Ghost in the Shell (2017)


Scarlett Johansson in her skinsuit; adolescent boys of the world, you’re welcome.

(2017) Science Fiction (DreamWorks/Paramount) Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Ashbæk, Juliette Binoche, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Michael Carmen Pitt, Chin Han, Danusia Samal, Lasarus Ratuere, Yutaka Izumihara, Tawanda Manyimo, Peter Ferdinando, Anamaria Marinca, Daniel Henshall, Mana Davis, Erroll Anderson, Kai Fung Rieck, Andrew Stehlin, Matthias Luafutu, Kaori Momoi. Directed by Rupert Sanders

 

Technology is a part of our everyday lives. For the most part, it makes our lives easier although in many cases it complicates things. Biomedical advances have allowed people who would ordinarily have been disabled or worse to live full productive lives. As technology integrates itself more and more into our lives and even into our own bodies, at some point we must re-examine what it means to be human.

Mira Killian (Johansson) wakes up in the hospital with little memory of how she got there. Her physician, Dr. Ouelet (Binoche) informs her that she was the victim of a terrorist attack; her body was so torn up that her mind, spirit and personality have all been transferred into the body of an android. She will be stronger, faster, more powerful – and able to fight terrorists the way most humans could not.

A year later she is better known as Major (for her rank) and she and her partner Batou (Ashbæk) work for Section 9, a shadowy elite government strike force that takes on terrorists. A specific terrorist known as Kuze (Pitt) has been targeting scientists and executives of the Hanka Robotics Corporation, the conglomerate who happens to employ Dr. Ouelet and who were responsible for saving Major’s life.

Kuze seems to know more about Major’s past than the Major herself and the deeper Major looks into the CEO of Hanka, a smarmy man named Cutter (Ferdinando) to whom the head of Section 9, the honorable and imperturbable Aramaki (Kitano) seems to report, the more suspicious she gets of his motives. She begins to realize that she is in a nightmare from which there is no waking – and she might just be fighting for the wrong side.

Based on a 1995 anime (which was in turn based on a popular Japanese manga), Sanders has done a fine job in bringing that anime to the live action scene. Often the shots are literally perfect reproductions of the anime. The cityscape is absolutely breath-taking and while the overhead flyover shots get a little dizzying after awhile, the CGI background never lets the audience down.

Neither does Johansson. Already a fan favorite due to her work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she has become one of the biggest stars in the world and this role is really perfect for her abilities. She exudes both grace and strength as well as intelligence and sensuality; it’s no wonder that a lot of fanboy types consider Johansson the most desirable woman in Hollywood. In some ways Major is one of the most complex roles she’s taken on; there is a machine-like coldness to her but at the same time she is tormented by tantalizing glimpses of her past. She is relentless looking in directions her employers don’t want her to explore, and when push comes to shove is willing to risk anything to find out the truth about herself and about Hanka.

Kitano, one of the most revered action stars in Japan who while little known to the general public in the United States is nonetheless held in high regard by those buffs of Asian action movies, shows us why he is the source of such affection. I am always a little leery of using the adjective “inscrutable” in connection with Asian actors but that word best defines his performance here. Partially paralyzed in the face due to a scooter accident 20 years ago, his expression is generally unreadable and when he explodes into action during a glorious sequence there is little warning. It is one of the most satisfying sequences in the movie.

There are a few problems here though. The plot is pretty convoluted and following it isn’t always easy. I get the sense that Sanders and the writing team were trying to make a film that was visually overwhelming (which it is), chock full of exciting action sequences (which it is for the most part) and also thought-provoking (which it is in places). While it is possible to be all of those things at once, it is a very difficult balancing act and Ghost in the Shell doesn’t quite achieve it and as I recall, neither did the original anime although it came closer than this.

Brilliant in some stretches, flawed in others, the film lacks consistency which makes it hard to appreciate those sequences that do work well – and there are more than a few of them. The sensory overload of the cityscape may be troubling to those who are easily overwhelmed but to those who appreciate the detail in the crafting of the futuristic landscape it will be an absolute dream come true. The detail in those backgrounds is truly astonishing but they’ll disappear in the wink of an eye. Never has a movie that looked like it belonged on a theater screen ever needed the benefit of a remote control so that viewers could pause the film just to take in the details. If only there could have been a little been more conciseness in the screenplay; this could have been the first peg in a tentpole franchise but sadly, the box office numbers don’t really support one.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects and action sequences are dazzling. Johansson is a natural action heroine.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a bit muddled. The film tries too hard to be all things to all people.
FAMILY VALUES: There is frequent violence, some disturbing images and a few moments of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The city depicted in the film, although not mentioned by name, is based on Hong Kong although with heavy digital additions.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I, Robot
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: David Brent: Life on the Road

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Prometheus


Prometheus

Michael Fassbender wonders about the pretty lights.

(2012) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall, Benedict Wong, Emun Elliott, Kate Dickie, Patrick Wilson, Lucy Hutchinson. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

It’s the simplest questions that are the hardest to answer. Who are we? Where did we come from? How did we get here? Where are we going? These are questions that have occupied scientists and philosophers since we were able to put a complete sentence together. We still haven’t answered them. Perhaps we never will.

Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) doesn’t think so. She and her husband Charlie Holloway (Marshall-Green) have been researching ancient civilizations and have noticed the same glyph appearing in all of them, despite never having met or interacted – a giant pointing at a star formation. Dr. Shaw believes that it is an invitation to meet our makers – and despite the presence of her father’s (Wilson) cross around her neck, she’s not talking about the almighty but of aliens.

She convinces Peter Weyland (Pearce), the mad genius behind the Weyland corporation, to finance the expedition and the trillion-dollar space ship Prometheus is constructed. The crew, including Shaw and Holloway, lie in suspended animation, tended to by David (Fassbender), the gently-spoken, polite android.

As they near their destination it is Meredith Vickers (Theron) who is awakened first. She is neither scientist nor crew – she is an executive from the Weyland Corporation and she makes it clear in no uncertain terms that no matter what the scientists are after, it is Vickers who is in charge. To say the least Shaw is unhappy about this.

However, they have work to do. The scientists believe that what they are searching for is an ancient alien race that they call the Engineers. These beings, in theory, may have caused or altered life on earth leading to the ascent of humanity. As Captain Janek (Elba), the ship’s pilot, brings the Prometheus down to the planet’s surface, straight lines are discovered. As we all know, straight lines don’t occur in nature. They have to be made by an intelligence. As they  come closer to these lines, pyramid-like structures rise from the valley floor. The Prometheus lands.

Immediately the impulsive Holloway goes to explore the structure, sending miniature probes ahead to map the structure and search for life forms. What they find is a game-changer – not every life form is benevolent, for one thing. For another, the most malevolent force against them may well be from within. And now that the Prometheus has discovered the secret of the Engineers, Earth now has a gigantic target painted on it.

The movie was initially intended to be a prequel to Alien but Scott decided that the xenomorph species that confounded Ripley had run its course; while the movie is set in the same universe, it is not a direct antecedent – or so they say (a final scene may well prove that to be false). There is a familiarity to the proceedings, some of which mirror the original Alien nicely (for example, the final log entry for the Nostromo as read by Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is referred to in the final scene of the movie).

But make no mistake, this is definitely not Alien. That was more or less a monster movie with the crew of the ship being stalked and picked off one by one by a single alien. This time, the humans are doing the stalking. They just don’t like what they find.

I have to admire Scott’s willingness to tackle some of the more basic questions of human existence. He posits a theory that other scientists have long held – that without some sort of intervention of a superior intelligence, it is impossible for our species to have progressed as quickly as we have – although anyone who watches “Survivor” may tell you we may not have progressed as far as we’ve thought.

Theron, appearing as a villain in her second summer blockbuster movie this year, isn’t quite as memorable as she was in Snow White and the Huntsman but she carries some of the icy blonde evil from her work in that film over into this one. Here, she is if anything colder and more reptilian and the explanation for her behavior, when it comes, is less relatable than her motivation in Snow White.

Still, Theron isn’t really the focus here – Rapace is – and the veteran of the Swedish Millennium trilogy films shows that her star performances in those movies weren’t just a fluke. Rapace is a major star, one who is going to be headlining big event movies for a very long time to come.

Fassbender also shines here. His David is polite, well-mannered and soft-spoken. His tone is pleasant and soothing, sort of a HAL9000 with legs. He moves unperturbed through the movie, with an agenda that isn’t necessarily one that is shared by the scientists on board. David is a victim of his programming; he neither apologizes for it nor frets about it. He does merely what he is told to do by people who have no morals, no ethics.

Given the current mistrust and anger with large corporate entities, it makes logical sense that they are shown to be amoral and duplicitous with an agenda all their own and if sacrifices have to be made, well, people are as replaceable as post-it notes. In some ways, that’s far more chilling than the ooey gooey aliens that we’re shown but we’re far too inured by corporate misbehavior to be surprised by it.

Ridley Scott hasn’t done a science fiction film since Blade Runner in 1982 but he still shows a tremendous confidence of vision. The special effects are amazing and for the most part, practical. For those who have issues with 3D, this one used a system based on the one that Avatar used and the shadows and darkness were added in post-production, which makes it a lot less clear when watching with the polarized 3D glasses we’re forced to wear to view it. In other words, it’s not so hopelessly dark that we can’t make out what’s going on, and the 3D is used to good effect here which is unusual for the gimmicky technology.

And yet my recommendation isn’t quite as high as you might think. For one thing, while the movie admirably tackles some pretty lofty subjects, it doesn’t always succeed in addressing them satisfactorily. I was also left curiously flat by the movie; while there are some awe-inspiring moments, this doesn’t have the fire that the first Alien had and I never got as invested in this film as I did in that one.

Prometheus is a movie that set high standards for itself and met a majority of them. Unfortunately, it didn’t meet enough of them to be a truly great movie. At least Scott and cohorts were shooting for greatness rather than trying to be all things to all audiences. There’s something to be said for that.

REASONS TO GO: Magnificent effects. Aims high. Rapace could be the next Sigourney Weaver.

REASONS TO STAY: Fell a bit shy of its lofty goals. Never really blew me away.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be intense although not terribly gory and the creature images can be nightmare-inducing. The language isn’t particularly child-friendly either.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the conditions for Scott to do the film was that he not be pressured to tone things down for a younger audience. He was supported in this by 20th Century Fox chairman Tom Rothman who allowed Scott to make an R-rated film, even though that might cost revenue in the short term.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100. The reviews are solidly on the positive side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2001: A Space Odyssey

ICELAND LOVERS: Many of the exterior scenes were shot there, as well as in Scotland.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Exporting Raymond