Ghost in the Shell

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new film on the Thursday before release date, but I did here, so let’s see if I can unpack this complex film experience, topic by topic:

It’s a Remake

I did see the original Ghost in the Shell anime a couple of decades ago. I remember not liking it, and that’s all I remember. I couldn’t tell you if anything in the 2017 version is like or not like the original. So keep that in mind.

If you care about the premise, here you go. A woman’s brain is placed into a robot that looks eerily like Scarlett Johansson, and she kicks a lot of ass.

Personally, for the record, I don’t care if films get remade. Bad, good, indifferent. I don’t care. You want to remake Die Hard, more power to you. You want to remake it for a different culture or audience? Go for it. Personally, I’d love to see the film reimagined with the lead as a woman. An Indian woman if you want. Have fun.

Actually, the way they address the fact that Johansson is playing a character known as “Motoko” is pretty deftly done.

Okay, back to the review.

It’s Gorgeous

I knew from the previews this would be the illegitimate love child of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element in look. And it works. The futuristic-retro cars, the multi-layered roadways, the endless high-rises decorated with mammoth holographic ads, the robots, the computer interfaces. Everything worked for me. It was without a doubt the best thing about the film.

The Acting is Spotty

Johansson as Major, the central figure of the story, does good work, though there’s nothing in the performance that anyone familiar with her work in the Marvel films will find surprising. Major and Natasha Romanov have similar character arcs, actually.

Pilou Asbæk turns in the best performance in the film, as Batou, Major’s sidekick. He’s funny and heartfelt and effective in a fight. He has a great presence. I expect to see more of him in the future.

Takeshi Kitano is also pretty good as Aramaki, Major’s boss at this police organization. Though, I suspect there’s some fan service for this well known Japanese actor that kind of goes over my head. There were one or two scenes where I could tell I was supposed to be in awe of this guy, and the film hadn’t really earned my awe. Still, though, nice performance.

Michael Pitt is entirely forgettable (and leaning into annoying) with his performance of Kuze, a mysterious terrorist figure that Major is chasing. Bleh.

Juliette Binoche is poorly used as Dr. Outlet, the scientist responsible for Major’s resurrection. Binoche has such a presence, casting her as this weak of a character seems dissonant.

Peter Ferdinando is pointless as Cutter, a honcho (the honcho?) of Hanka Robotics, the firm that seems to run the world with their robots. As a villain, he’s neither empathetic nor easy to root against.

The Story is Spotty

I loved the first, say, thirty minutes of the film. Then the middle third was okay. The finale was just boring. It’s rare for me to start checking my watch on a film that clocks in at less than two hours.

I didn’t analyze the story enough to really find plot holes, except for one. There is a point in the film when the robotics company guy has lost track of Major. She’s basically a robot he built, right? How can she not be lo-jacked? Dumb.

Anyway.

The Race Thing

I do have some thoughts on this. There’s been plenty of sturm and drang over the fact that they’ve whitewashed this property. As I said before, if you want to remake for a different audience and alter the race/gender/whatever of the characters, I don’t care. But the end result should be logically consistent. And this one wasn’t.

They never specify what city this film takes place, but there are plenty of hints that we’re in Asia somewhere. There’s Japanese script everywhere, the head of the police group speaks only in Japanese, most of the advertisements have Asian themes to them. There’s even a bit about Major being a refugee who came to this country, which I liked. The very Anglo-looking Johansson being a refugee puts this definitely into a different kind of world than we’re used to. All of that indicates we’re in an Asian (perhaps Japanese) place which is dominated by that culture.

But with the exception of Kitano, the Chinese guy from The Dark Knight, and one small role for a Japanese woman (which I won’t spoil here), everyone else is either European or African. (Mostly European.) So, does that mean we are in Tokyo, and Japanese culture and language continues to persist, but Europeans have taken control of the place? Or are we just lucky enough to be seeing a story that just happens to be about European characters.

I get that they were going for “colorblind” casting. But when the themes of race are baked into every aspect of the production design, you can’t simply wish away contradictions in your casting.

The Upshot

This film was diverting and enjoyable, but uneven enough that it’s hard to recommend unless you simply enjoy looking at amazing visuals.

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