Ghost in the Shell (2017)

2017 #48
Rupert Sanders | 107 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA & China / English & Japanese | 12A / PG-13

Ghost in the Shell

A few decades in the future technology has continued to proliferate to the point where the majority of humans are cybernetically augmented in some way, whether it be eyes that have additional functionality, like zooming or x-ray, or fingers that split into dozens of segments to type faster, or a stomach that can process alcohol quicker… However, Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind: a human mind in a fully cybernetic body. Along with her team at anti-terror unit Section 9, they find themselves on the trail of a cyberterrorist who is murdering high-ranking employees of Hanka Robotics — the company that built the Major. As they dig further, they begin to uncover a startling conspiracy. Well, of course they do.

Although officially (as per the credits) adapted from Masamune Shirow’s original manga, this iteration of Ghost in the Shell creates a new narrative, but builds it out of liberally repurposed imagery, sequences, character traits, and more from the popular 1995 anime adaptation and its sequel, and apparently from the Stand Alone Complex TV series too (I’ve never got round to watching that so can’t vouch for its use here). Though to say “new narrative” is something of a kindness because, intricacies aside, the story isn’t new at all. A familiar narrative is not necessarily a barrier to enjoyment — to invoke it for the second time in as many GitS reviews, Doctor Strange had a rote “Marvel superhero begins” storyline but made up for it with flashy visuals and a good amount of wit, resulting in a movie that I enjoyed very much. Ghost in the Shell also has flashy visuals, as you’ll have no doubt noticed from the trailers, but instead of wit it has all sorts of existential philosophy to ponder upon.

Shoot first, ask questions never

Unfortunately, it doesn’t bother to. It certainly raises some of those issues, but I think it may do so by accident: director Rupert Sanders and co have clearly decided to focus on the action-thriller aspects of previous Ghost in the Shell material in their reworking, but have unavoidably swept up some of the philosophising in the process; but because they have little to no interest in actually exploring those questions (Sanders has literally said as much in interviews), they all lead to nowt. Some of the quandaries Ghost in the Shell’s world poses have been well-considered elsewhere — Blade Runner is probably the most obvious example — but, I think, not all of them. For instance, there’s rich potential in the stuff about having your brain put in a brand-new body, especially given some of the twists and revelations about that which come later on, but it doesn’t feel like the film has much to say about it. It’s a thriller movie that uses those elements to generate plot twists, rather than a film that’s interested in examining what they might mean to a human being who experiences them.

This tin-eared understanding of the source material stretches in every direction. Take the role of the bin man, for instance, and how it’s been repurposed here. How that character’s been tricked, and Section 9’s uncovering of it, is quite an affecting sequence in the original film, as well as contributing a lot to the film’s cogitation on how much our memories make us who we are. In this remake, the fundamental facts of the man’s case are still the same, but there’s very little feeling or emotion there. It’s just a plot point; a stepping stone on the way to the next bit of the narrative. I guess to most people watching Hollywood blockbusters plot is paramount, but there’s no reason it couldn’t have both driven the story onwards and contributed something meaningful.

Geisha gone gaga

Despite the focus on plot, and the relatively brisk running time of an hour and 45 minutes, Ghost in the Shell manages to drag on occasion. Perhaps the filmmakers felt they had licence to do so thanks to some of the slower sequences in the original film, but at least those were busy with philosophising, while here they’re just… I’m not sure, really. It was probably a form of exposition — slow, unfocused exposition — but dressed up to look like it might be something more. Conversely, at other times the relatively brief running time is to the film’s detriment, with characters and plot elements going underdeveloped. For example, we never really feel the brewing conflict between Hanka Robotics, the government-funded tech company that built the Major, and Section 9, a government anti-terror task force. We see some of the arguments between the heads of each organisation, but the fact they both answer to the government is only alluded to rather than enacted — the Prime Minister and what s/he might do is invoked on more than one occasion, but no one governmental personage ever appears to actually weigh in on matters. Considering the importance of all that to events in the third act, I thought it could’ve done with a few more building blocks.

If we set aside the wasted potential to engage with the thought-provoking topics its world raises, and the few storytelling fumbles like the one just discussed, Ghost in the Shell is a solid straightforward sci-fi action-thriller, with a decent if familiar revenge-ish story eventually emerging and some competently realised action scenes — though the very best of the latter are all homages to the original movie, which probably did them better. The design work is often exemplary, with some striking cityscapes and technology (the robotic geishas that have been quite prominent in the marketing, for instance), and Sanders and DP Jess Hall usually lens it all to good effect. That said, this is a future world that doesn’t really feel lived in — it looks like it’s just sprung out of the mind of a designer, or a comic book artist. Some might think that’s the fault of the source material being a comic book, but I don’t think it’s true of the earlier film, at least. The rubbish collectors are again a good example: in the original movie you really feel like they’re on their usual rounds, until Section 9 track them down and it explodes into an action sequence. In this version, they merely exist because a bin lorry is the kind of thing that would make a handy battering ram (and also as another nod to the anime, of course).

Unspecified future cityscape

Funnily, for all the film’s faults in not talking about anything, there’s a lot to talk about with the film itself. I haven’t even touched on the whole whitewashing controversy, though to be honest it never bothered me that much anyway — I mean, it’s a US-led English-language remake, of course they’re more interested in a big-name American star than racial fidelity. Not that it’s cut and dried anyway: you might assume she’s Japanese, but the ’95 movie was supposed to be set in a future Hong Kong (for its part, the live-action movie never names the city or country it’s set in). Also, without meaning to spoil anything, the film itself touches on the issue. I thought how it did that was solid, though (as with everything else) under-explored, but others consider it an empty gesture to try to excuse the whitewashing.

I find it a little tricky to sum up my reactions to this new Ghost in the Shell, because they were kind of… nothing. I walked out of it feeling reasonably entertained by the action scenes and thriller storyline, though I would argue both could’ve been even stronger; and while I may lament its lack of engagement with the issues its world inherently raises, it does so little to tackle them that I almost just shrug it off — yeah, it probably should do that, but it doesn’t do it badly, or half-heartedly, it just doesn’t. Exactly what you want or expect from Ghost in the Shell may well dictate one’s reaction to it as much as the content of the film in and of itself, which I think is perfectly adequate for what it is. It could have been so much more, though.

3 out of 5

Ghost in the Shell is in cinemas pretty much everywhere now.

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher (2014)

2015 #59
Kenichi Shimizu | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

Avengers ConfidentialAnime take on Marvel properties. S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Black Widow teams up with vigilante Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, to investigate a threat to global security.

A clichéd, heavy-handed screenplay and stilted line delivery tell a rote story through talky exposition scenes and uninspired action sequences, with little joy to be found in the design or animation either. Some bigger-name Avengers turn up for the climax, but they’re a motley crew of random choices (Captain Marvel?), most of whom don’t even get any dialogue.

Marvel may own the live-action superhero arena right now, but DC remain the clear frontrunner in animation.

2 out of 5

Avengers Confidential featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Space Battleship Yamato (2010)

2014 #18
Takashi Yamazaki | 139 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Space Battleship YamatoA live-action adaptation of the popular, influential and long-lasting anime franchise, known in the US as Star Blazers (here’s a very good history of the series and its significance courtesy of Manga UK). Set in a future where Earth has been ravaged by alien assault, a nearly-defeated humanity learns of a device that might turn the tide of the war, but it’s located on the other side of the galaxy. The World War II battleship Yamato is retrofitted with spacefaring tech and its crew set off on a last-ditch mission to save mankind.

You can see how that setup is designed to fuel a lengthy series — it’s as much about the journey as the destination. Fortunately, the makers of this version haven’t gone all-out-Hollywood and attempted to launch a trilogy: without meaning to spoil the ending, the entire story is contained herein. It does occasionally feel like it’s been culled from a longer and more detailed narrative, not least in the abundance of central characters, but that’s not too detrimental. One distinct advantage (both of having a long-running predecessor and not aiming for sequels) is that nothing’s held back for future use — including characters. Not everyone makes it out alive, adding a genuine sense of peril that’s missing from most action-adventure movies. As someone not familiar with any previous version of the story, I can attest that this adaptation remains not only understandable, but very entertaining.

Some of the character arcs are a little on the predictable side — the maverick who comes to accept responsibility, etc — but there’s plentiful well-realised action to keep things rattling along. Some will moan about the CGI (as a space-based movie, there’s rather a lot of it) because it’s not mega-budget slick. Taking aim at criticsBut this isn’t a mega-budget production (Manga UK’s review refers to the “colossal ¥2.2 billion budget”, but that converts as only $24 million), so such criticism is misplaced. And it doesn’t even look that bad. Besides, if you only watch films for flashy CG spectacle, you shouldn’t be trying to venture outside Hollywood’s summer tentpoles anyway.

With a solid premise, engaging storyline, exciting action, likeable characters, and the bonus of telling an epic story in a single movie rather than forcing it to sprawl off (possibly-never-produced-)sequels, Space Battleship Yamato has an awful lot going for it. While a couple of niggles with its length and some amateurish-round-the-edges moments hold me back from giving it full marks, I greatly enjoyed it, and I think more broad-minded fans of action-adventure sci-fi will too.

4 out of 5

Evangelion: 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance. (2009/2010)

aka Evangerion shin gekijôban: Ha / Evangelion New Theatrical Edition: Break

2011 #65
Hideaki Anno, Masayuki & Kazuya Tsurumaki | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 15

Evangelion 2.22 You Can (Not) AdvanceJust over a year since the preceding film made it to UK DVD and Blu-ray, and two years since this was theatrically released in Japan, the second part of creator Hideaki Anno’s Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy reaches British DVD/BD today. Continuing to re-tell the story originally visualised in the exceptional, and exceptionally popular, TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion, You Can (Not) Advance throws in more changes to the original tale than its predecessor, including at least one significant new character.

This is very clearly a second part. It hits the ground running, with no thought for those not up to speed on the characters and events so far. Indeed, there’s perhaps little regard for those who may be familiar with it anyway: certain significant events rattle past, the storyline spewing mysteries via dialogue we barely understand, so dense is it with references and allusions. In some respects that’s realistic, of course — why would characters explain, for instance, the Vatican Treaty to each other when they all know about it — but it might leave the viewer struggling to keep up. It’s not all like that, but there’s plenty of it; and when there’s few answers forthcoming within the film itself, the mysterious references feel even more opaque.

Eva vs AngelFor my money, the first 40 minutes or so of the film are (by and large) the best bits. It opens with a barnstorming action sequence, a great scene for newbies and fans alike as we’re introduced to Eva pilot Mari, who didn’t appear in the TV series. That she then disappears for most of the film, only to make a thoroughly mysterious return later, is one of those explanation-lacking flaws. I’m sure it won’t look so bad once the next two films provide us with answers. Well, I hope not.

After that the film seems to trade one-for-one on character scenes and action sequences: ostensible lead character Shinji and his father have what amounts to a heart-to-heart, for them, in a vast cemetery; Eva pilot Asuka is introduced in another action sequence — different to her intro in the TV series, and I’d say not as memorable, though it’s still visually exciting. This is followed by some of the film’s best sequences: an “everyday morning in Tokyo III” montage is a beautifully realised piece of animation, depicting the commute to work/school under the backdrop of a megacity that can sink and rise as needed, moving into the school lives of our band of awkward misfit ‘heroes’. It’s not readily describable on the page, which is arguably the definition of properly filmic entertainment.

AsukaThen the gang take a trip to a scientific installation which is trying to preserve the oceans and their wildlife. It feels like animation shouldn’t be as effective for such a sequence as, say, the footage in a David Attenborough documentary, but nonetheless it feels extraordinary, in its own way. It also marks itself out with the interaction of the characters on a fun day out rather than their usual high-pressure monster-fighting world. And then it’s back to that world for another impressive three-on-one Angel attack.

I’m loath to say it’s after this that Evangelion 2.22 begins to slip off the rails, because flicking back through it after (the distinct advantage of watching something on DVD rather than in a cinema!) I struggled to find any point where I felt it lost its way or dragged with an interminable or pointless sequence. That said, this is where it begins to get more complicated. Much is made of the international situation, something I don’t recall from the TV series. It’s a neat addition — the world bickering over who has the Evas and how many — but it takes some following at times and the relevance isn’t always clear.

Rei vs AsukaBut it’s all building somewhere. For one, there’s another of the film’s best sequences — certainly, its most shocking, which readily earns the 15 certificate. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone yet to see the film, because it’s one of the plot points that differs from the TV series, but it involves the death of a main character in a brutal, deranged way. I say “death” — they pop up in the third film trailer that runs after the end credits, so there’s more to this yet…

Other than that, it sometimes feels like the story is meandering through thematic points that don’t engage as well as the character and action ones earlier in the film. Again, flicking back through, I couldn’t spot what I felt had slowed it, so maybe it functions better on a second viewing, knowing what ending it’s headed towards — at least one apparently minor subplot is, in its own way, vital to the climax, and the climax is certainly vital: unlike the first film’s ending, which was suitably climactic but clearly with story left to tell, this is a major turning point, a proper cliffhanger. Indeed, after a long stretch of confusion, it’s something of a gut-punch to reach such a dramatic point. I loved it, even if I felt I was missing some of the significance of the five minutes that led up to it.

Watching Third ImpactAnd then, after the end credits, there’s a brief scene that throws another spanner in the works! Double-cliffhanger-tastic… one might say…

Oh, and we get an explanation for why Shinji’s still using a tape player in the near-future (which, you may remember, was a (minor) complaint I had about the last film).

The second new Evangelion film isn’t as straight-up enjoyable as the first. It starts incredibly well, but then it feels like its getting too bogged down in the politics of a world that hasn’t been properly established for us and in the intricacies of some thematic considerations — the latter is especially worrying as it was this that made the ending of the TV series so unsatisfactory, which in turn led to a pair of movies that, frankly, didn’t do that much better. But the ending did cause me to rethink my position a little, and perhaps a second viewing would find the whole film a better structured and more understandable experience.

Tokyo III sunsetIn short, if you’ve always liked Evangelion then you won’t be waiting for me to tell you this is a must-see reimagining; if You Are (Not) Alone was your first experience and you enjoyed it, this is an essential continuation of the story — but be prepared that it’s not as simplistically entertaining. I didn’t enjoy it as much on this first viewing, but it may in retrospect pan out as the better of the two.

4 out of 5

Evangelion 2.22 is out on DVD and Blu-ray today.

Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone. (2007/2009)

aka Evangerion shin gekijôban: Jo / Evangelion New Theatrical Version: Prelude

2010 #41
Hideaki Anno, Masayuki & Kazuya Tsurumaki | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 12 / PG-13

When I (first) reviewed Watchmen, I commented that it was hard to divorce my opinion of the graphic novel from my opinion of the movie, so faithful was the adaptation. That’s as nothing to this, though: Evangelion: 1.11 (also known as Evangelion: 1.0 and Evangelion: 1.01, slightly different versions of the same thing) is a retelling of the first six episodes of the highly-acclaimed anime TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion, using the original animation and voice cast to recreate the story.

To put that another way: as a retelling of the first quarter of the original series, reconstructed from the original animation elements, some may wonder what the point of You Are (Not) Alone is — why not just re-watch the series? And how well can six episodes of a TV series work when stuck back-to-back as a film? To be frank, I’m in no position to accurately compare the content of the film and the original episodes, as I last (and first) watched them about three years ago. I can say that some of this is very familiar — one is certainly aware it’s the original elements re-appropriated — while other bits I suspect may have been drafted in from later in the series, and others I’m certain are actually all-new.

Despite some animation tweaks, other things go unchanged, occasionally making the future-set story seem already dated. A line mentioning cell phones, in an attempt to cover why Shinji is bothering to use a phone box, is a new addition I swear, while he also listens to a (digital, at least) cassette player rather than an iPod (other MP3 players are available, naturally). It’s not a major flaw — unlike, perhaps, the fact that the “covert” and top-secret Nerv organisation has great big signs plastered all over town and everyone seems to know about them — but, still, maybe a new bit of animation to replace the tape-playing close-ups would’ve been nice.

The original episodes run around 2 hours 20 minutes total (including all titles, trailers, etc) so edits have been made, but it’s intelligently done. Despite the time since I watched the series I’m aware of where some episode breaks fall, so it’s hard to accurately say how it hangs together as a film to a newbie, but it seems to me that it does rather well. It throws you in at the deep end a bit, but then so does the series. It’s a non-stop opening 25 minutes, a relentless onslaught of information and action, before the pace lets up a little. The pace is surprisingly good throughout, a well-considered balance between action, character and mysteries. Anno and co have retained some of the original’s light and shade — this isn’t just a plot recap, but includes some of the humour and character-based subplots. These elements are still the most trimmed, but there’s enough retained that they work in the context of the film. Indeed, it’s been so skilfully done that an uninformed viewer might even accept it was originally created as a film.

The pros and cons of the series remain. Shinji is alternately interesting, perhaps even complex, and a whiney little irritant. Here he has a character arc at least, suggesting he may be more sufferable next time out. His relationship with Major — sorry, Lieutenant-Colonel — Katsuragi, important in the series, seems to have an even greater focus here, providing a key emotional through-line for the characters. Some of the philosophical bits survive too, feeling as pretentious as ever, but — like the occasionally OTT humour — have been reduced by the need to hit a feature-length and still pack the story in.

As best I can tell the English voice cast is entirely the same as the TV series. Though I presume they’ve all been re-recorded for the film, your opinion of their work is unlikely to be changed. I don’t mean this specifically as either criticism or praise, just that there’s nothing to distinguish between this and the TV version vocally.

One thing that worried me was that this would feel less like a standalone film and more like Part One of a much longer story, primarily because I recalled episode six being ‘just’ another big battle — an action sequence, certainly, but no more of a climax than any of the other fights. I don’t know if I’ve misremembered or if work has been done to place a heavier emphasis on it here, but it is unquestionably a Big Climax — an all-or-nothing finale, bringing together the plot, most of the subplots, and a Threat To The Whole World. There’s still a “To be continued…” — not only literally, but quite clearly in a raft of unresolved subplots — but it fits as an End Of Act One, much as does the end of, say, Fellowship of the Ring.

Another factor thrown up by the TV-series-to-feature conversion is the image quality. An HD big screen is a mixed blessing here. On one hand, it looks great on Blu-ray, with crisp lines and solid colours, the result of re-filming, colouring and CGI-ing the original animation elements rather than using the finished TV shots. On the other, such clarity sometimes shows up a lack of detail in the original animation — these elements were created for 4:3 mid-’90s TV, not a hi-def (home) cinema — and the solid colours and money-saving techniques (for example, showing something static rather than a lip-synched (ish) mouth during conversations) can remind the viewer of cheaper TV roots. Perhaps I’m being overly critical though, because much of it does look fabulous; at the very least, the thorough ground-up rebuild means it looks better than the TV series ever will, never mind has.

Ultimately, You Are (Not) Alone works satisfyingly as a film. Arguably it has a slightly unusual narrative structure or slightly unsophisticated animation, but it works much better than you’d expect from six TV episodes stuck together. With introductions, character arcs and a suitably important climax, it even functions as a standalone film, in a similar way to Fellowship or other trilogy/tetralogy/etc first instalments.

Plenty of mysteries remain at the end: who are Seele? What is the Human Instrumentality Project? Why does Shinji’s father hate his son but smile whenever he sees Rei? To mention just a few. They’re not allowed to over-dominate this story, but they let the viewer know that, while You Are (Not) Alone functions as an entertaining standalone tale, there’s a lot left to be revealed and investigated. It’s enough to make one scurry back to the series for answers, though the three movies still to come promise whole new characters, plots and a — frankly, much-needed — brand-new ending. After two misfires (one in the series, one in a film), hopefully Anno can provide something truly satisfying this time.

4 out of 5

Evangelion 1.11 is out on DVD and Blu-ray today.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (1997)

aka Shin seiki Evangelion Gekijô-ban: Air/Magokoro wo, kimi ni

2007 #107
Hideaki Anno & Kazuya Tsurumaki | 90 mins | DVD | 15

Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of EvangelionEight weeks and sixteen films later than I’d’ve liked, I can finally complete the Evangelion story! (For my review of the first film, look here.)

First off, don’t even attempt this if you haven’t seen all of the (excellent) TV series — it won’t even vaguelly make sense. Sadly, if you have seen the series, it’s a disappointing climax. Promising a clearer ending than the original arty philosophical one, it winds up delivering something that’s almost as bad. It’s somewhat redeemed by what leads up to this final confusing half hour: some proper story, resolutions for some outstanding plot threads, and a few instances of decent action too. As a conclusion it’s far from satisfying, though.

One can only hope the new four-film remake of the whole story (the first of which was recently released in Japan), which promises another fresh conclusion, can come up with something more comprehensible. I wouldn’t count on it.

3 out of 5

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth (1997)

aka Shin seiki Evangelion Gekijô-ban: Shito shinsei

2007 #91
Hideaki Anno, Masayuki & Tsurumaki Kazuya | 107 mins | DVD | 15

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death &a RebirthThe genesis of this film is a long story (at least, longer than I’d like for this review!) The anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion ends with bizarre theme-centric episodes that fail to conclude the story; a film was produced to re-tell the end from a story-centric position and/or to provide an alternate ending (depending who you believe). This is not that film, but something that was released a bit before that.

The first 69 minutes (titled Death) are an intriguing reorganisation/summary of the series in a somewhat impressionistic way, including a few new scenes. It’s either quite clever or just a jumble. The final 27 minutes (titled Rebirth) are an all-new continuation of the story.

There are answers, revelations, some great sequences, and a great cliffhanger! Unfortunately this is also the start of the concluding film, which ultimately renders this as just one thing: a fan-only curio. Its main value, in my opinion, is the neat cliffhanger, which makes for a tantalising ending (instead of the first act plot point it must be in the next film).

If you’re curious about Evangelion and think a filmic summary sounds a good idea, don’t watch! Get hold of the series, it’s worth the time. (I’ll undoubtedly share my thoughts on the conclusion, The End of Evangelion, as soon as Play.com get it back in stock.)

2 out of 5