Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Ghost in the Shell (2017) Movie Review: Revenge is a Dish Best Served...


It was one of my most anticipated movies of 2017. What struck me the most was its visual style. Futuristic, vibrant and bright with a flamboyant colour palette- a consistent tone dotted all over the movie's posters and promotional details- it was screaming wildly for attention and promised to pack a lot of fun.

Add to that the many great things I had heard about the iconic anime despite having not watched it before- the themes it explores such as the definition of humanity in an advanced society where minds could be transplanted- there is even a page on "Philosophy of Ghost in the Shell" on Wikipedia- and I had high hopes of a good time.

Unquestionably, Ghost in the Shell is one of the most visually stunning movies ever made. The attention to detail paid by director Rupert Sanders in recreating the futuristic world of the original manga series is deserving of lavish praise.

Everything from the edgy and funky people of the future, decked out in their flashy clothing, with their cybernetic enhancements, to the surreal holographic advertisements dotting the densely-packed skylines has been recreated in great vivid detail. The exceptional set design, together with its extraordinary use of visual effects, truly immerses you in the world of Major, Batou and all the other major players.

The cinematography and direction of the film is exceptional too. Sanders makes the transition between scenes smooth and non-jarring. Each scene presents a coherent picture which fits into the overarching narrative and every scene, from the birth of Major, the opening conflict with the geishas to the film's final breathtaking scene is impressively shot.

A wide range of camera techniques are employed throughout the movie including aerial shots, close-up shots, odd-angle shots such as the one where Major dives down from a building and looks up into the camera and slow-motion effects. They are combined effectively to produce a consistent tone and look for a movie with a protagonist lost in questions about its own existence.

Possessing all the hallmarks of a high-quality production, it is evident that much professionalism and dedication has been poured into the movie. The movie does not come across as just another pretentious big-budget blockbuster. In fact, it comes across as an ambitious movie, one that attempts to live up to its source material.

Technical qualities aside, the acting is also commendable to a certain extent. Danish actor Pilou Asbæk is exceptional in his role as Batou, injecting much life and dimensionality into his character. He has great chemistry with many of the other characters, especially Johansson's Major and comes across as a good team player and supportive comrade-in-arms alongside her.

Likewise, Johansson also manages to put in a decent performance of The Major too, accurately reflecting the lost and troubled commander of Section 9, plagued by missing answers to her past. Some may find her expressive range limited and other actresses more capable, but this reviewer found her performance of a certain calibre and it might be a matter of preference.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for other members of the cast. Granted, given their limited screen time, with some characters just being touch and go, actors such as Singaporean Chin Han, playing Togusa, arguably the second-most prominently featured character in the anime series, are not given the time to shine and develop their roles fully.

Despite all its meticulous attention to detail, its technical prowess and respectable cast, it is thus regrettable that Ghost in the Shell is dragged down by its paper-thin and dimensionless supporting characters.

At the beginning of the movie, the viewer is introduced to the key members of Section 9 (note the word 'key') such as Major, Batou, Togusa, Ishikawa, Saito, Ladriya and Borma. No prizes for guessing which scenes the viewer finds them in next, granted the viewer is even able to.

Having weak supporting characters is one thing. However, having weak antagonists which make a narrative's central conflict uncompelling is another thing. The movie's two primary villains are so paper-thin and poorly defined as to their intentions and actions, leaving one to wonder why the two are even villains in the first place.

One comes across as a generic cunning villain vying to protect his own interests, whose motivations are not well-explained enough, while the other, an important player in the movie's main story thread, is bent on revenge. If revenge is his intention, his inaction does not appear to reflect it.

In fact, after thrusting the viewer into the company of its villains in its first half, the movie conveniently forgets about them while delving into its protagonist's "greater" search for answers to her existence, before suddenly throwing the villains back in as it wraps.

Often accompanying weak characters in a movie is a weak plot, together with weak story threads. Philosophical questions posed by the anime such as the boundary between humanity and technology are never addressed or resolved in the movie.

The only time such concepts were even briefly alluded to was during a brief exchange between Chief Aramaki and The Major, when the former utters deep phrases such as "our uniqueness is a virtue" and when Dr. Ouélet says to The Major, "Your memories do not define you."

Even so, such phrases were uttered abruptly, with little or no context, leaving the viewer perplexed as to what they actually mean. It feels as if they were merely included to give viewers the impression, or shall it be said, illusion, that the movie is as sophisticated as the original when it is not.

The raising and exploration of such questions were elements which made the original manga stand out, which defined it and turned it into an icon of the 1990s. To lose such significant, defining aspects of the original in the leap to a big-screen Hollywood adaptation is tantamount to such an adaptation losing its essence.

If it has lost its essence, then it does not stand to be termed an adaptation, for it has become a different, unrecognisable entity with no link to its source material. It might as well be a completely independent and different movie among the countless movies produced in the world.

Alas, if one had indeed paid close attention to the phrases repeatedly used in the movie's marketing materials, one might have, unlike this reviewer, spotted a warning that the movie was never going to be a substantial piece of work.

The enigmatic-sounding phrases "They did not save your life. They stole it." and "They created me but they cannot control me." appear to hint at something deep, something substantial, something more with regards to the philosophical questions explored in the original manga series. However, in truth, they mean what they literally say.

That Ghost in the Shell, for all of its 106 minutes-long runtime, in spite of all of the homage paid to the original, is in essence, a good-looking dumbed-down revenge movie. It is visually gorgeous but not much different from the all-too-common revenge movies released nowadays. "They did not save your life. They stole it."