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Ghost in the Shell (2017)


Ghost in the Shell was a Masamune Shirow manga series that spawned Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime film of the same name.   As it now a popular trend, that animation has been remade as a live action (English language) feature.   Set in a future where human’s are able to upgrade body parts with cyborg versions, Scarlett Johansson plays the first woman to have her brain planted in a completely cyborg body after hers was destroyed.  This comes at a cost though.   She has very little (if any memory) of her past, and with her advanced body is used as a perfect soldier.

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I haven’t seen the original(s), and had actually disregarded the trailer of this new take as a poor Matrix rip-off at best (and nothing more than an excuse to get Scarlett Johansson in a skin tight body suit at worst).  It wasn’t until later that I read that this is the wrong way around, and that actually it’s the Wachowski’s Matrix films were heavily inspired by the Anime Ghost in the Shell series.  There are a lot of obvious cross overs, such as the blurring of reality and the ability to plug in to alternate worlds or minds via cables in the back of the neck, and I often struggled to remind myself who got there first.   The Matrix was like nothing else I had ever seen, so it may be harsh on Ghost in the Shell to say that much of it feels tired in comparison.  As incredible as the film’s future world looks (the CGI is stunning), it does all just feel lifted straight from Blade Runner and then given a CGI upgrade.  The Asian aspect to the world, neon lights, and atmospheric rain all looked great... but it did leave me wanting to get home and watch Blade Runner (and the upcoming sequel!).  Ghost in the Shell kept reminding me of other films I would rather be watching, and that’s never a good thing.
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The more I’ve read and watched about the original anime Ghost in the Shell the more I want to watch them.   They’re about the blurring of lines between humanity and cybernetics, between man and robots, and a soul and AI.  What are memories, how accurate are they, and do they make a person?   Unfortunately that theme did seem a little lightweight in this version, and I’ve read since that fans of the original felt this was a theme was dumbed down a little. It’s a shame, and became just another thing I had seen done better before (have I mentioned that I really like Blade Runner?).   If the review sounds overly negative that certainly wasn’t how I felt coming out of the cinema as Ghost in the Shell is a decent enough sci-fi film that kept my attention the whole time.  It looks superb, the soundtrack was excellent (I’ve even seen that some feel this was an improvement on the original), and despite its controversy I thought it was very well cast (I was chuffed to see Battle Royale’s Takeshi Kitano in it).  Much like Matt Damon in The Great Wall, the build up to the film's release was tarnished with accusations of whitewashing - Scarlett Johansson's Major had a cyborg body of Asian ethnicity in the original.   There is nothing in the DNA of the original that means that the character had to be Asian, but it’s difficult to disagree that this was only done to appeal to the American market and add A-List pull.  It’s interesting to note though that many audiences in Japan were surprised with the outrage it caused, and haven’t seen it as a big deal at all considering the film’s themes of self-identity and cyborg bodies.  It’s not something that will sit well with everyone.  As someone with no allegiance to the original, and viewing it as a film I its own right, all I can say is that Johansson was very good throughout and her casting never jarred once.  She was distant from everyone around her, and very convincing in the action sequences.  Despite that, I did feel that the film was short of one huge, memorable action set piece.  It never felt sure whether it wanted to be a full-on mindless action movie, or a nuanced analysis of what it means to be human - it ended up not committing to either . It’s not a film that will live long in the memory, and an improvement on the action finale that we’re given may have helped.
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From what I have garnered from reading on the film since seeing it, Ghost in the Shell is a very faithful reimaging of the anime original.  Even if the overall theme is diluted a little, some scenes are lifted straight from the source material and they looks fantastic.  The screening I saw was pretty empty (although it had been out for a few days already), and appeared to be a mix of people keen for a new popcorn sci-fi movie and others that were fans of the original (I even heard one woman hurriedly rushing through an education of the source material to her mate as the lights dimmed).   I get the impression it will cater to the latter more than the former, and despite the gorgeous aesthetics, there wasn’t too much there that will last in the memory for me.


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