Saturday, April 1, 2017

On the Big Screen: GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

It's been more than twenty years since I saw the seminal cyberpunk-style anime that inspired Rupert Sanders' new film, and to be honest I don't remember much about it apart from the giant holographic signs and Kenji Kawai's tremendous theme song, which gets a welcome reprise over the new film's end credits. After doing some research to refresh my memory, I see that there's only superficial resemblances between the two films. The new screenplay boils down to a very ordinary "everything you thought you knew is wrong" story in which The Major (Scarlett Johansson), a highly skilled cyborg working for a shadowy department of the Japanese government, learns during her investigation of a crime wave masterminded by a cyborg terrorist that her makers fed her a fake story about her human origin. The one clever thing about this is that it inscribes the controversy over the "whitewashing" of the main character into the film itself. Since Ghost is known worldwide as a Japanese product, offense was taken -- more in the U.S. than in Japan itself, as I'm given to understand -- that an American actress got the lead role. Never mind that Scarlett Johansson probably is the most popular female action star on Earth right now, and that while Marvel Studios insanely refuses to put her in a solo Black Widow movie she has been typecast in recent films (Her, Under the Skin, Lucy) as a higher form of life. Never mind that the ability to make a cyborg look like whatever regardless of the "ghost's" true identity is part of the point of the project. What mattered to those this bothers, I suspect, is mainly that Johansson, so to speak, took away someone's rice bowl. In any event, the new film tells us that the Major herself has been whitewashed, that she was Japanese in her corporeal life but changed into something else, presumably because the head man of the robotics company is white himself. This still may not make sense given that she was purchased by the Japanese government and lives and works in Japan. Taking this into consideration, shouldn't she have been designed as a Japanese? Write it off as the whim of a villain, but note also that this film's Japan is quite the cosmopolitan place.

The Major's boss (a deceptively feeble looking Takeshi Kitano, splitting the difference between his directorial and thespian billings as " 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano" in the credits) has an international but Anglophone team of agents, including rising global star Pilou Asbaek as Major's sidekick Batou, who understand his Japanese but talk to him in English, which he understands just as well. Cybernetics, I guess. I waited the whole film for Takeshi to talk English in some badass moment, but the great man actually is so badass that he doesn't have to talk anyone else's language. Indeed, this is as international a film as you'll get this year, co-financed by American and Chinese companies and boasting Juliette Binoche, reigning queen of global cinema, in its supporting cast. Unfortunately, probably for the same reason it feels as completely generic a film as any you'll see this year. It's certainly not a bad film, but by 2017 there's no way that a live-action Ghost can be the sort of conceptual forward leap that the anime Ghost was in its time. It touches only lightly on the implicit horror of an age in which identity has grown almost helplessly vulnerable to manipulation, its best scene demonstrating the point during the interrogation of a hapless human implanted with false memories, who comes to realize with horror under questioning that everything he thought he knew was ... well, you get the idea. For all its spectacle, Sanders' Ghost is merely competent rather than visionary. It's Johansson's movie but I suspect that if anyone gets a rub from it it'll be Asbaek, who cements his action-hero credentials as Batou. Overall this isn't really a bad movie, but for a work of science-fiction contemplating a possible post-human or trans-human future it suffers a possibly insurmountable handicap of appearing to look backward rather than forward.

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