Saturday, June 12, 2021

Stubs - Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Ghost in the Shell (2017) Starring Scarlett Johansson, Michael Carmen Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche. Directed by Rupert Sanders. Screenplay by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger. Based on the Japanese Manga Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow and the film Ghost in the Shell directed by Mamoru Oshii. Produced by Avi Arad, Ari Arad, Steven Paul, and Michael Costigan. Run Time: 106 minutes. USA Color Science Fiction, Action

There seems to be a real trend in making live-action films from animated movies. Disney may be the most notable since it began reimagining their classic films starting with 101 Dalmatians (1996), a remake of the animated film from 1961, and continuing with remakes of Alice in Wonderland (2010), Maleficent (2014), a telling of Sleeping Beauty (1959), Cinderella (2015), Jungle Book (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Aladdin (2019), and Mulan (2020).

Animated Ghost in the Shell (1995).

Japanese anime would not be immune to this trend as well. In 1995, Mamoru Oshii directed what is considered by many to be the greatest anime film of all time, Ghost in the Shell, based on the manga by Masamune Shirow. That film was a huge success in Japan and was widely regarded elsewhere as well, serving as an inspiration to filmmakers such as James Cameron and Steven Spielberg. So, it’s no wonder that the latter, through his DreamWorks label, acquired remake rights to the film in 2008. It took until 2014 for the film to acquire a director, Rupert Sanders, who had only helmed Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) prior to this film.

The lead was originally offered to Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street and Suicide Squad) before eventually going to Scarlett Johansson. Johansson began her career working in small films, including North (1994) when she was ten. She made the transition to adult actress, starring in such films as Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003), Lost in Translation (2003), Match Point (2005), The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) before becoming one of the Avengers in Iron Man 2 (2010). Since then she has become one of the few actresses capable of opening a movie wide. Lucy (2014), in which she starred, would make $463.4 million worldwide.

Johansson’s box office track record would make her an obvious choice to star in this film, even though it was considered whitewashing. While the story originates in Japan, if you’ve seen the anime the main character is not depicted as necessarily being Japanese. The protest over this is an example of political correctness run amok. It should come as no surprise that Japanese audiences were not offended by her casting.

Principal photography began on February 1, 2016 in New Zealand and completed on June 3, 2016. After that, production also took place in Hong Kong. The film was released on March 31, 2017 in the U.S.

The film opens in the not too distant future when humans can be augmented with cybernetics and many have, enhancing various traits like vision, strength, intelligence, and even the ability to drink liquor without ill-effects.

The world’s leading developer of this technology, Hanka Robotics, establishes a secret project to develop a mechanical body, or "shell", that can integrate a human brain rather than Artificial Intelligence. Mira Killian, a young woman who is the sole survivor of a terrorist attack on a boat that killed her parents, is chosen as the test subject after her body is reportedly damaged beyond repair. Over the objections of Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the designer of the shell and in charge of the operation, Hanka CEO Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) decides to use Killian as a weapon.

Major (Scarlett Johansson) in action at the beginning of the film.

A year later, not called her rank, Major (Scarlett Johansson), Killian is working in the anti-terrorist bureau Section 9, working alongside operatives Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and Togusa (Chin Han) under Chief Daisuke Aramaki ("Beat" Takeshi Kitano). Togusa is one of the few “naturals” meaning he’s not had any augmentation.

Geisha robot (Rila Fukushima).

The action starts when Major and the team thwart a terrorist attack on a Hanka business conference between an Ambassador (Chris Obi) and Cutter discussing augmentations. A geisha robot (Rila Fukushima) turns out has been hacked by a previously unknown entity, known only as Kuze (Michael Pitt), and murders a hostage before she is put down by Major.

Major goes to see Dr. Ouelet about some glitches or hallucinations she’s been experiencing. While they talk, Major expresses being bothered by how little of her past she remembers.

Major gets hacked when she decides to "dive".

When she learns that the geisha has been hacked, Major decides to “dive” into her AI to investigate for answers. But what she finds is that the hacker is still active in the AI and attempts to hack Major. She has to be pulled out of it by her partner, Batou, who disconnects her from the geisha.

But despite the abbreviated dive, Major has learned enough to trace the hacker to a Yakuza nightclub, where they are lured into a trap. The team, which has been keeping in touch using mind-com, is cut off from one another. Major is tortured briefly, but manages to defeat her captors and Batou comes to her aid. When they investigate further into the nightclub, Major realizes there is a bomb about to go off. She pushes Batou away, but not before her shell is damaged badly and Batou’s eyes are destroyed. She gets her shell fixed and Batou gets new augmented eyes that allow him night vision as well as x-ray vision.

Cutter goes to see Chief Daisuke Aramaki and is enraged by Major's actions. He threatens to have Section 9 shut down if Aramaki can’t keep her in line.

Meanwhile, Kuze is not done and tracks down Hanka consultant Dr. Dahlin (Anamaria Marinca) and kills her. Her murder is linked to the deaths of other Hanka senior researchers and the team realizes that Dr. Ouelet is the next target. But she is in transit, which somehow Kuze is aware of. He hacks two sanitation workers and has them drive into Ouelet’s car. They try to kill her with machine guns and are interrupted when Major and Batou show up on the scene. Batou kills one of them, while Major takes chase after the other one. Like Major, the sanitation worker has a cloaking device and is able to turn invisible. The chase ends in a shallow waterway, where Major is able to subdue him.

The fight in the waterway.

Turns out the surviving sanitation man has been hacked and given false memories by Kuze. He lives alone but believes he has a daughter. During their interrogation, Kuze speaks through him and afterward, the man commits suicide.

The human network.

But Togusa manages to trace the hack to a secret location, where the Section 9 team discovers a large number of humans mentally linked to Kuze’s makeshift network. Major is captured and Kuze reveals himself to her. He tells her that he was a failed Hanka test subject from the same project that created her, otherwise known as Project 2571. He tells her that he was left to die and urges her to question her own memories. He then frees her and escapes.

Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche).

Dr. Ouelet admits to Major that there were 98 test subjects before her, but she was the only one to survive the process. She also confirms that fake memories were implanted in her brain. Cutter, feeling that Major has become a liability, demands that Ouelet kills her. But instead, Ouelet gives Major an address and helps her escape. Cutter then kills Ouelet but makes sure to blame Major, saying that she had gone rogue. He informs Aramaki that Major must be terminated.

Meanwhile, Major follows the address; an apartment where a widowed mother (Kaori Momoi) lives alone. She tells Major that she had a daughter, Motoko Kusanagi, who ran away from home a year ago and was arrested. According to what the mother was told, Motoko took her own life while in custody. Major doesn’t know how to process the emotions she’s feeling and turns to Aramaki. He intentionally allows Cutter to listen in on their conversation. Aramaki informs Major that he’s going to see the Prime Minister.

On his way, Aramaki is ambushed by some of Cutter’s men. With the help of Batou and Togusa, Cutter’s men are defeated. Aramaki delivers one of the movie’s best lines, “Never send a rabbit to kill a fox”, just before he puts a bullet in the group’s leader.

Major goes to the hideaway where Motoko was last seen. There, she and Kuze meet. She realizes that he used to be called Hideo and that they were once a couple. They used to be anti-augmentation radicals before they were abducted by Hanka and used for experiments.

Kuze (Michael Pitt) and Major wounded after an attack.

Knowing where they are, Cutter deploys a “spider-tank” to kill them. Major manages to avoid being shot and manages to tear off the tank’s motor, losing her left arm when she pulls the lid off the casing. But Kuze is mortally wounded. He offers to merge his ghost with Major’s before a Hanka sniper shoots and kills him. Batou arrives and takes out the helicopter the sniper is in.

Meanwhile, after Aramaki returns from the Prime Minister to arrest Cutter, but he resists. With Major’s consent, Aramaki shoots and kills Cutter right then and there.

Major back to surveying the city.

After being repaired, Major goes to Motoko’s burial site, a multi-tiered cemetery. There she runs into her mother and tells her she doesn’t have to ever come back there. Having reconnected with her mother, Major returns to work at Section 9.

The live-action film is not simply limited to the original anime film, but mixes in elements from the TV series, Stand Alone Complex, as well as adds some of its own twists. An example of the latter is Major’s "memory glitches" that were never mentioned in the original movie. In fact, she has no real backstory.

While not in the original film, Major’s origin story is quite different than what is depicted in the remake. Rather than being a young woman whose brain is transferred into a cybernetic body, according to the TV series, Major had a defective body, and her brain was transferred into a cyber brain before she was born.

Hanka robotics doesn't exist in the original movie. It was Megatech that made Major's body and there is no main villain in the original story.

If you’ve watched the anime, there will be scenes that you will recognize. The fight scene in shallow water and the ambush of Kuze and Major happened, however under different circumstances. The sanitation worker in the anime, whom Major fights in the waterway was not trying to kill anyone, but rather was hacking on behalf of The Puppet Master, a character Kuze replaces. The shootout at the end was set up through different circumstances as well.

Rather than following her memories, Major, called Motoko in the original, is following The Puppet Master to an abandoned building where they are ambushed by Section 6 agents. Section 6 in the original was one of nine Public Security Bureaus and a rival unit to Section 9. Section 6, which due to maintenance and political concerns, members do not have cyberization/prosthetics, is ironically replaced by Hanka, the leading corporation for human augmentation.

The changes in the storyline make the film seem more like a hard-to-follow murder mystery than a science fiction exploration of what it means to be human in a world where natural humans are a rare and vanishing breed. Is the presence of the soul, or ghost, enough to be considered human? While the remake also tackles this same issue, it does so in a more convoluted way.

Perhaps in an effort to make Major more relatable, the remake gives her character background and introduces her mother into the mix. This really doesn’t work as well as intended. Major, as Johansson plays her, is still very robotic in movement and how she relates to the world around her. Her portrayal seems true to the character but doesn’t make her relatable.

In an odd twist, everyone in the film speaks English with the exception of Aramaki, who only communicates in Japanese. It is a little jarring to go from listening to the dialogue to reading it, but it helps the story to stay true to its Japanese roots.

In the design of the city, advertisement is everywhere in the form of multi-storied holograms that move and sometimes speak, but they seem more impractical than anything else. With the exception of the occasional corporate names, it is never really clear what they are supposed to be selling. If the goal was to show an overcrowded city complete with urban plight, mission accomplished.

The cast is an international mix. Besides Johansson there is Aramaki played by "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, a Japanese comedian, television personality, director, actor, author, and screenwriter; Kuze played by American Michael Pitt, an actor, model and musician; Batou played by Pilou Asbæk, a Danish-born actor, perhaps best known for playing Euron Greyjoy starting during the sixth season of HBO's Game of Thrones; Togusa played by Chin Han, a Singaporean-born actor; Cutter played by Peter Ferdinando, a British actor; and Dr. Ouelet is played by Juliette Binoche, a French actress. For the most part, the acting is good though most are constrained by their characters. When you play iconic characters, there is not much room to make your own mark.

It might say something that the most emotional performance was given by Motoko’s mother, Kaori Momoi. Even though the character was never important to the story until now and her appearance is brief in the film, her reactions ring true.

Johansson does do a fairly good job of responding to her environment as one would imagine a "cybernetic organism" might. She can reason and learn like a human, but she moves slightly robotically and seems devoid of emotions. As an example, while she recognizes her mother, you still get the feeling that she doesn’t know how to embrace her.

While watching Ghost in The Shell, I was reminded of Blade Runner (1982) and not in a good way. Both films are set in large cities with very diverse populations, tracking down a genetically altered murderer; in the case of Blade Runner they’re called Replicants. Both films have a similar feel, including production design and pacing. While every detail is explicitly explained, the audience is never given a second to absorb as action is more important than anything else.

Like Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell underperformed at the box office, making only $40.5 million in the United States and Canada and $129.2 million in other territories for a worldwide gross of $169.8 million, against a production budget of $110 million. So, don’t look for a sequel anytime soon. Blade Runner had to wait 35 years before Warner Bros. decided to make Blade Runner 2049. We’ll have to wait and see how that gamble pays off. Over time, Blade Runner has turned into a “cult” classic, but I doubt this Ghost in the Shell will develop that way.

As far as a recommendation, if you’re interested in the Ghost in the Shell story, then I would suggest watching the original anime. While that film is considered a classic of anime, I’m afraid this Ghost in the Shell isn’t nearly as memorable.

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