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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

I definitely couldn't let this one go without at least a quick - or not so quick - look in. 

The first thing that's worth mentioning about this not particularly eagerly anticipated remake of the classic 1995 anime is that it's really nowhere near as bad as it could have been. The second is that, as someone who liked the original anime but is far from a diehard fan of it, my opinion might not matter all that much to those who greeted the news of this remake with the most trepidation.

I also haven't read the original manga and my only experience of the ever-widening world of Ghost in the Shell (there was a new animated film released as recently as 2015) beyond the original anime is catching an episode of the Stand Alone Complex TV shows back when they were shown quite regularly as part of an anime block on one of South Africa's long-defunct Sattelite channels. I know enough, however, to know that a different take on Masamune Shirow's original manga is pretty much par for the course right now. Even the original anime was apparently a huge departure from its source.

I mention all this because, though it might be interesting to view the latest version of Ghost in the Shell through totally new eyes, it does undeniably stand in the shadow of the original. At the same time, though, that hardly means that it is automatically worse just because it doesn't follow the original beat for beat.

The best way to describe what director Rupert Sanders and screenwriters Jamie Moss and William Wheeler do with their take on the beloved anime is that they take a number of the most iconic scenes from Mamoru Oshii's original and remixes them into a rather different story.

The major story beats are the same, to be sure, as we follow the Major (Scarlett Johansson, continuing her reign as the current queen of genre cinema with a performance that is -absolutely appropriately - both stiffly robotic and warmly human), a cyborg of sorts whose human brain is ensconced in an entirely artificial body, working with her anti-terrorist group, Section 9, to stop a powerful enemy who is using his/its ability to hack into the brains of any cybernetically enhanced individual for an ultimate end-game that threatens the entire world order. There are also those scenes that you no doubt already saw in the many, many trailers released that are lifted wholesale from the anime and are, it has to be said, recreated fairly brilliantly here. Though, those wishing to see Scarlett Johansson in all her, um, glory - as you may well have had the filmmakers remained entirely true to the original with its transparent full body suit - will have to look elsewhere as the invisible body suit is flesh-coloured here, rather than fully transparent.    

Dropping the solid R-rating of the original for a more PG-13 take on the property (it's also much less bloody but not much less violent - go figure) and having some consideration for an actress who, despite baring it all in the delirious art-sci-fi of Under the Skin, probably didn't want to spend the entire film running around in her birthday suit, is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to radical departures from the original film.

First and most controversially, there's the so-called "whitewashing" of the film. Ever since they first cast Ms. Johansson, the film has been met with outrage for it being yet another Hollywood remake of an Asian film that replaces the Asian characters of the original with white Americans - which is usually only a valid criticism if the film in question is still set in its original Asian setting, which, to be fair, Ghost in the Shell actually is.

Here's the catch, though: not only does the film actually deal with the "whitewashing" head on by making it clear that though it is set in Japan, the city in question (futuristic Tokyo?) is a true cosmopolis, peopled by men and women of wildly different races and nationalities, but it uses the fact that the Major in this version has a Western name and looks an awful lot like Scarlett Johansson as a critical plot point.

Speaking of the major, without getting into spoilers, she spends much of the time struggling with philosophical questions of what it means to be human, much as she did in the anime but while the original film dealt with this question by focusing primarily on matters of the soul and the mind/ body question, this version touches on those themes but is primarily concerned with the role that memory plays in defining who and what we are.

Like so much of the science fiction to come out in the past thirty years or so, the shadow of Philip K Dick hangs over both films but while the original was more Blade Runner in its philosophy, the remake is much more We Will Remember it for You Wholesale (filmed as Total Recall) - though, of course, in terms of look, Blade Runner still remains both films' primary influence. It's a critical shift that gives the film its own unique, albeit slightly less intriguing, identity and ensures that the philosophical underpinning that was such a huge part of the original's popularity remains intact here.

The changes to the Major also changes the plot itself and the nature of the film's antagonist, making the latter a touch more sympathetic and human and making the former far more easily understandable than the needlessly obtuse anime - making this one area where the remake definitely trumps the original. In contrast, the remake may have some pretty stunningly beautiful cinematography and a decent score but it never manages to capture the genuinely eery air of the original and it fumbles seriously in correcting the original's wonky pacing by being even more guilty of somehow coming across as slow and rushed at the same time.

The bottom line, then, is that hardcore fans of the original will most probably be irritated by the changes made here but treat this as its own movie - as I'd wager, most Western audiences undoubtedly will - and it comes across rather better. Yes, it's still terribly paced and all the philosophizing doesn't entirely obscure just how under-developed most of the characters are or that, by this point, the film feels more derivative than it would have had it came out a quarter of a century ago, but it's a perfectly decent science fiction film with beautifully realised visuals, some nicely choreographed action scenes (though those not lifted straight from the anime are, without fail, less impressive) and a decent enough head on its shoulders.

It's no classic but it's no disaster either.

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