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Review: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

I've been a fan of GitS since the original manga (comics) in the early 90's. I saw the movie in the theater in 1995 and then the sequel. I've watched every episode of Stand Alone Complex (SAC), SAC: 2nd Gig, and Arise more times than I care to admit. SAC: Solid State Society and The New (Arise) Movie mostly continued to uphold the high standard of the shows. And I've even read the three hard to find novels. The GitS franchise ranks in my top 5 works of fiction of all time and has heavily influenced my writing. It's one of the smarter works of science fiction out there, animated or otherwise. So it's an understatement to say that I know the GitS universe very well, have been waiting for a live action movie for a long time, and had high expectations for it.

I went into the 2017 GitS movie "apprehensively pumped." I was excited that a long-overdue Hollywood adaption was being made but worried about the whitewashing debates, the early reviews by critics, the plot changes, the casting, and plenty of other things. So what did I think after finally getting a chance to see the 2017 version?

Overall, I enjoyed it. The visual effects looked good, the plot and story worked well enough even if it didn't wow, and Scarlett Johansson effectively portrays the Major. It's a good-to-very good movie but not a great one. It ranks right in the middle of all the GitS works. Not the best but not the worst.

The plot was a little more straightforward, as the critics claimed. I agree that the smarts and philosophy from earlier GitS works were somewhat lacking but not to the degree that the critics bashed it. The movie needed a minute or two here and there of additional introspection by the Major and more philosophizing about the ethics of cyberization and the GitS main theme, which asks what separates our humanness (the ghost or soul) from our physical bodies and machines (shell). When sentient AIs become reality and when human beings augment their bodies with cybernetic parts, the lines blur. The other GitS works deal with the individual and societal changes in more profound ways. In SAC, the hacker-antagonist is obsessed with Catcher in the Rye. In the '95 movie, the Major constantly wonders if she is who she thinks she is. If her mind has been downloaded into a cyborg body, and if memories and abilities can be created or modified, how can she ever know if she's her original self or a programmed person? The 2017 movie explores this a little but not as deeply as fans and critics would like. It's not a huge problem, though, because the movie can be enjoyed in other ways.

I prefer to think of the 2017 movie as GitS Light rather than GitS Sucks Becauses It's Not Deep Enough. Sometimes, the light/diet version can be as good as the full sugary heavy stuff. It's kind of ironic since the animated versions are smarter and deeper than the real live action. But really, I'm just glad Hollywood didn't totally bungle the project. Let's keep things in perspective. Hollywood is primarily concerned with box office numbers, which means producers try to make movies that appeal to a wide audience. Trying to satisfy everyone means implementing great special effects (ooooh, shiny) and a watered down plot so most people can understand it. That's virtually every big budget blockbuster made ever, so don't slam GitS 2017 for the flaws of every other James Cameron/Michael Bay flick. Really, GitS 2017 could've ended up as a light-hearted romp like Guardians of the Galaxy. The latter is a fun movie for kids and people who want to turn off their brain for a couple hours, but it induces more than a few eye rolls from an educated hard science fiction fan. I breathed a huge sigh of relief after seeing that the director kept GitS 2017 largely dark and serious, which is what made the Christian Bale-led Batman movies work so well.

GitS 2017 portrays many of the iconic scenes from the '95 movie and others from throughout the franchise. The scenes arise differently and play out differently in different contexts than they did originally. In other words, the screenplay consists of mixed and reworked events pulled from everywhere in the GitS universe. Some critics labeled them as a jumbled mishmash, but I didn't have a problem with the arrangement. Events play out logically and effectively. And what did the critics expect? For the director and writers to remake the '95 movie using the exact same screenplay? I guarantee that would've resulted in even more negative responses.

Based on the previews, I had actually hoped the plot of GitS 2017 would mix the Major's false identity issues from episode 1 of Arise with the story of Kuze, the most charismatic antagonist in fiction, from SAC: 2nd Gig. If I had written the script, the story would've been a plot-twisting brain tease where every 10-15 minutes the Major would find out that something she thought was true was false. And then that would be false. And so on. But GitS only does one simple round of that, which was fine. And Kuze doesn't have anywhere near the backstory. Still, what does happen in GitS 2017 works well enough when you stop wanting it to be something that it isn't.

One big plot change was addition of Hanka Robotics, the company that creates the Major. It's still a little unclear whether Section 9 is part of Hanka or a separate entity under the umbrella of the unnamed government presiding over the unnamed city. In the rest of the GitS universe, Section 9 is a hush-hush special cyberterrorism unit. It's part of the Japanese government operating in Newport City, which rises out of the ashes of World Wars III and IV. I definitely missed the Japanese government structure and politics. As an American, that always made the plots of the other GitS works seem different and interesting compared to the same old FBI/CIA/NYPD humdrum of US police procedurals. In GitS 2017, it feels like the writers didn't quite know what to do in this area. I'm guessing they thought an American audience wouldn't relate to the Japanese government structure, so they went ambiguous.

Many critics praised Scarlett Johansson's performance, which was largely deserved. I would rate her portrayl of the Major as solid/adequate (I've never been one to put celebrities up on pedestals). The Major has never been an overly emotional character in any of the original works, and SJ did a good job of straddling the line between her human and machine sides.

I was on the fence regarding the whole whitewashing debate. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, the debate involves whether Hollywood should've cast a Japanese actress as the lead role, given that GitS is originally Japanese fiction. Some people were crying bloody murder. I saw both sides of it. On the one hand, the lead role got handed to one of the most popular actresses of our time. People will go see the movie just for SJ even if they don't know a thing about GitS. That's good for the exposure of the franchise (and will help fill Hollywood's pockets, which was the primary reasoning). On the other hand, the Major is Japanese. Her name is Motoko Kusanagi. How do you not cast a Japanese actress as a clearly Japanese character?

Now that I've seen the movie, I've decided that I'm fine with casting SJ as the Major. The pros outweighed the cons. One of the plot points I really liked was the reasoning used to justify her as both Caucasian and Japanese.

A disappointment for me was the lack of building of the other characters of Section 9. Batou is decent enough and we get to see his love of dogs, taken from GitS 2: Innocence. The actor portrayed him better than I thought from the previews, but he should've been a little bit higher brow character. We also don't get to see Chief Aramaki's connections and savvy political maneuvering. He kicks some unexpected ass and that's about it. Togusa doesn't have much more than a handful of cameos. Where were his detective skills and family? The fact he's completely human and a family man was important throughout the earlier works. The rest of Section 9 is practically non-existent. And who was the other female member of Section 9 that's never been in the earlier works? Hopefully, future movies get made in which the writers can spend more time building out these characters.

Fueled solely by money-loving greed and lacking a background or personality, the main antagonist, the owner of Hanka, is definitely one-sided. He could've used a serious upgrade. That said, the GitS universe is full of corrupt politicians and businessmen who don't hesitate to sacrifice human life to make a buck. For those of us who truly know GitS, this wasn't such an extreme departure from the norm.

The special effects were, simply put, big budget Hollywood special effects. Given recent industry trends, they were about what anyone would expect. Overall, I thought the designers behind GitS 2017 did a pretty good job of portraying the world from the Anime and manga, although sometimes the city seemed almost too Anime/cartoony. But for most part, things looked and felt right. I would've liked to have seen a musical montage without dialogue or actors like the scenes found in the first two Anime movies. That would've given the movie an artsier feel.

Final quick thoughts. The story around the short haired, freckled woman went nowhere. Was she a prostitute? The low point of the movie was the scene in the club. The clientele and situation is somewhat cheesy, and the Major spouts an eye-rolling line of dialogue. Given that was more or less the worst of the Hollywood showmanship, I'll take it. I also wanted to see more of the mother.

At the time of this post, the movie rates at 43% on Rotten Tomatoes (RT), which is a bit unfair and short sighted. I would place the movie somewhere around 70%, which makes more sense given that about 64% of audiences enjoyed it. I think relative expectations go a long way in explaining the low ratings. If a movie isn't meant to be taken seriously, the critics will rate it a lot higher. I can predict how the RT critics will rate a movie with uncanny accuracy without seeing that movie, which tells you something about their biases. Again, I'll bash Guardians of the Galaxy, which had cheesy acting and logistics that didn't make sense. But because it's entertaining, the critics overlooked its great many flaws. And don't get me started on how the critics give every Disney movie high marks even though they every flick follows the same exact pattern. Talk about cliches. But nobody cares because they're heartwarming. But I digress...

The main thing that worries me about the mixed reviews and potentially low box office numbers is whether the next GitS movie will get made. GitS as a fictional concept begs to be explored further, and the GitS universe is full of so many juicy stories that will work well on the big screen. The Laughing Man, a young Robin Hood-type hacker. The actual story of Kuze seeking independence for the Asian refugees in Japan (how will that work given that we see him in a completely different light in GitS 2017)? All the standalone episode plots from SAC and SAC: 2nd Gig. The plot of the '95 movie, which involves the AI-turned-sentient Puppetmaster. One can only hope that the director of GitS 2017 didn't start with that one because he plans to do it in a sequel.

All in all, I'm eager for GitS 2017 to come out on home video so I can better digest it.

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars (Thumbs Up)

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