August 17, 2017

Ghost in the Shell

To start with, the casting of Scarlett Johansson (naming her "Killian" instead of "Kusanagi") wasn't an issue for Japanese audiences. Or for me, though I would have preferred an "unknown" (to western audiences) actor like Ko Shibasaki in a much "smaller" (budget-wise) production. The Deadpool approach.

Both 47 Ronin and Ghost in the Shell (2017) were ruined by absurdly generous budgets. Some tightening of the purse strings, some discipline in the art direction, might have reined in the compulsion to plaster every square inch of the screen with CG effects that make no sense in the context provided.

Hollywood needs a new movie-making rule: if you want that Blade Runner "look," pretend you have to do it the old-fashioned way, on a sound stage using in-camera effects. Otherwise, don't do it.

Not only is it wasteful, but the obsession with "big" CG overlooks better "small" CG possibilities. As Aramaki, Beat Takeshi speaks only Japanese. What about other languages? Definitely Mandarin and Cantonese. Simulating simultaneous machine translation capability would open the door to a lot of linguistic fun.

Cinematographic excesses aside, the biggest problem with the latest incarnation of Ghost in the Shell (and with most adaptations of this ilk) is a needlessly muddled and hackneyed script. It didn't stick closely enough to the source material (same problem with 47 Ronin).

Though I'm afraid that still wouldn't have turned it into a blockbuster worth its $110 million budget.

The original film had no problem making back its six (that's six) million dollar budget. But like Blade Runner (1982), which failed to break even during its theatrical run, Ghost in the Shell (1995) has since garnered a reputation that outstripped its initial box office appeal abroad.

Director Mamoru Oshii sifted through Masamune Shirow's manga and extracted the two classic questions at the nexus of philosophy and computer science: 1) At what point does an complex machine gain sentience? 2) How much of a human brain can be replaced with inorganic components before sentience is lost?

Here was cyberpunk done right, that took itself (a bit too) seriously. But it was prescient. The Netscape browser (version 0.9) had only been out a year. The Matrix came along four years later, drastically dumbed down the subject matter, tossed in a big bad mainframe antagonist and tons of gun fu, and made beaucoup bucks.

Hollywood learned exactly the wrong lesson.

Okay, so it was asking too much to expect American audiences to sit through a hundred-minute treatise on cyborg existentialism. But at least director Rupert Sanders could have made a movie that didn't immediately decompose into a mess of cliches, like spending the first five minutes serving up a bucket of unnecessary backstory.

Just start with the classic rooftop opener!

Oh, and about that opener. What Mamoru Oshii gave us in 1995 was not the Major going all cowboy in a shootout at the O.K. Corral (Sanders forgot he wasn't remaking John Wick), but the carefully executed assassination of a foreign diplomat engaged in industrial espionage.

I can well imagine that the Chinese financiers of the 2017 remake weren't too keen on a story that revolved around government-sponsored hacking of foreign entities and internecine battles between competing ministries. Too relevant! Just make the bad guy a Japanese corporation. Yeah, that'll do it.

So what we got instead was Robocop. Seriously. It's Robocop meets a self-involved Bourne in Hong Kong. The use-by date on the "big evil corporation run by Dr. Evil" trope expired a couple of decades ago. Have none of these malevolent CEOs heard of fiduciary duty? Somebody fire them before they wreck another company.

(Also see Kate's comments about the uninspired practice of hiding critical information from the protagonist and the audience in order to maintain suspense.)

Major Kusanagi's past isn't an issue. Her hardware isn't unique. Ghost-less androids are commonplace (Aramaki's assistants, for example). The existential angst doesn't kick in until the cat and mouse game with the "Puppet Master" is well underway, when the possibility arises that sentience can exist in an AI without a ghost.

And that cat and mouse game is smart (though a bit talky at the halfway point). The story hangs together well after twenty years, despite the enormous technological changes. The narrative isn't pushed forward by the characters crashing through doors and shooting everything in sight and taking unnecessary risks.

Major Kusanagi is a tough, competent, by-the-book team leader. She only steps out of line at the very end, when her inner existential crisis threatens her actual existence. And once she steps out of line, all is not forgiven and she's not coming back.

It's no surprise that the best scenes in the remake are exact copies of the original. Ghost in the Shell didn't need to be redone. It's just fine as the penultimate film in the franchise. Major Kusanagi doesn't even make a corporeal appearance in Innocence, the sequel to Ghost in the Shell.

Rather, the prequels provide more suitable material as entry points for American audiences. In particular, I consider the Stand-Alone Complex television series to be better than the manga or the latter two movies (though they are different enough to defy direct comparisons).

Along with the season-long arcs, there's plenty of material in the standalone episodes, plus the feature-length Solid State Society, to fuel a franchise of remakes. Forget about evil mainframes taking over the world. This isn't Deep Blue versus Garry Kasparov, but a bunch of Deep Blues and Garry Kasparovs all playing each other.

Person of Interest was headed in the right direction before it fell into the evil mainframe trap and contended that "there can be only one" (credit for that goes to Highlander). No, in the world of Stand-Alone Complex there can be millions, if not one for every person on the planet.

Sure, a supercomputer can beat a grand master at chess or go. But a pretty good computer teaming up with a pretty good human player is better than both. This is the fundamental concept The Matrix movies failed to grasp. Self-aware machines will need us as much as we need them. (An on-off switch is a powerful thing.)

Plus, the Tachikoma robots—some the most original characters in all of science fiction—would make for a marketing tie-in bonanza.

All the necessary ingredients are there. The next time Hollywood gets a hankering to serve up the latest cool Asian fusion cuisine, well, first hire a chef who bothered to read the cookbook.

Related posts

Reframing the mainframe plot
The Medicator (they'll be back!)
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# posted by Blogger Matthew
8/31/2017 7:45 AM   
When the studio system broke down, big budgets became more important than good storytelling. (Everyone said it would be the other way around.) While there have been good big budget movies like Star Wars or Jaws to many in Hollywood are to caught up about having the best CGI or the biggest name stars.

Stand Alone Complex is the only version of Ghost in the Shell that I'm familiar with. I particularly liked the second season which seemed prescient with it's themes of terrorism and refugees from war. The major arc of the first season was about probably inspired by the high level corruption scandals they have in Japan. Those are important but not really all that dramatic.