Sunday, April 14, 2024

Ghost in the Shell Begs the Question ‘Who Asked For This?’

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Scarlett Johansson seems to love toying with our perception of her.  When she’s not playing Marvel’s Black Widow, she seems to delight in deconstructing her image. As one of the top leading Hollywood actors working right now, she is also one of the most feminine. For a while, it seemed she was hired more for her body than for what she brought to a role.

But lately, she seems to be rebelling against her feminine perception in a sort of abstract intellectual way. In Luc Besson’s Lucy, she spent the movie evolving into the perfect specimen only to literally become a computer. In Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, she turned how we objectify her body on its head by revealing the dehumanization inherent in the process.

Now we have Rupert Sanders’ Ghost In The Shell. Johansson strips away as much femininity as Sanders and the producers allow. Her gait, her clothes, her actions, are inherently masculine. That the movie sometimes slips into the male gaze is more fidelity to the original and the director, than anything Johansson is apparently going for.

It’s a shame Ghost In The Shell is not nearly as interesting as Johansson’s acting choices. All her diligence, raw talent, and daring choices are squandered by a movie and director too timid to do anything with it. Based on the anime by the same name, unseen by me, the film was groundbreaking when it was first released in 1995. Fast forward 22 years the movie seems less inventive and more derivative.

The plot and philosophical ideas contained within the film, which at one time seemed fresh and insightful, now seem rehashed and pseudo-intellectual. This is not the stories fault. All stories are subject to the ravishes of time and cannibalization of other artists inspired by the source material.

While the movie is tackling such weighty questions such as “How much can we give into technology before we lose our humanity?” “What is the spark of life that makes us who we are?” “What happens when we forget that what makes us unique, our memories?”

The audience is left asking questions no less weighty. “Is that Juliette Binoche? Why did they get Juliette Binoche for this?” “Didn’t they do this in Lawnmower Man?” “Wait, we’re in Tokyo, and all the main characters are white. Whaaaat?”

How have we come to this? How could a live action movie, based on a seminal anime and manga series, about a woman who is a cybernetic super cop set in a futuristic noirish Tokyo, with one of Hollywood’s most popular and talented leading ladies be this bland and boring? Putting aside the whitewashing, for the moment, this movie is deathly dull. As stated earlier Johansson as Major is fine, given what she has to work with.

This could have been an excellent performance, but because everything is so staid and overly stylized, it’s merely serviceable. This is a case of an actor not being supported by her director. At times it even feels like the two are at cross purposes.

Major’s investigative crew, a rogue gallery of noir and police procedural cliches, are the saving grace in this movie. Batou (Pilou Asbaek) as Major’s stoic and silent partner in crime, while monotone, has enough presence and humor that his scenes with the Major allow the movie to be somewhat bearable. The secret star of all this though is the Major’s boss Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano). A hard boiled, weathered, crusty old man with a hound dog’s nose for the truth.

Sadly we’re left to spend much of the time dredging through a conspiracy that the movie mistakenly believes is labyrinthine. In reality, any child wandering into the theater and hearing any of the dozens of clues would be able to solve it. There are few things worse than watching a movie that thinks it’s smarter than it is. With each new revelation, we’re left feeling, “Yeah. Duh.”

Which is not to say there aren’t any surprises. The movie does manage to shock the audience in one respect. Much is written about the whitewashing and Orientalism, of Ghost In The Shell, but it’s all made worse when it is revealed to us that the Major, a white woman, used to be Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese woman. White people, taking a Japanese woman’s brain and putting her into white skin.

(Now is as good as time as any to remind my readers that Jordan Peele’s Get Out is still in theaters. Your money is better spent on this instead.) This tone deaf out of left field plot development totally and utterly destroys any and all good will the movie had even accidentally accrued.

Ghost In The Shell had been quietly smothering all its goodness as the film lurches through the motions. The movie was barely standing after what seems like an interminably long scene with the film’s antagonist Kuze (Michael Pitt). A character of who suffers from such a bout of ‘talking killer syndrome’ that the itch to yell “Fire!” becomes almost unbearable. Kuze is an amalgamation of too many special effects and not enough acting. The result is a tediousness that stalks the film as we fear he may show up and start talking yet again.

Sanders and his crew have stuffed this film with striking images. The visuals should be the saving grace. Every scene is crammed with beauty and wonder. The movie looks gorgeous. But so what? Gorgeous looking movies are a dime a dozen. Movies that are visual delights and nothing more infuriate me to no end.

Clearly you had the time, money, and talent. Could you not do something? Yes, film is the medium of images. But the images must mean something. They must have connection to feeling, plot, and character. When you have a movie full of striking images that are merely striking then you have made visual white noise. This is less a movie than a collection of screensavers for your desktop.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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