Ghost in the Shell (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
14Sep/170

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

In the future, technology has advanced to the point where a human's consciousness can be transferred to an artificial shell.  Major Mira Killian, after suffering severe wounds in an attack, is transferred to a shell.  As she begins experiencing ghostly glitches, she begins to suspect all is not as it seems behind her existence.  Rupert Sanders directs Ghost in the Shell, with the screenplay written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger, and stars Scarlett Johansson.

As an opening admission, and one of Ghost in the Shell's least weighty problems, I damn near fell asleep watching it.  I'm not proud of these moments as I pride myself on getting through some of the most grueling endurance tests cinema has to offer.  What hampers Ghost in the Shell the most is a lack of cinematic texture.  The production feels like someone half-remembering different aspects of Blade Runner, the original animated Ghost in the Shell, and that Scarlett Johansson is the go-to United States actress for flippy action scenes.

Shame director Rupert Sanders couldn't even get the flippy bits to have much of an impact.  There's an illuminating side-by-side comparison of the water fight Major Killian (Johansson) has toward the middle of both the live-action version and the original animated.  A standard complaint about modern action movies is that they have too many cuts and that's certainly the case here with about 27 for the live-action and 18 for the animated.  That's not an automatic negative though, and what makes the live-action version so unfulfilling is the monotony of the construction.  There's never a moment Killian's target isn't overwhelmed by the city and his momentary feeling of safety is undercut by the long-shot preparing our eyes for something to emerge from the water.

It's not all terrible, as some of Killian's stealth-based shenanigans have a bit of abstract art appeal.

Put another way, all the action and oppression communicated in Sanders' Ghost in the Shell is a foregone conclusion because of the overwhelming blandness of the city.  Of course there turns out to be a conspiracy that brought Killian back from the dead and into her cybernetic body.  You can't go a few feet in the city without running into an ominous figure hiding behind corporate logos sometimes taking the form of giant holograms.  I'll be damned if I could remember a single one of the advertisements though - there's nothing as iconic as the gigantic Atari from Blade Runner and exist as more of a nonspecific corporate menace than anything else.

This might have been alleviated with some top-notch screenplay work but the allusions to better, if not better written, films is painfully clear.  One of the recurring lines in Ghost in the Shell - written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger - is that memories define who we are less than our actions.  Setting aside everything I know about psychology and systems of rationalization, this is a stupid retread of the same territory covered by Batman Begins with less playfulness.  Further dragging Ghost in the Shell down is that this repeated mantra means next-to-nothing in the grand scheme with both Killian's actions and memories leading to key plot turns.

It's not all terrible oppressive blandness and contradictory script decisions in Ghost in the Shell, but the good moments are rare.  One shot I loved involved Killian sinking into a neural network while hacking into someone's mind.  The bubbles around her body as she sinks into darkness bring to mind normal human's need for oxygen she no longer has to concern herself with, while the receding image of the "real world" plunges her further into the dark unknowable of her target's perception.  Had the images that followed been less generic tech conspiracy with looming machines and brain hacking tools it might have moved Ghost in the Shell to indifference and not dislike.

So...the whitewashing.  Upfront - I hate it, and I hate the implications it has for the world Sanders creates in Ghost in the Shell.  It's always nice to see Takeshi Kitano pop up in anything, and he still carries a palpable menace him his Fireworks and Sonatine days that makes even the most banal orders loaded with unspoken threats.  He's also the only character who speaks Japanese consistently throughout the entire film.  This suggests a sort of blending of cultures that takes some aesthetic cues from Japan (arguably the most offensive ones like the way Ghost in the Shell uses geisha imagery), the primarily white United States influence is most prevalent.  A complicated relationship between the USA and Japan formed post-World War II after the war crime of the atomic bombs and the USA's subsequent control of Japanese cultural output.  Having the USA influence overpower the Japanese signifiers is but one more example of USA culture doing its best to control Japan's.

This is as clear an example as you can get of a shot that sets up a, "We're not so different - you and I" speech.

Then there's the matter of Masamune Shirow, who wrote the original manga and defended Johansson's casting.  I'm not going to go full "Death of the Author" here, but it's worth exploring the history of great artists commenting on their work.  Not even the author has a consistent vision of what they thought their work was going to "say" to a wider audience in the long run.  The most prominent example comes from The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, who went back to add additional flavor text and whose explanations about different characters changed over the course of several decades.  Shirow's thoughts shouldn't be discounted, but they also have to be filtered through the time lapsed between this version of Ghost in the Shell and his original work, the international system of finance that makes it possible to create a version for the USA, and his lack of large-scale involvement in this adaptation.

I'm getting further and further away from talking about Ghost in the Shell itself because the conditions that brought forth its dull existence are more interesting than watching the damn thing.  If you want to see Johansson grapple with what it means to be human in a profoundly creepy work of art, go watch Under the Skin.  If you want to see a sci-fi film grapple with the same question of humanity that's complex if less abrasive, go watch Her.  The only thing Ghost in the Shell works as is an improvised sleeping aid.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Directed by Rupert Sanders.
Screenplay written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger.
Starring Scarlett Johansson.

Posted by Andrew

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