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Apr 2, 2017
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I set the bar really low for this one. Being a fan of the original franchise and being experienced in the many ways that Hollywood tends to ruin the beautiful subtlety of Asian filmmaking with its versions, I followed a strict mantra of “let’s not judge” into the cinema.

I told myself: lower thy epectations and take the movie on a New Criticism basis—on its own and imagining the previous two animes and the TV series didn’t even exist. I mean, as much as I could.

So here, in the 2017 version, is Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johannson). She is a top-of- the-line robot with a human brain, the first of her kind built by Hanka Robotics, and a new breed of anti-terrorist operative living and working in a cyberpunk future. She and the rest of her team are members of an elite government enforcement division called Section 9, and they are on the case of a shadowy hacker and mysterious villain Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt) when she starts suffering glitches in her “ghost” or AI (or, arguably, her soul). Because of them she begins to question the nature of her identity.

The original manga written by Masamune Shirow and the two anime adaptations by Mamoro Oshii (I haven’t seen the 2015 one) were philosophical musings about what makes us human, about where artificiality ends and the spark of life begins, and meditations of Japan’s then crisis of techno-shamanism and the possible bleakness of its future all built in shiny chrome albeit soulless. All that while serving up astonishing and awe-inspiring hi-tech action.

This Rupert Sanders-directed remake faced an uphill battle from the get-go, when the news that a Caucasian woman like ScarJo had been cast as the Major, fending off labels as just the latest incident of Hollywood whitewashing.

The Japanese consultants on the film and many Japanese fans felt this was a non-issue though, and, frankly, I felt open enough to agree with them. As it turns out, this casting a white girl in what was originally a Japanese woman’s role is the least of this movie’s problems.

The good news is that, a lot of the action was lifted straight off the anime. So, if you’re just going to the cinema to appreciate ScarJoin a very form-fitting thermoptic suit leaping off skyscrapers of a city that kinda, sorta resembles a far future iteration of Tokyo—or Hong Kong or probably even Beijingor somewhere aptly pan-Asian—then there are treats here for your eyes.

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This movie is lovely. A visual cyberpunk delight with HK wirework acrobatics aplenty, Matrix-style gun-fu moves, slick digital world visualizations, robot geishas in gorgeous kimonos, sprawling cityscapes with gigantic holographic ads flashing on every curb, and almost every human enhanced with cybernetics. I specially like that they kept the holo-koi swimming around buildings and high-rise condominiums like manifestations let loose from aninternet god’s aquarium. I would totally buy whatever that company is selling.

I also loved that the supporting cast are multi-cultural: Pilou Asbæk, who plays Batou, is Danish; Juliette Binoche, who plays the resident mad scientist Dr. Ouélet, is (duh) French. Standout roles include Chin Han (Singaporean) as the everyman police Togusa, and Beat Takeshi (Japanese) as Section boss Chief Daisuke Aramaki who is just swagger personified—he probably has the second most memorable line in the movie: “Don’t send a rabbit to kill a fox.” 

The thermoptic suit made by WETA fits and fills each curve and crevice of ScarJo’sathletic body. When she does her fighting, all of it is very much on par with the rest of her filmography as a woman of formidable combative skill (hello, Lucy and Black Widow). Seeing her move and act as the Major, I can believe she not only comprehended the character wholly and knew the nuances of her frustrations and yearnings and motivations, but there just weren’t many opportunities where she could SHOW it, and push it with her range.

Sure, there were plenty of info dump scenes where she’d mouth plot points and reiterate how her ghost in her shell was whispering so and so (it really gets irritating, this title repetition) because of such and such, but those don’t equal cinematic character development just like Spam spiced up gourmet-style is still primarily  fat, sodium, and preservatives. I like Spam but you can’t sell it to me as fresh meat. Or even real meat.

And here’s my big “but.” I think the script by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, exposition-heavy like a deep diving robot, deserves almost all the blame for the pacing problem and the, at best, thorny story. Let’s not sugarcoat it: the writing is bad. It felt like they were trying to mesh the best parts of the two anime movies and then some of the Stand Alone Complex ones; and then also inserting a third heavy-handed original storyline into the mix.

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The result is a Frankensteined narrative whose parts are all high-tech and top-shelf but was left in the care of a noob craftsman. You can see where they skimped on the assembly. Damn, you can outright point them out—watch out for the weird condominium complex scene with Major and a, uh, sad middle-aged woman. You can even tell where they missed a spot in the whole shebang. Even a blinded Batou could feel out where the stray threads and lumpy soldering in this script are, and by the by, there’s a nifty origin story of how Batou lost his eyes here.

But, back to the script, it’s horrible enough I think that it conflicted with the actor’s jobs, specially ScarJo, to such a degree that they were unable to portray their roles with the kind of precision that they could otherwise have. Acting subtlety in a scifi movie, man? Oh, yeah: Blade Runner, guys.

So really, the movie looks sexy, acts cool, and has plenty of fan service in it, with the urban flooded construction site brawl with ainvisi-cloaked Major (that you’ve likely already seen in the trailers or the five-minute previews) and the climactic showdown with a big tank (I won’t call it a Tachikoma, naaah), but it lacks heart, it lacks soul, it lacks the ghost of something yearning to truly TemetNosce.

What it says to me is that, by dumbing down the spiritual and moral ambiguities (which were, intrinsically Japanese) of Shirow and Oshii’s works, Sanders and co. took the most superficial qualities of their ideas and essentially did what almost every Hollywood remake has done: take it straight up the tower of excess. Because more always equals better, right?

Gone are the ascetic minimalism and the obvious care lavished on the atmospheric scenes. True elan and grace eludes this movie because it is a brute’sconcept of it. I still have no idea why the big corporate villain was so motivated to destroy Major. I still have no idea how the filmmakers could make such a ridiculous screw-up from such great material.

ScarJo vocalizing “Who am I?” in dozens of ways is not the path to enlightened filmmaking, sirs. You brought too many shells and not enough ghosts to this party. The ending, I assure you, will make you wish your brain had been hacked and all this was a mere glitchy, beautiful dream.

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Ghost in the Shell is now showing in Metro Manila theaters.

 

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