actress' skin. It's a muddled, murky rehash that pales in comparison to its source material. It raises all sorts of interesting questions about the nature of existence and what it means to be human. Unfortunately the movie couldn't care less about actually examining those topics, as it's far too busy rushing from one action setpiece to the next.

The anime was fresh and innovative when it was first released in 1995. Unfortunately it's taken so long for the live action version to hit the big screen that the story almost feels dated. In addition, the anime spawned dozens of imitators (including The Matrix films), so now it feels like it's copying other films, even though it came first.

Visually the movie is stunning, as its filled with astonishing images of vast futuristic cities and beautifully realized cybernetic machinery, created by Weta Workshop. Too bad all that talent and hard work is in service of a mediocre script.

Sadly, Ghost In The Shell is a huge flop here in the States, as so far it's only managed to gross a paltry $37 million against its $110 million budget.

Naturally the SJWs are all smugly blaming this on the casting. I guarantee you that is not the case. The popcorn-munching general public doesn't read behind the scenes film news and couldn't care less about whitewashing. They just didn't see anything in the trailers that appealed to them, and stayed away in droves.

The film's actually done quite well overseas, where it's grossed $115 million (proving my point that whitewashing is only an issue among guilty white people). That makes a worldwide total of $152 million, which still isn't enough to show a profit.


The Plot:

It's the near future, and everything looks like Blade Runner (but without the flying cars). Huge cities cover the landscape, as gigantic holographic "billboards" fill the air around them. Cybernetic enhancement is the norm, as nearly all humans are now part machine. Hanka Robotics is the leader in the cybernetic field, and is working hard to develop an all-robotic replacement body for humans.

A young woman named Mira Killian (played by Scarlett Johansson) is gravely injured in a cyberterrorist attack, and is rushed to the Hanka lab.
Her brain is removed and placed into an incredibly realistic, all-robotic body, designed by Dr. Ouelet. When Mira regains consciousness, she asks Dr. Ouelet why she can't feel her body. Ouelet tells her she'll get used to the feeling in time. Hanka CEO Cutter, who's not secretly evil or anything, wants Mira immediately assigned to his anti-terrorism squad, called Section 9. Ouelet objects, saying Mira's not ready, but Cutter insists.

Cut to a year later. Mira, who's now called Major, is working for Section 9, along with her boss, Chief Aramaki and her hulking partner, Batou (pronounced "Ba-TOO"). Major crouches on a rooftop, electronically eavesdropping on a meeting between Hanka executives, including Dr. Osmond and an African Ambassador. As the executives meet, they're tended by several Hanka "geisha-bots."

Suddenly the geisha-bots go crazy and begin killing the execs. Aramaki orders Major to stay put, but she ignores him as she activates her invisibility field and leaps from the rooftop, in a scene straight out of the anime. She crashes through the window of the Hanka boardroom and fires on the geisha-bots, but one kills Dr. Osmond before she can save him. The geisha-bot says, "Commit to the will of Hanka and be destroyed" right before Major shoots it in the head.

Back at Section 9 HQ, the team learns that the geisha-bots were hacked from an untraceable source. Aramaki then tears Major a new one for disobeying orders. Thankfully he doesn't say, "You're a loose cannon, Major! Turn in your gun and your badge!" Major scoffs at his concerns, saying her "ghost" (meaning her soul) is still safe inside its shell (her new robot body). Eh? EH? GET IT? GHOST in the SHELL? Houston, we have a title!

Major reports to Dr. Ouelet to have her body repaired. She mentions that she doesn't remember her past, but has been having brief "memory flashes" of a burning hut. Ouelet looks troubled, and says the flashes are just random computer glitches.

Major and Batou visit the lab of Dr. Dahlin, who's been studying the captured geisha-bot. Dahlin says its CPU is encrypted, and it'll be days or weeks before she can get any info from it. Major says she can speed up the process if she "deep dives" into its brain. Dahlin advises against it, but Major does it anyway. She hooks herself up to the geisha-bot and recklessly dives into its mind. She finds herself in a dance club, where she sees the mysterious Hacker, who lunges toward her. Batou brings her out of the dive just in time. Major says she knows where to find the Hacker.

They drive to a Yakuza nightclub and look around. Major's pulled into a room by two men who handcuff her to a stripper pole and force her to dance with a cattle prod. Classy! Unfortunately the room blocks her communication link with Batou, meaning she has no backup. As the men get rougher, she suddenly turns on them, giving them an epic beat down. She kicks one through the door, restoring her communication with Batou. There's a big shootout, as Major and Batou kill dozens of Yakuza goons. They see a door, and Major's convinced the Hacker's behind it. As they open it, a bomb goes off, nearly killing them both.

Cut to Major getting her body repaired yet again, while Batou's fitted with cybernetic eyes. Cutter meets with Aramaki, furious that he allowed Major to deep-dive into the geisha-bot (Plot Point Alert!). Aramaki advises Cutter to back off, as he answers to the Prime Minister, not to him or Hanka.

The Hacker visits Dr. Dahlin and rips out her cyborg eyes before killing her. Major and Batou investigate and find her body. Major searches Dahlin and finds a computer disk in her lifeless hand 
(apparently they still have physical media in this advanced future). She reads the contents of the drive, seeing it contains a list of names of Hanka employees, including Dr. Ouelet. Major deduces that the Hacker is killing Hanka employees (what a brilliant leap of logic!), and Ouelet is next on the list.

The Hacker, er, hacks into the minds of two garbage men who have cybernetic implants in their brains. He forces them to ram their garbage truck into Ouelet's car. She survives the crash, but the men leap out of the truck and begin shooting at her (um... where'd they get the guns?). Major and the others arrive in time to save Ouelet. One of the garbage men runs for it, and Major chases after him, in another scene pulled straight from the anime. She gives him an epic beatdown, and is about to kill him when Batou stops her.

Section 9 takes the garbage man to their HQ and interrogates him. He says he was on his way to pick up his daughter at school, but Major checks his history and says he lives alone and has no children. Apparently the Hacker, whose name is Kuze (pronounced KOO-zay) planted fake memories in the garbage man's brain. Kuze then begins speaking through the man, threatening Section 9. He then forces the man to kill himself.

They trace Kuze's signal to a secret location. Major checks it out and finds Kuze there, connected to a network composed of dozens of human minds linked together. He says he was Hanka's prototype for an all-cybernetic body like Major's but was considered a failure and discarded. Major sees a tattoo of a burning hut on Kuze's chest (cyborg bodies can get tattoos?), just like the one in her hallucination.

Major goes back to Section 9 and confronts Ouelet. She admits there were ninety eight failed attempts (!) at creating a brain-controlled cyborg body, and that Major was the first success. Cutter orders Ouelet to terminate Major, as she's become unpredictable and uncontrollable. Ouelet, who has a motherly bond with Major, lays her on a table and pretends to administer a lethal drug to her. She slips her an address and tells her she'll find the answers she's looking for there. She then lets Major escape. When Cutter discovers Ouelet's betrayal, he kills her. He tells Aramaki that Major went rogue and murdered Ouelet, and orders her terminated on sight.

Major goes to the address, which turns out to be a massive, crowded apartment complex. She stands in front of an apartment for a long time, until a middle-aged Japanese woman opens the door and invites her inside. The woman seems sad, and tells Major that her daughter, Motoko Kusanagi, ran away from home a year ago and got into trouble with the law. The police told her that Motoko killed herself while in custody, but she doesn't believe that. The woman says something about Major reminds her of her daughter. Gosh, do you think Major might be the woman's daughter? Subtlety, thy name is Ghost In The Shell!

Aramaki calls Major on an unsecure frequency, deliberately allowing Cutter to listen in on their conversation. He tells Major that Ouelet is dead, and Cutter framed her for the murder. Cutter sends out his goons to kill the Section 9 members, but they all survive the assassination attempts.

Major follows her vague memories and finds the burned hut. Inside she meets Kuze, who says his real name was Hideo. He tells her they were members of an anti-human augmentation group who lived in the hut (and implies they were romantically involved). Ironically they were captured by Hanka and used as test subjects in the corporation's cybernetic experiments.

Cutter sends a giant spider tank (remotely controlled by him) to the hut to kill Major and Kuze. There's another big setpiece battle from the anime, and Kuze's mortally wounded by the tank. Major climbs on the back of the tank and uses all her strength to access its hatch. She pulls so hard on the hatch that she severely injures her body, ripping off her left arm. She reaches inside and manages to disable the tank.

Major falls down beside the dying Kuze. He offers to merge his ghost with hers so his consciousness can live on in her. Suddenly one of Cutter's snipers kills Kuze. Batou rescues Major and takes her back to Section 9. Aramaki confronts Cutter (after speaking with the Prime Minister) and executes him.

Later after she's been repaired, Major visits her own grave (which is empty, right?). Her mother approaches and reveals she knows who Major really is (yeah, we figured that out a long time ago, movie). We hear Major's voiceover as she says she's decided her cyborg body doesn't define her or something. She leaps off a roof again on her next mission.


• Movies are expensive these days! Lately every time I go to the cineplex, I notice that more and more films are being produced by multiple studios, in order to spread the cost around.

It took a whopping FIVE studios to bring Ghost In The Shell to the screen: Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, Shanghai Film Group and Huahua Media.

By the way, those last two are pretty obviously Chinese studios, which I guess means they must have been OK with the film's casting.

Ghost In The Shell marks the third time Scarlett Johansson has played some sort of superwoman in a film. She was super assassin Black Widow in several Marvel Studios films (including Iron Man 2 and the Avengers movies). She was also in Lucy, in which she played a woman who gains superpowers when she begins using one hundred percent of her brain (which is total bullsh*t, but whatever).

By the way, Pilou Asbæk, who plays Major's partner Batou in Ghost In The Shell, also starred with Johansson in Lucy.

• My favorite character in the film was Major's boss, Aramaki. He was a certified badass! I particularly liked the scene in which he wiped out an entire squad of assassins with nothing but a bulletproof briefcase and a handgun.

Aramaki was played by Takeshi Kitano, aka Beat Takeshi. He's primarily an actor, but is also a director, author, screenwriter and comedian (!). Among his many credits, Takeshi starred in Battle Royale and The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (which he also directed).

Ghost In The Shell does its level best to out-Blade Runner Blade Runner, creating a vast, fully realized and complex futuristic city.

Even though Ghost's megapolis is visually stunning, it just doesn't pack the same punch that Blade Runner's futuristic version of Los Angeles did back in 1982. Part of that's due to the fact that as impressive as it is, we've seen it all before. I also think it's due to the fact that we never get a really close look at Ghost's city.

In Blade Runner the camera followed Harrison Ford's Deckard as he chased replicants through the crowded streets of 2019 LA. There was a huge wealth of detail in those shots, right down to the storefront signage and futuristic parking meters!

Unfortunately in Ghost In The Shell, Major constantly stands above the cityscape like a cybernetic deity, staring down at the streets below as she silently judges humanity. There are a couple of brief scenes on the streets, but they're few and far between, and even then the environments seem strangely uninhabited. It's almost like the only people we see are the ones in the gigantic holographic billboards!

I'm assuming this was most likely a budgetary issue. It probably costs less to create a CGI cityscape that's seen from afar than to build and populate several blocks of futuristic avenues.

• There are many ideas in Ghost In The Shell, but the one it hammers home over and over is "Our Memories Don't Define Us— Our Actions Make Us Who We Are."

OK, I gotta call bullsh*t on that one. I do not agree with that concept AT ALL! Our memories are the only things we DO have! You could lose everyone you love and everything you ever owned, but you'll always have your memories. They're a precious commodity that most definitely does define and inform who you are. Without them you're nothing. It's what makes diseases like Alzheimer's so terrifying. If your memories are taken from you, your sense of self is stripped away as well.

In contrast, while your actions are important, but they don't necessarily define you as a person. For example, I was quite the little annoying asshole back when I was a teen, and did a lot of things I'm not proud of. I left that version of myself firmly in the past though. I'm literally no longer the person I was, and those actions no longer determine who I am.

Sorry, Ghost In The Shell. Maybe you shouldn't have stopped going to Philosophy 101 after just one class.

• For whatever reason, I don't usually talk much about music in film. Ghost In The Shell features a very 1980s-sounding synth soundtrack, some of which was reminiscent of the music of John Carpenter films.

• At one point, Kuze hijacks the brains of a couple of garbage men, and uses them to attack Dr. Ouelet. 

The idea of hacking into someone's mind and forcing them to commit a crime against their will is an interesting one, and no doubt something that will actually happen if we ever get brain implants.

By the way, after the garbage men crash their truck into Ouelet's car, they immediately whip out guns and start shooting at her. Where the hell did they get those? 
Do sanitation workers in the future regularly pack heat?

• After the garbage man's mind is hacked, he's captured and interrogated in a Section 9 holding cell. He stands in the middle of the cell, hands bound and with a short cable around his neck, which keeps him in a standing position. Got all that?

As Major interrogates the garbage man, Kuze hacks into his mind again and begins speaking through him. Once he's done, he forces the garbage man to jump into the air. When he comes back down, the force causes the restraining cable to snap his neck, killing him instantly.

Eh... I dunno. That doesn't seem possible to me. Based on the length of the cable, his body only "fell" three feet when he jumped. Maybe four. Would that really generate enough force to snap a person's neck? I'm not sure, and it's really not something I wanna test out.

• Although there was naturally a ton of CGI in the movie, Weta Workshop also created a large number of practical effects.

For example, the "Shelling Scene" at the beginning of the movie— in which we see Major's robotic body being built— was completely real. Weta Workshop made a full body cast of Scarlett Johansson, then built a highly detailed cybernetic skeleton to fit completely inside it.

They also used the body cast of Johansson to design and build the skintight silicone "thermoptic" that Major wears through most of the film.

Weta also created thirteen different geisha-bots for the film. They created stunningly beautiful heads for the bots, which were worn like masks by the actresses playing the geishas. They also built several animatronic heads whose faces could open up like petals, revealing moving gears and cogs inside. Pretty cool!

Weta also created most of the props and costumes in the film, and even transformed a real street in Wellington into a futuristic environment.

• This is probably some hardcore nitpicking, but here goes...

When Major first meets Kuze, he peels away her outer face plate to reveal the cybernetic mechanism within. It's a visually amazing scene, but... why the hell would anyone ever build a robot face to come apart like that? Any time she smiled or frowned, that center piece would have to be sure and move in synch with all the other pieces on her face, which seems needlessly complicated. Why not just make one big face plate and be done with it?

• As I said earlier, Ghost In The Shell is based mostly on the 1995 anime (in look, much more than in content). The filmmakers took great care to recreate many iconic scenes from the cartoon. It's pretty amazing how close they got in some cases. Here's a look at a few of them.

The film starts out with the "Skinning Scene," in which we see Major's cyborg body being created. The filmmakers really outdid themselves here, as the live action version is practically a frame-by-frame recreation of the anime.

Is she or isn't she supposed to be Asian?

Major prepares to jump into action. Her thermoptic suit was a little more risqué in the anime.

Major falls from a rooftop with style. Again, practically identical to the source material.

She does a lot of falling in this movie.

And brooding. Lots and lots of brooding. Another spectacularly identical recreation of the anime.

The geisha-bots are pretty spot-on as well.

Major's fight with the hacked garbage man is one of the most iconic scenes in the anime. It's faithfully reproduced in the movie, right down to the buildings in the background. Look at 'em! They're identical!

The other characters are meticulously duplicated as well. Here's Batou.

And Major's boss Aramaki. Eh, not quite as close, but not bad.

Ghost In The Shell is visually stunning and filled with amazing images, but it features a muddled script that feels like it was written by a first year philosophy student. It raises questions about the nature of existence, but can't be bothered to answer them as it's too preoccupied with action setpieces. The casting controversy ended up being much ado about nothing, as the film has far worse problems than the color of the lead actress' skin. If you're really interested in the story, do yourself a favor and watch the anime instead. Sadly, I have to give it a C.

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