A Remake Who’s Merely a ‘Ghost’ of Its Former ‘Shell’

Originally posted on thedistantcloseup.com (Mar. 31st, 2017)

Every year, it seems the summer blockbuster season starts earlier and earlier in the calendar. For so long, it seemed the January through March block was when audiences had no choice but to drudge through the dreck that no studio would have hope for, but suddenly we’re starting to see these summer-type movies, some with gargantuan budgets, avoiding the May through August dog-eat-dog landscape and pulling in massive numbers. Last year’s Deadpoolput up more than $780 million against the $58 million given to make it, and this month’s Beauty and the Beast hasn’t wasted time becoming the highest grossing movie of the year so far.

But with the increased summer cinematic warfare transferring into earlier and later parts of the year – some might say that’s an indication we’re headed towards franchise films being our only choices at the theater, though I think that’s a little too alarmist – some are still finding the competition just as heated. The Great Wall and Kong: Skull Island have been failing to make a financial impact, and though Power Rangers’s budget was considerably less than both of those films, it still might struggle to break even with the increasing competition in the coming months.

This weekend’s live action remake of the anime classic Ghost in the Shellmight find itself in similar waters. With a $110 million production budget, its being accused of whitewashinglackluster reviews and the fact that it’s only predicted to come third in this weekend’s box office race, Rupert Sanders’s film might be in early trouble if there isn’t any assistance from the international markets. It’s a tough world out there for big budget movies, but is this Ghost good enough to lend a helping hand?

Before we go any further, we do need to address the casting decisions that left many folks outraged. Playing the lead protagonist, The Major, Scarlett Johansson responded as saying she “would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive.” In fairness to her, the character she plays, who obviously differs entirely from the original manga’s Motoko Kusanagi, is written as someone whose Asian ‘ghost’ was arbitrarily given a white ‘shell’ when only her brain could be saved from a terrible accident.

Though Johansson isn’t completely out of the woods for accepting the role in the first place, the brunt of the criticisms should mostly fall upon the trio of writers for actively whitewashing the character on two separate levels. Not only did they think it wise to replace the original Japanese protagonist with a white one, they wrote the character as one who was originally Asian, but now looks white thanks to Hanka Robotics. I suppose they thought their multicultural depiction of society was good enough.

Though what should we expect when one-third of the group is partially responsible for Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise continuing to see the light of day.

As far as the movie itself is concerned, I’ve seen worse so far this year. Above all, the film is certainly pretty to look at. The production design is solidly slick and the stylish combination of bursting colors throughout make for some decent visuals. If anything, Ghost in the Shell is an effective argument for Blu-ray over DVD. Overall, the performances are compelling enough, particularly from Michael Pitt’s The Laughing Man, Pilou Asbæk’s Batou and Johansson’s The Major, even if sometimes the latter comes across as Natasha Romanoff with less feeling – to be fair, it makes sense given the narrative’s thematic exploration of self-identity.

Speaking of which, even with artificial intelligence being such a popular narrative arc and thematic focal point for futuristic sci-fi films, the ideas of Ghost in the Shell still resonate just as clearly today as the original film did 22 years ago – and even as Blade Runner did 35 years ago. Such themes will always be pertinent in a society of near-constant technological innovation, and it’s especially intriguing to make comparisons between the script’s ruminations on the blurring line between man and machine, what is or isn’t real, and this modern era’s fascination with social media; if the ‘real’ is how we define ourselves, which is most true: our identity in reality or the selves we cultivate through outlets like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram?

Though it’s fun to engage with and contemplate these ideas, that is exactly the main problem with this remake. While the original anime was a mere 82 minutes long, this version has been beefed up to 106, including some plot points not seen in the original while surprisingly excluding some others. With a much longer runtime, Sanders’s film needed to express some urgency in the development of its narrative and themes, but his approach is far too mechanical to give it that extra boost.

It was a given that the film would be meditative for certain scenes, and those sequences are where the film is most effective and enhanced by a beautifully ambient score, but that measured pacing carries over into more expository sequences and action set pieces, with nearly static cinematography and overly careful editing making the whole product feel sluggish. Only until the final act kicks in does the film shift into overdrive, but nearly the entirety of what comes before is too bland to leave any indelible trace of excitement. The narrative and thematic development moves on its own time, and it’s disappointing mulling over that fact when the original was able to do it just as, if not more effectively with over 20 percent fewer minutes.

In a sense, Ghost in the Shell was and wasn’t a waste of time, but if some box office predictions are any indication, it just may be a waste of calendar space and well over a hundred million dollars. Film business isn’t for the faint of heart, but even the people at Paramount and DreamWorks, among three other production companies, might be left clutching their mouths and stomachs a little.

2.5/5

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