Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Ghost in the Shell" (1995)

Starring Mimi Woods, Richard Epcar and William Knight
Written by Kazunori Ito
Directed by Mamoru Oshii

Um... where to begin?  You know how George Lucas has been shitting all over "Star Wars" for the last fifteen years?  That's kinda like what's happened to "Ghost in the Shell," the classic anime from 1995 that was one of the few to gain any mainstream success in the United States, and became a major influence on "The Matrix" and therefore movies in general since then.

"Ghost in the Shell" tells the story of a government military/police unit investigating a hacker known only as The Puppet Master.  The Puppet Master has the ability to hack into peoples' minds and implant fake memories in order to get them to accomplish whatever task he wants.  When those people are apprehended by the police, their shattered psyches are of no use in tracking down the Puppet Master since nothing they believe is even real.  Still, Major Kusanagi and her partner Bato are dogged in their attempts to track down and apprehend the Puppet Master. 

Kusanagi is a cyborg, with her entire body save for parts of her brain, artificially constructed.  This gives her extraordinary abilities, and the technology she has access to as part of Section 9 extend even further, including "therm-optic" camouflage.  When one of the Puppet Master's hacked pawns is apprehended wearing such camouflage, Kusanagi begins to suspect that the Puppet Master may have ties to the government, and begins to uncover clues that point toward a conspiracy by a rival branch, Section 6.  Ultimately, the truth about the Puppet Master, who he is and what purpose he serves, is revealed after Kusanagi defies orders and goes after him without permission, being chased by agents of Section 6.

I won't spoil the revelation of who the Puppet Master is, or what connection he has with Kusanagi, but I'll say that the film's explorations of what makes a person unique, and the differences between artificial and organic is quite fascinating.  Kusanagi's musings on whether or not she's a real person if the majority of her body is robotic is a fun topic to dissect, and this is a film that has been analyzed to death over the last fifteen years since its release.

The problem is in this new "Ghost in the Shell 2.0" release, which is a bizarre abomination.  After the release of a sequel years later, director Oshii went back to the original and decided to update it to bring it more in line with the sequel.  Why he didn't just make the sequel more in line with the original is entirely beyond me.  I'd like to ask the same thing of George Lucas. 

"2.0" is mostly the same movie, but many scenes have been augmented and changed using modern CG techniques.  Much of the color palette of the film has been altered to more closely resemble that of the sequel, and entire sequences have been replaced by 3D CGI.  Frankly, it's kind of disgusting.  The new CG doesn't blend with the traditional animation whatsoever.  Apparently the original CG (and the original film did feature quite a bit, used for graphic displays like floating screens and maps and the like) wasn't good enough or something.  I don't know, I never had a problem with it.  But here, parts of the traditional animation have been replaced as well.  In the films famous opening, where Kusanagi leaps off a skyscraper, everything has been replaced - including Kusanagi herself.  So in several scenes of the movie, Kusanagi is computer-generated, but for the rest of it, she's traditionally animated.  The two things don't match, not in the slightest.  The transition between CG and animation is jarring and off-putting; the new scenes simply don't fit.

Also strange is the inconsistency with which things were replaced.  Aerial vehicles like planes and helicopters are now exclusively CGI, but car chase sequences are still traditional.  Kusanagi is also the only character in the film that gets a CG replacement.  Not even the tank she fights at the film's climax gets that kind of treatment.

Thankfully, the majority of the film is still traditional cel animation, and it is absolutely gorgeous.  "Ghost in the Shell" presents an extremely detailed world.  It's attention to small details is stunning, and even movements like Kusanagi putting on her jacket or a driver turning the wheel of a car is given an almost uncanny realism, despite the stylized designs of the characters.  Backgrounds are impeccably painted, with tons of overlapping cityscapes and signage and worldly detail.  The CG city can't hope to match the detail of the painted landscapes, which makes them only stand out even worse.  The fact that the CG sequences seem washed out and hazy doesn't help, either.  The film has a lot of soft halos, but never to the point where detail is lost - at least, not in the traditionally animated segments.

"Ghost in the Shell" is an entertaining cyberpunk thriller.  I wish Netflix would stream the original version, and in the original Japanese with subtitles.  I'm not a fan of English dubs.  The cadence is never right, and the translations never seem quite natural.  Inevitably, it sounds like the actors are rushing through their lines to make it before the shot changes and someone else has to speak, so there's very little room for actual performance.  All these things dampen my enjoyment of the "2.0" version, but much of the film is still a bang-up job, with gorgeous animation and some fascinating themes.