Monday, 3 April 2017

Ghost In The Shell

Carry On Up The Cyber

Ghost In The Shell
USA 2017 Directed by Rupert Sanders 
UK cinema release print.

Wow. Where to start with Ghost In The Shell, I wonder.

Well, I can start by confirming it was a 1989 Manga which was later turned into a Japanese anime... first as a movie and then as a series of TV shows. What I can conclude from that is that it must have been very popular and, in fact, it was certainly popular enough that even I knew of it, though, as it happens, I’ve never read the manga or seen any of those particular anime myself. So, you know, in terms of whether it’s a good adaptation of the original manga or not, I have no way of saying.

I do know, however, that while I am okay with enjoying various manga such as Lone Wolf and Cub and Lady Snowblood, I don’t seem to really get on with anime, truth be told. That being said, I’ve only seen about three of them... the first being Akira, not long after it was first released. Akira, it has to be said, left me cold and my relationship to anime didn’t improve when I saw Wicked City... which was when I realised that, although anime were filled with good ideas, they rarely made for a good, all round coherent and contained story and seemed content, probably by choice, to just be a jumble of half formed ideas with a bit of sex and violence thrown in.

That being said, I liked the anime Metropolis (again based on a Manga inspired but, as it happens, having nothing to do with Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece) and liked the way the music and story on that one fitted together in a much more satisfying whole. Still anime are not my number one go to entertainment and that’s just the way I am with them. So it would seem unlikely that I’d want to go see an American,  live action adaptation of one but... you know what... I’m so glad I saw this one. Based on the strength of starring Scarlett Johannson who I like a lot (yeah, I know, I’ll address the casting issue a little later but some of you won’t like what I have to say about that, I suspect), I found myself getting hooked in by the trailer and trekked out to see this one on the second day of release, which was a Friday evening. I was quite shocked to find the cinema two thirds empty, even on the 3D showing but... well, we’ll see what box office this takes.

As I said, I don’t know much about the original manga or the anime but judging from the film they both wear their influences prominently displayed on their sleeve because, honestly, I don’t think you would be able to get to the gorgeous visual style of this movie without being a big fan of Ridley Scott’s greatest masterpiece Blade Runner (which I reviewed here). Itself influenced, one supposes, by the emerging cyberpunk movement in science fiction at the time (which was basically still fifties science fiction but dressed up in new technology and having, seemingly, more freedom with the evolution of modern abstractions of technology, from what I can deduce) as much as Philip K. Dick's source novel, the visual style of the 1982 classic can be seen in this new version of Ghost In The Shell quite prominently. The world inhabited by Scarlett Johansson’s character, Major, being a direct descendent of that visual style in the sense of piling on more of the same and making it a bit more holographic in the way in which advertising embeds itself into the architectural structure of the environment.

I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if various crew members were huge fans of Blade Runner because, if you’ve seen the movie enough times (I must have seen it near to treble figures by this point in my life), you will notice little samples of sound coupled with the odd, stray musical note which will set off a little rush of Pavlovian joy, triggered by certain similar moments in this movie and... I’m pretty sure that’s deliberate. So what we have here is a film which feels like an ever so slightly less emotional, hopped up on acid, actionised version of Blade Runner, only told from the replicant’s viewpoint... in this case the robot (the shell of the title) which houses the ghost or spirit of the human character who has had her brain put inside the titular casing.

And that is absolutely fine.

I had a real blast with this movie, which envelops and surprises the viewer at every turn. I particularly liked that in a typically post-humanistic culture in which people are using cybernetic implants of all kinds, the movie was able to reveal sides of the various characters which we didn’t realise existed until, say, somebody takes the front of their eyes off, revealing the prosthetic enhancement within. It’s nicely paced and, although the last twenty minutes seem a little flat and less like an action packed denouement, overall the tone and spirit of the movie seduce the viewer into an experience which, frankly, I would like to see more of by the way of sequels.

The editing is fine and the scoring credited to Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe, both composers I like, seemed pretty spot on and interesting to me. Hope this gets some kind of CD release soon because I really want to grab this one.

The acting cast is great as well.

Pilou Asbæk as Batou is amazing, Danusia Samal is a shiny, brightness who doesn’t quite get enough of a chance to glitter as much as she could, as is Chin Han and, of course, we have two acting giants in this movie too. First up is the great Juliette Binoche as Dr. Ouelet, who really brings weight to the movie, as you’d suspect. The other giant being Zatoichi himself, the legendary director and actor 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano, who brings some baggage with him in some ways because, if I was the lead villain in this piece, I’d know enough not to try and mess with this guy and take him out so easily with a bunch of machine guns. Kitano is always going to win.

And then we have Scarlett Johansson herself... an actress I’ve admired for years since first seeing her in the absolutely astonishing Ghost World and whose career I’ve followed in films such as her Marvel movies as the Black Widow and, of course, her absolutely stand out role in the Scottish movie Under The Skin (reviewed here). Here she does an absolutely first class job as Major, with lovely, stilted movements at times betraying her ‘shell’ while at the same time giving us a solid presence of the humanity of her ‘ghost’ throughout the picture... it’s a nice piece of work. And I know what you probably want me to address at this point so... let’s get to it.

Whitewashing, as it’s known at the moment, is the accusation that male and female caucasian actors should not be portraying people of other origins in movies. I used to have that view sometimes, when it somehow suited me too but, honestly, it’s a bad standpoint to take. I’ll show you why I believe this using myself as an example.

When I was a kid I used to love the Charlie Chan movies and anyone who follows my blog and reads my semi-regular Chan reviews will know I still do. Of all the actors to portray Charlie Chan in US cinematic history, none of them were Chinese. Warner Oland was Swedish, Sidney Toler was from Missouri, Roland Winters was from Boston and Peter Ustinov was born in Swiss Cottage in London. However, the first two of these, at the very least, were absolutely excellent Charlie Chans but... okay... lets get in to the “I’m not a racist but...” game.

When I first saw the Daredevil movie with Ben Affleck, I couldn’t understand why the heck the Kingpin was suddenly a black guy. Same thing with Nick Fury in the other Marvel movies... how was the always brilliant Samuel L. Jackson playing the white guy who, as Sergeant Fury, headed the Howling Commandos in the Second Word War? It made no sense. But you know what? It didn’t exactly spoil my enjoyment of the movies or of the characters these actors were skillfully portraying. I got similarly outraged when Jennifer Garner, of Texas, was chosen to play the Greek Marvel character Elektra but... guess what? She did a great job.

And to even put another spin on this whole racial thing going on at the moment, there’s this new ‘outrage’ about Black British actors like the amazing John Boyega taking ‘American’ roles in films like the new Star Wars trilogy. Seriously? What is going on here? What happened to the tolerant and united society I thought we all lived in.

The thing about actors is.. they do acting.

Let’s boil that down to what it really is... they are professional liars in that they pretend to be someone they’re not to give you an interesting, enlightening or entertaining experience (and when it all comes together, preferably all three of those things). If you’re going to say they suddenly shouldn’t be pretending to be certain other kinds of people based on the colour of their skin then the issue is more to do with you than them, I suspect.

And lets also look at it in economic terms. I would have maybe picked someone like Rinko Kikuchi to play Major in this. She’s pretty good and I’m pretty sure she’d have done a great job. But I bet they wouldn’t have been able to raise half the budget for the movie without having a major star name like Scarlett Johansson involved and, so, you have to take a step back and think... if someone like Johansson didn’t get involved in this thing, there’s a strong possibility that a movie like Ghost In The Shell wouldn’t even have gotten financed at all. So, you know, have a think about this kind of thing. Also, it's strongly implied, if not spelled out, in this movie that Major's shell looks nothing like her original human body so... who says it has to be looking Japanese? Scarlett certainly doesn't.

And I wonder, just as a little last thought on the subject, how many people who have been calling for a female or black James Bond have been accusing Hollywood of whitewashing? I’m pretty sure that Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, would start spinning at dazzling speeds in his grave if such a thing happened, judging by the tone of the writing he did on these books in the 1950s... which were ‘of a time’ so leave them alone. And, you know, I’m not above feeling strongly about this stuff myself. If Hollywood tried to make a white Shaft, I would be fairly cross about it, for sure. The thing is, though, creative projects have a lot of things which the general public don’t even see and casting the wonderful Ms Johansson as Major in this is... well it’s not a major problem and, frankly, a lot of the people making a fuss about this kind of thing are coming off as either hypocritical or naive about the history of this phenomenon, it seems to me.

So anyway, there you go. I don’t want to start a debate on this stuff but I think it’s important that people who are throwing out accusations like this shouldn’t endanger box office on what turns out to be a really great little movie. Some of them, if they saw the film for themselves, might really have a good time with it... truth be told. Of course, that’s easy to say for someone like me to say, who will be turning 50 next year so, you know, hopefully some of these people will start to develop into well rounded human beings and be less stressed about all this stuff happening in the world. Because if you are going to let something like the casting of an actress get you so enraged then you will probably have a lot worse coping skills for struggling with a lot of the other, much more terrible and unfair stuff which life throws your way in your future. The world is a really terrible place at the moment... so you need to learn to swim above this kind of stuff and learn what that old saying means... “live and let live”.

And that’s me done on this one. Ghost In The Shell is a superb, almost masterpiece movie which will give you a fully immersive experience into the cyberpunk world popularised by authors such as William Gibson. My one possible complaint being that it wasn’t maybe as hard edged in the goriness department as the subject matter maybe called for... I think it could have stood going for a slightly higher rating. Other than that, though... if you like big budget special effects movies done, mostly, right then you won’t want to miss out on this one at the cinema. Great stuff.

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