Sunday, April 2, 2017

'Ghost in the Shell' review

I'm a sucker for a good sci-fi movie. While I'm able to enjoy just about any kind of film (my top two films last year were both musicals), I particularly love cinema that takes me to another universe, something that is truly unique to the sci-fi and fantasy genres. I count films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Interstellar as some of my favorites of all time, and whenever I catch word of an ambitious new sci-fi project, I'm automatically intrigued. Hollywood rarely allows for filmmakers to have free reign over a lavish, expensive sci-fi flick that isn't part of an established franchise, so when they do, it's a special occasion. When I saw the trailer for Ghost in the Shell, the stunning sci-fi visuals and thrilling concept immediately caught my eye. Sure, it's not a totally original film (it's based on a popular anime series), but it looked like the kind of gorgeous, immersive experience that I crave as a fan of science fiction.

However, there were also plenty of reasons to be concerned. Firstly, Ghost in the Shell had already garnered quite a bit of controversy before its release due to the whitewashing of the lead character, who was Japanese in the anime but is played by Scarlett Johansson in the film. This caused some to boycott the project, something that may have doomed its prospects at the box office. While the whitewashing is certainly a disconcerting political trend in Hollywood, my main cinematic concern surrounded the involvement of director Rupert Sanders, who botched his first attempt at a major blockbuster with Snow White and the Huntsman. Sanders is an exceptional visual stylist but a terrible storyteller, and I was worried that Ghost in the Shell would be a prime example of style over substance. After watching the film, it turns out that my worries were valid. Ghost in the Shell is one of the worst action movies I've seen in a very long time, a dreadfully boring, hopelessly uninspired mix of futuristic visuals and inept storytelling, dragged out at a sluggish pace that had me relentlessly checking my watch. It's almost unbelievably awful.

Ghost in the Shell is the story of Major Mira Killian (Johansson), a super soldier who fights in the highly skilled Sector 9 division. Killian was told by Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) that she was in a horrible accident, and that in order to save her mind, the people at Hanka Robotics built her an entirely new body. This is Killian's "shell," and as long as she maintains her human soul, she is essentially human. The world of this film (which isn't really all that established) features a brave new series of cybernetic enhancements, in which people are able to add robotic body parts to a human frame. However, Major is different- she's the first combination of a human brain and a robot shell, and that makes her the most dangerous weapon on the planet.

As the story begins, Major and her team (we don't really know much about any of them beyond Pilou Asbaek's Batou) are investigating the murder of a major Hanka executive. Soon, they realize that there's a trend- Hanka leaders and scientists are being murdered, all at the hands of a mysterious terrorist named Kuze (Michael Pitt). As the bodies pile up and the threat of danger grows more and more intense, the Major begins to dig deeper, and soon unravels an incredible conspiracy at the center of the Hanka Robotics empire. With conflicting reports from Sector 9, Hanka, and Kuze himself, the Major finds herself questioning her own identity, the history of her creation, and the nature of what it really means to be human. But don't worry- the movie doesn't really examine these questions in any fascinating way. If you came here to see stale action in a pristine sci-fi setting, that's exactly what you'll get.

On the surface, I guess Ghost in the Shell is a pretty movie to look at. The filmmakers certainly made some interesting visual choices, as we get the opportunity to see a futuristic city landscape (I assume this is set somewhere in Asia but it's never made clear) populated by massive holograms, slick cars, and a sort of ambient energy. Think Blade Runner with a more industrial feel. Some of these visuals are fairly cool, and the production team made good use of the film's rumored $110 million budget. But even with all of the pyrotechnics and digital razzle dazzle, there's something missing here. This can be potentially be blamed on the horrifically dark "RealD 3D" format in which I saw the film, but the technically impressive visuals felt muddy and uninspired.

Maybe it's the fact that everything in Ghost in the Shell is almost surprisingly cold and monotone, emotionless to the point of having a borderline numbing effect on the audience. There's a darkly tedious undercurrent to this film, and nothing on screen has any kind of impact. Everything is sterile and calm, which makes the fetishistic on-screen violence feel kind of unsettling in a way that I can't adequately put into words. The techno score by Lorne Balfe and Clint Mansell is admittedly terrific, but it adds to the sensation of total emotional isolation. Certain movies can exist in the pop culture lexicon on the basis of their atmosphere (see: Blade Runner), but there comes a point where a certain level of skill and intrigue is required to create a satisfying film. For a film meant to be all about the atmosphere, Ghost in the Shell's aura wears off after about five minutes.

That can be blamed on precisely two things- story and characters. Y'know, things that are kinda essential to the success of a movie. Scarlett Johansson's Major is pretty much the only character with any definition in this mess, although we do get a little bit of emotion from Juliette Binoche's mad scientist. Major is the central character of the film, and most importantly, she's the emotional core. After two acts of techno, Matrix-style violence, Ghost in the Shell takes a turn to a more sympathetic ending, and it's up to Johansson to pull it off. Unfortunately, she's not up to the task here. Her performance is thoroughly robotic and cold, just like everything else in the film. The Major has no personality, no humanity, not even a semblance of a humorous bone in her body. And she's surrounded by equally dull, unlikable people, defined by one generic characteristic. Pilou Asbaek is a general nihilist, Takeshi Kitano shoots a gun in one scene, and Michael Pitt's Kuze is a rambling digital nightmare. It's all various levels of terrible.

But the disastrous ciphers at the heart of the movie pale in comparison to the utterly apocalyptic narrative. Seriously, this movie never even tries to make the audience care about what is happening, why it's happening, or why we should care. Ghost in the Shell is another one of those terribly dumb blockbusters where the stakes are not clearly defined, the action setpieces lack any visceral touch, and the story plays second fiddle to the visuals. The story in this film unfolds at such a glacial pace, made worse by the fact that not even the filmmakers seem interested in what they're doing. Each plot point exists simply to get to the next pretty picture, and in the end, it amounts to a whole lot of nothing. It slowly sucks the soul out of your body until you have nothing left to give. Despite a plethora of interesting ideas, this is simply one of the most tedious films I've ever seen.

Ghost in the Shell was on my most anticipated list for 2017. I repeat, this was one of the 25 movies heading to theaters this year that I claimed to be very excited about. This isn't the first movie from that list to monumentally disappoint me- looking at you, A Cure for Wellness. But if 2017 has taught me one thing, it's that you can't trust trailers. Ghost in the Shell had an incredible teaser that previewed a gorgeous visual world, but I'll be damned if this isn't one of the worst movies I've seen in a very long time. It is aggressively awful and mundane at every turn, and no amount of visual panache can save this trainwreck of epic proportions.

THE FINAL GRADE:  D                                              (3.7/10)

Image Credits: IMDB/Dreamworks

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