Ghost in the Shell – At Least We Had Popcorn

Spoilers ahead – for both the 1995 and 2017 versions. If you haven’t seen at least one of these two films, the following may make little sense to you.

I hurt myself today / to see if I still feel

I focus on the pain / the only thing that’s real.

This lyric was going through my mind earlier as I watched the new and remade Ghost In The Shell. Not the Johnny Cash version, either, the nobility of suffering, but rather the Nine Inch Nails version, full of inescapable, grating anxiety.

I thought that it might be a good idea to watch the original Ghost In The Shell one night, and the new remake the next day. This was my chance to see a purported classic for the first time and check if the adaptation was any good. It was also a very serious act of self-harm.

Here’s the tl;dr version: the remake was a completely different film, only keeping certain names in common with the original and ruining all the iconic shots they decided to replicate. The bad acting, boring dialogue and regular plot holes couldn’t sufficiently hide the fundamental mistakes in understanding necessary to make such an uninspiring science fiction feature film.

I thoroughly enjoyed the original GitS. Rather than write two separate reviews for each film, I’ll tackle the real mystery in the GitS remake: how did they manage to do so badly, with such excellent material? How did they ruin what they decided to keep from the original, and discard all the interesting science fiction elements from it? Unfortunately, the “why” will remain shrouded in mystery.

 

Let’s start with the most integral difference in the two films, between Japanese stoicism and American over-emotional drama. The main character is unrecognisable in the remake, going from a cool, professional assassin, calculated and disciplined, to a rebellious tweenaged pseudo-hero of justice. They’ve decided to make Kusanagi Motoko (aka Major)’s backstory central to the plot, and she spends the entire film introspecting on her humanity. It’s important, because in order to introduce this story to the wider world, the main character must be as self-absorbed and selfish as an American audience. She can’t think about her own existence while doing her bit for her team and country.

I wouldn’t have minded a different expression of Major’s character, if the story didn’t completely change to enable this boring melodrama: everything is suddenly about her. She’s the one and only special synthetic snowflake, the future of humanity, the one and only chosen one. After their first successful experiment, EvilCorp just stopped making robot-people for no clear reason and turned into resident therapists for their sole success. EvilCorp’s human incarnation on earth, Mr Cutter, is completely fixated on her and her alone. The head of the ominous Section 9 says that without her, the entire department is dead. In the original GitS, Major is just a shiny, expensive cog in an enormous government administration, which makes her  identity crisis intimate and special. Here, Major’s entire environment is justifying the amount of self-entitled whingeing she gets through while beating up baddies.

This focus on Major’s emotions just makes them boring and cheap. By contrast with the original, it showcases the worst of Hollywood clichés.

 

The second major problem in this remake has to do with the antagonist. In the 1995 GitS, the international criminal hacker called the Puppet Master hacks into certain political figures for mysterious reasons. After a few twists, we discover that the Puppet Master is actually a program created by the government’s Foreign Affairs Section 6, created to hack foreign diplomats and gain political advantages, which somehow gained sentience as it functioned. This means that the “bad guy” in the original has no physical form until the very end, when *it* “prints” *itself* a body. This is a serious question in sci-fi: can artificial intelligences have a “ghost”, can they be conscious? The Puppet Master is also going through a sort of crisis of identity, stemming from simply being free. This antagonist pushes the narrative towards a contemplative and complicated end, where Major’s thinking about who she really is genuinely affects the plot.

In the remake, the ominous Kuze is a bad Marvel villain. He’s just a twitchy, buggy version of Major, an earlier experiment who was mysteriously thrown away but not destroyed. He’s going through his own angsty self-absorbed spree, which involves killing all his creators. The screenwriters have no clue how to write science fiction if their executive change in adapting this film is to make both robot characters more like hormonal teenagers. Having this kind of antagonist isn’t just pushing the film towards an emotional, cathartic, cookie-cutter conclusion: it’s scraping all the interesting speculative fiction elements from the original, so that the 2017 version ends up being less modern and forward thinking than the 1995 original.

 

I don’t want to drag on, so now that the two main points have been made, I’ll just write about the bits that hurt me the most. Before I continue (and perhaps surprise you with the depth of my hatred for this mediocre film), please understand that despite its flaws, I was quite enchanted with the ideas of the 1995 film. This tragic parody of it had me sweating and stressing in my seat for no discernible reason for two torturous hours.

 

The scene of Major fighting on the shallow water was cool. Every other flashback to the original was either painfully embarrassing or downright depressing. The two garbagemen talking in their van was an important window of humanity in the original, and they replicated the setting just to have them turn into mindless robots before their conversation got anywhere. To be fair, I understand that these screenwriters must have been sweating at the idea of making two people sound human when communicating with each other. They went into writing for Hollywood action films to avoid that sort of work. The “diving in” scene was incredibly disappointing: this was something I was looking forward to seeing in CGI, and the best they could do was “it felt like all of a sudden I was in The Walking Dead“. The old, animated original succeeded far better at insinuating an out-of-body experience.

In the 1995 version, two shadowy sections of the government are in conflict. There is no good and evil, just personal ambitions going outside of the rules set by the vast administration. Somehow this has evolved, over 22 years, into the complex and satisfying “police good, corporation bad”. A true futuristic, sci-fi image of the evil corporation is a gigantic entity which functions a lot like a government, not something so easily put into one character, Mr Cutter. It’s such an uninspiring enemy. He even decides to personally pilot the “spider tank” towards the end. How does a company have military units in the city? Does he not have professionals to man this equipment, why on earth would the general manager do this?

Juliette Binoche’s acting is firmly seated in the uncanny valley, as she portrays things that look uncomfortably similar to human emotions. Seriously, getting blasted by this high school play-level work in the very first moments of the film set the tone for the 90 minutes that followed.

Why on earth does Major’s supposed mother invite her in her place and make tea? Major didn’t ask for anything. This bit just made no sense. On the topic of plot holes, the entire business with Major and Batou investigating the night club just made no sense, from her motivation to any of the things that happened in that sequence.

Of course, the fact that she’s the only robot and that Batou is human in this adaptation completely wrecks the genuinely touching companionship they share in the original.

If Kuze has been reborn many times and has several bodies, who cares that he gets shot in the face? How did he not recover his memories after years of not taking the medication, when it took her 48 hours to remember?

 

I have a lot more hatred inside of me, so if you’d like for me to personally shit all over any specific aspect of the film for you, please do put forward a request in the comments bellow. Overall: although some action sequences were mediocre, the rest of the film unfortunately doesn’t maintain this standard of quality. As a stand-alone film, it’s almost as bad as Lucy in terms of depthless, stupid science fiction. However, having seen the 1995 animated film, this one hurt me a lot more to see than Lucy. Please, Scarlett, stop making science fiction films. And Hollywood studios: think of Hurt, which was actually originally recorded by Nine Inch Nails. Johnny Cash took what was good about the song, and made it his own. If you can’t do the same, stop adapting films. Bad originals are less painful.

I’ll end with a quote from coldpen, who suffered through this with me: “well, at least we had popcorn”. Not worth.

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