Monday, April 3, 2017

Ghost in the Shell

Mrs. Speculator and I are pretty big fans of the anime movie and series, Ghost in the Shell. Sure, there are probably people who know far more about the franchise than we do, but compared to the average American movie goer, we are probably in the top ten percent of folks with knowledge about the plot and characters. But like most franchises with which we are familiar, the new Ghost in the Shell is not for us. That should not preclude any fan of science fiction, especially fans of cyberpunk, to see it. It is absolutely gorgeous to look at—the cityscapes are spectacular. The soundtrack is delightful—I have fantasies of putting it and Daft Punk’s soundtrack for Tron: Legacy in infinite loop. But the only similarities between the movie and the GitS franchise are in pieces of the backstory, the characters’ names, and their general appearance. 

I’ve discussed in the past how being fans of a piece burdens the viewer as they take on an interpretation of that piece in another medium. David Lynch’s Dune was probably my first exposure to this; I walked out of the theater before the movie had ended on opening night, because the film ends with a thunderstorm. As I’ve grown older and more experienced in studying narrative, I can figure out why some narrative changes are made: sometimes to save time, sometimes to placate a less nuanced audience, and sometimes …I just can’t explain why. But no matter the reasons for the changes, the onus is on the viewer to set aside any preconceived ideas about the piece and to accept that what is being viewed is just a different thing. Then the critic’s job (or the viewer’s responsibility as they think about what they have seen) becomes split: does the new piece do justice to the spirit of the original and how good is the new piece independent of the ties that bind it to the original piece.

The creative staff thinking about a movie adaptation of Ghost in the Shell were faced with a couple of daunting tasks. First, the setting of the franchise is well-defined over a loved comic series, a gorgeous couple of animated movies, and several well-received TV series. How can a movie with an estimated two-hour run time hope to capture all of that? I imagine the creative conversations become a matter of choosing which elements to keep and which to not deal with and also which to modify and how to modify them. And then with a property as dense and complex as GitS thematically and philosophically, the same questions have to be asked for mainstream audiences who notoriously reject movies that require deep thought. For instance, Ghost in the Shell makes a pretense of pondering the individual’s role in an increasingly technological society—the driving question of the franchise. During the first half of the movie, Major (Scarlett Johansson) has her brain inserted into a “shell”, an advanced cybernetic body capable of some really cool tricks, but she spends a lot of her alone time staring into mirrors and looking at her appendages as if they are not a part of her. Her coworkers in Section 9 assure her that she is human, but she is not so sure, especially since her savior/constructor, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), can erase her memories and personality with a few keystrokes. But cyberpunk navel-gazing is not going to make most American viewers want to see your movie, let alone love it, so action sequences must be inserted. Instantly, the mood of the movie goes from contemplative to free-for-all, and any strong ties the movie might have had to the original franchise are forgotten in the big budget SF aspects.

The other characters in the movie are not even two-dimensional, which is also a departure from the rest of the franchise. A little effort is given to making Batou (Pilou Asbæk) more rounded, but it is cliched, so blunt and trite all at once. Togusa (Chin Han), the character from the franchise who remains cybernetically unenhanced, offers the movie a foil for Major’s meditations. Sadly, he is dramatically underused, having a speaking role in perhaps two scenes in the movie, and so the opportunity goes untaken and the movie devolves into standard SF special effects slugfest.

So the first part of the question about remakes (or re-imaginings, the term marketing folks use to give themselves wiggle room when the complaints come rolling in about the differences from the source material) is a definite no—this movie is not a good adaptation of source material. And yet, and yet, it is still a decent SF movie if you can get past its ties to the original. Its setting and atmosphere are perfect for a cyberpunk story; the music is alternatively brooding and ethereal. The city that is the setting for the story owes more to Blade Runner than its own source material; nevertheless, it is gorgeous to look at. And truly, the make-up and CGI work that went into the cybernetic enhancements of the characters is just stunning. This has the feel of what real people would do with the ability to modify and adapt their parts both for esthetic reasons and functional. The viewer is simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by the peripheral characters and extras.

Unfortunately, the plot is not very deep either. If you’ve seen two or three big-screen science fiction epics, you should be able to solve the “mystery” pretty quickly. And if you can’t figure it out, the plot doesn’t hesitate to beat the viewer over the head with obvious clues and even revelations. It’s typical fare (so far away from the depths and power of the source material) and okay for escapism. But if you want more from your science fiction, save your money for a matinee or until you can see this on demand. While the cinematography and effects are gorgeous, they do not give enough reason to pay full price for this movie, unless you have more money than you know what to do with.

The jarring dislocation between the source material and this latest incarnation just lead me to wonder “why?” It’s a decent science fiction movie. But if it is going to be so removed from its source, why bother to use the source at all? Why not make a truly independent thing, with its own characters and plot? I suspect the answer has to do with money and the inability of the “real fan” to not see the adaptation. “Real fans” just can’t stay away, so it’s guaranteed income for the movie. And if the non-fans can be sold on the worthiness of the movie, those people will come also. And that explanation saddens me because of just how cynical it is. The love a viewer has for the source becomes merely a tool for those trying to profit from it.

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