Thursday, 6 April 2017

Review: Ghost in the Shell

I should say that I approached this film with caution. I love Ghost in the Shell, it's probably my favourite anime both film and series (including Stand Alone complex) and while I was initially excited by the idea of a live action film, I was also very wary. It's not just that Hollywood speaks a different language to the Japanese, it speaks a different language to everyone, but that I was unsure that the soul... ghost, if you will... of the franchise would transfer to a Western interpretation. The concept of the 'ghost whispering to you' seems to be something that's so intrinsic to the Japanese view of the world that I don't think it carries across into a dualistic culture, such as the Christian one that still dominates the West, where flesh and spirit and technology and nature are held to be opposed to each other. Part of my trepidation was also driven by the fact that although the trailer was stunning to watch, it seemed to repeat pieces of the action and to focus on the fight scenes. I realise that the best way to get most SF nerds attention is to offer them something exploding or something but I actually found it off putting because it resembled the other action film trailers so much.

So, yeah, I was a little worried that it was going to be awful and had already decided to console myself with the anime if I didn't enjoy it. I should probably start, then, by saying that it was a much better film than I feared, so lay your worries to one side. The film is nowhere near as bad as the controversy on the internet suggests, and I think that the writer and director did get what lay at the franchise's heart. Visually, the film is stunning, though the city's panoramic shots felt more Bladerunner than Ghost in the Shell, to my eye at least. That being said there were shots that had been taken from directly from the anime and served the film very well indeed. In fact, where images or sequences had been adapted directly from the source material they were executed with skill and precision. I shan't spoil what's been taken but if you know the anime you'll recognise them easily. The film runs the gamut between clean, futuristic shots and a grim, grimy world where people jostle and 'all of life is here'.

The film presents both the cyber and the punk elements of the genre it inhabits in equal measure and does so in a relatively uncompromising fashion, not fearing to show either the effects of cyberisation or the squalor of the world outside the corporate one. Upgrading your body is a matter of course, to the extent that Ichikawa tells the rest of the team that he's had a cybernetic liver put in so he can drink more, which I thought was a nice touch because so often Cyberpunk throws in lots of enhancements that would only be suitable for specialist roles, most of them involving fighting. So I always like it if a leisure or purely educational device is introduced. This being said, I was slightly disappointed the film didn't feature anyone with a cybernetic arm that flipped about to become a giant metal claw, as that's iconic to the franchise. Cybernetics come in a large variety of guises, presenting the idea of a market that offers many different options.

There's a clever use of mirroring throughout the film. The first and third acts start with pretty much the same shots, and the relationship between the two protagonists, Major and Batou, is cemented through mirrored pieces of banter. This fits well with the idea of the ghost and with the idea of pieces of the past catching up with the Major, and serves to ground the film.

The actors, who ironically, given the complaints of whitewashing, are actually a more diverse cast than the original anime's, play their roles well. The focus is firmly on Major, Batou and Arimaki. The others are there, but aside from Togusa they are barely introduced and don't fulfil much of a role outside of being back up. They aren't well developed, which is a shame but understandable. You only have so long and can't afford to focus on Saito or Boma so much. As it is, it's interesting to watch Scarlet Johannsen's movement and stance as the Major, and the way it changes through the story. In a similar fashion, it was interesting to see how her inability to relate to animals changes as she grows. In a similar fashion, though to a lesser extent, we see how Batou adapts to his new eyes (spoiler).

This being said there's a lot of stiffness in how the characters are portrayed, and the film feels like a study in alienation at times, with Johannsen wearing a look of confusion for a lot of the film. There are moments where she has a real camaraderie with Batou but then that vanishes again, and given the revelations of the film, it may be that the moments where her ghost is whispering to her are the ones where she seems more connected to the world.

The film isn't perfect, there were moments in the plot where I felt the characters had taken an idiot ball, and sometimes the action scenes are confusing. There are moments, too, where the transition from Japanese to Western property feels a bit strained, including the Major's origin story which left me scratching my head a little, though not as much as the central homily of the piece which seemed at odds with the story in the film.

This being said, I feel that the live action movie is a worthy addition to the franchise. It isn't the anime, but it was never going to be. Worth seeing, in my opinion.

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