For a good number of people, the 1996 film “Ghost in the Shell” (GitS) is classic dystopic cyberpunk. A movie about investigating terror plots and internal political chess games in an age where you can ‘physically’ move on the internet; it can easily be said that it is a movie for those people who like their movies to have an intellectual meat to their fantasy. For fans of the series, there is only one real debate in the community that resurfaces: ‘Which is better, subtitles or the English voice dub.
The reboot/remake/homage clip show that is “Ghost in the Shell” (2017) decided to attempt to bring both camps of the debate together. What results from this combination is just one example of a growing hypothesis that the movie development team had little to no idea what they were doing outside visuals. I am certain that, outside the actors’ costs, the most expensive component of this movie is visuals.
[It is at this point the movie will be discussed in detail, including plot elements. Continue at your own peril.]
The story of “Ghost in the Shell” centers on the rebuilding of Mira Killian, a woman who suffered a nearly complete loss of body due to a cyber-terrorist attack. Being tasked with working as the squad lead of Section 9, they uncover a plot against a large robotics firm in Japan: Hanka Robotics. But not is all as it seems. You will figure this out before the movie starts to sprinkle the bread crumbs.
Scarlett Johansson plays the role of Major Mira Killian, a fully cyberized cyborg ‘made’ by Hanka Robotics. She is the first of her kind and is prone to visual and audio glitches that make her perceive things that aren’t there. These circumstances lead to plot developments and eventually the discovery of sinister plans and histories.
Of course, that is not the entire plot, but it is all I would care to give in a regular conversation. The reason for this is the plot of “Ghost in the Shell” is extremely generic. Company with possibly sinister motives has been found to have committed acts of inhumanity, and one character wants revenge. This wronged character eventually proves to the main character the actual events that transpired and the main character finds out their actual identity and visits living family. A final showdown soon occurs with the real antagonist. The end.
Johansson’s performance as The Major is very dry, with a few spikes of emotion in their voice. As a matter of fact, pretty much the entire cast delivers a dry reading of their lines, even in moments of camaraderie where one would assume people being friends would open up their personalities. Yet, I found myself rolling my eyes anytime someone talked, as it felt like they were trying to be robotic on purpose.
I will concede to the possibility of the manner of dialog delivery being on purpose, to go in line with the film’s setting and potential meta-commentary about cybernetics. However, if that was their intention, it was a poorly made decision. If we were to compare this movie with its predecessor, 1996’s GitS had conversations about world building politics, with a nuance of voice coming from the voice actors.
Meanwhile, 2017’s GitS has the extra dimension of physical acting to accent the performance. When we set aside this added dimension, the line delivery is essentially a text-to-speech program in comparison. If we bring back physical performance to the mix, you get an entirely stiff package that is a boring slog to watch during dialog heavy scenes.
These criticisms of the main cast don’t follow to the supporting cast, but not for anything commendable. The entire supporting cast is forgettable, especially if you know nothing of the series prior to seeing this movie. There is a hierarchy of character importance, which is normal, but the lower you go down the character totem pole, the lesser the impact they have on the movie as a whole.
For “Ghost in the Shell,” I would say the pole goes like this: Killian > Hanka employees > Batou > Kuze > Chief Aramaki > everyone else in section 9. The rest of section 9 often feel like extras rather than needed characters in this movie, which is a damn shame, considering the other incarnations of their respective characters. To me, the supporting cast’s dialog and direction were developed for the sake of necessity, rather than having actual thought gone into their development.
Speaking of things that required more thought, I would like to introduce you to the character of Chief Daisuke Aramaki. He is the head of Section 9 and only speaks Japanese throughout the movie. Aramaki talks to everyone in Japanese, and everyone replies to him in English. This happens early into the movie and was where I began to lose my neutral opinion of the film.
It reeks of lazy writing and actually reminded me of some of the bad movies I watch in my free time. Granted again, there is the excuse of everyone in section 9 but the Japan native Togusa being cyberized, but that is never mentioned in the movie. In fact, I’m pretty sure I just made up a cop out for the movie to use.
Visuals are perhaps the best selling point of “Ghost in the Shell.” Massive cityscapes with equally massive holograms give the film credibility in its setting, which is only undone when the scene shifts to a dialog heavy slog. Slums are rundown and murky, which contrasts well with the technophiles that dwell within them. The city is prosperous, but that is only on the surface; going down to its dystopic foundation. Vices are prosperous, and crime is becoming more dangerous.
I must report, though, the visuals of anything involving cyberspace are often just art house dream sequences that make no damn sense other than to look pretty. You will see Killian fall through sequences of blue colored numbers and symbols, and be ‘hacked’ during a data dive. The way hacking is shown in this movie is hilarious for the worst reasons. Instead of seeing technical readouts of something happening, we are given the visualization that Killian would suck in a mosh pit as she is overwhelmed by a mob of humanoid forms made of data.
“Ghost in the Shell” 2017 is a movie that prefers style over substance. It works when the other elements of a movie are at least nothing special, but GitS does not fit this description. If you want to see this movie based on the visuals alone, I can understand that. However, I will leave you with the third-grade level meta-commentary the film spouts a few times in its runtime. Paraphrased of course.
“Our identities aren’t defined by memories. Actions are what define us.” I find it amusing that the writers don’t understand that the latter leads to the former; which in turn, influences the latter. Where the hell do the writers think information about our actions go? In a file, kept for identity recording purposes? Unless we’re talking about the CIA or the NSA, I would recommend the writers of GitS 2017 stop studying philosophy under Jaden Smith.
Score for visual junkies: 2/5 Official score: 1/5 “A painful experience. Only masochists need apply.”