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Yawn In The Shell

The life-action Ghost In The Shell (GITS) movie is pretty forgettable. Sure, they mostly nailed the visuals. But it’s 2017 and movies shouldn’t get points anymore for just “looking good”. All the tentpole movies do.

VFX on par, story bland

Of course the original anime was heavy on amazing visuals. But it was the 1990s and back then this kind of stuff had never been seen before. GITS (1995) even slowed down at one point, showing scenes of futuristic city life that didn’t advance the story but were simply jaw-dropping. Somebody actually hand-animated all of this! Fast forward to 2017 and rendering shot after shot of a futuristic Tokyo really isn’t all that impressive anymore. Yeah, you can have the industry circle-jerk about how innovative their VFX were just as they do after every effects-laden movie. But come on… yawn!

The GITS movie feels like it came late to a party. The original anime, while certainly not inventing gritty cyberpunk, influenced cinema and genres for years. In a way you could call the Matrix movies the first life-action adaptations of GITS. Now, in 2017, everything in GITS seems like it has been done before. So did the story at least bring something new to the table?

Unfortunately, the story of GITS feels pretty bland. To say that it “explores” its central issues like what it means to be human in an age where people enhance their physical bodies with computer interfaces is a gross overstatement. Most people in the movie’s universe don’t care and get along well with their cyber-enhancements. We are told that a teenage hot-head once said that technology needed to be destroyed. That’s about it.

Of course the GITS anime – when viewed on its own – is also heavy on pseudo-intellectual mumbo-jumbo. Its sequel (Ghost in the Shell Innocence) even more so. But GITS has spawned a couple of spin-offs (the “Stand Alone Complex” series for example) that fills the franchise’s futuristic world with details and the special forces team called “Section 9” with life (and cute robots). The GITS movie doesn’t seem to pull anything from this.

Tropes, tropes, tropes

GITS really feels dumbed-down. In the movie’s first couple of minutes somebody explains to you that “Ghost” means mind and “Shell” means body. The boss of the shady high-tech robotics company straight-out declares the newly-built Scarlet Johansson cyborg a “weapon” in a voice that says “I’m the boss of a shady high-tech robotics company and will definitely be the antagonist later when she finds out what we did to her.”

The movie then continues to visit all the lame action-movie tropes like the bad guy switching an automatic weapon system to “manual mode” so he can miss his target more easily and ultimately get defeated. A tank does the cliché clicking/snarling sound from Predator that’s usually used for organic critters approaching a victim.

The movie then devolves into a cringe-worthy scene between Scarlet Johansson (“Major”) and a former friend and/or lover who also got turned into a cyborg that feels like a prom queen politely refusing the awkward advances of a pimple-faced nerd.

The Casting Controversy

But wait, wasn’t there some kind of controversy surrounding the movie? Something about Scarlet Johansson playing a Japanese character? (I’ve talked about this issue in a German post about Cloud Atlas). Well… the Japanese audience didn’t seem to care (the movie flopped in the US but made some bucks in Asia) so who are we to judge.

The casting is bad for a different reason. It actually harms the story as well as suspension of disbelief. At one point, “Major” is confused about living in a robot body. She visits a hooker who tells her that getting touched by her feels different. “What are you?” the hooker asks with a confused face. And rightly so. Even in the world of GITS the technology of putting somebody’s actual brain into a fully cybernetic bodies is bleeding-edge. Johansson is the first of her kind.

“Major” then finds out her past and meets her mom – an old Japanese lady. In an already unbelievable scene that woman immediately invites Johansson into her home and starts an exposition dump about her deceased daughter – Major’s former identity – because Johansson “reminds her of her daughter”. She talks English with a noticeable accent since apparently she recognises Johansson as non-Japanese. But when she realises that Johansson is in fact her former daughter she doesn’t mention a single word about that fact. No “you don’t look anything like her anymore” or “what are you” or “it feels strange hugging you”.

The whole boring movie could have been taken up a notch by simply having the mother acknowledge that her daughter now has a cybernetic, western-looking body.

But that didn’t occur to anybody who had a say in the creation of this movie. And that says everything you need to know about it: GITS 2017 is an effort at making some bucks by bringing 20-year old anime visuals to a life-action movie. Nothing more.

6 out of 10 – the “don’t spend money on this even if you are a fan” level


I’ve caught up on the latest installment of the Bond franchise – Skyfall.

Short verdict: If you love formulaic Bond movies, this one’s not for you. If you are sick of orange-teal color grading, skip it as well. Skyfall fits well into our times, where it’s enough for a blockbuster action movie to be filmed well so it can get tagged as “gritty” by the marketing department. It has references to the Bond franchise here and there but overall the plot is ludicrous and far from original (chase across the roofs of Istanbul like in The International and Taken 2? Check.). But at least the movie really is well-made in terms of cinematography and stunts.

skyfall grading

orange/teal right down to the interior design and user interfaces

The movie has a particularly nice last act. No far-fetched showdown on a space station or a sinking building in Venice (although some might say that this is what made Bond movies Bond movies). It was slow-paced, it had nice cinematography and a refreshing lack of in-your-face CGI and gadgets.

On the other hand, most of the movie belongs into the fantasy genre. It starts right off with Bond surviving a 100 meter fall from a bridge and goes on with the numerous depictions of 90’s style computer hacking. You know, giant screens with lots of motion graphics and random numbers on it, technobabble and computers popping up animated “ha ha you’ve been hacked” messages. Computers are used as a lazy plot device that can do anything whenever the scriptwriters require it to. In other words: it’s magic, which makes me think of Skyfall as a high tech Harry Potter movie.

Oh no! An encryption algorithm that only 6 people in the world know about! Let’s just look for the letters that are not hex numbers and we’ve got the key.

6/10 (the “at least it wasn’t THAT bad” level)

The Hobbit – Yet Another Disappointment in 2012

I really would have wanted to end 2012 with a nice movie-going experience. I tried to ignore people lamenting about 48fps or stuff that wasn’t part of the book. I had never read the book.

Before the movie started there was a trailer for the new World of Warcraft update called “Mists of Pandaria”. And it had Kung-Fu-Pandas in it, fighting orcs. It was the most ridiculous thing I had seen in recent months. Little did I know that this was foreshadowing the movie I was about to watch.

‘The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey’ is basically the same thing but roughly 3 hours longer. It’s an attempt to blow up a tiny story to not only 9 hours but to Lord of the Rings epic-ness while making it look like a video game cinematic. The term cinematic is actually quite ironic. While video games have tried to look more and more like movies (by their themes, camera angles, animated or life action cut scenes and the use of machinima) it seems like the future of blockbuster movies is to look more and more like video games:

Level 1 is the Shire. Go on a journey, battle some foes, meet some allies… until you reach Level 6 – The Goblin Cave! Press A to swing your sword and B for a special move to decapitate your enemies. The Level Boss is the Goblin King himself! Attack his vulnerable spot and when your energy level drops low, press Up-Down-Up-Down to make Gandalf appear and save your ass.

Sorry, Bilbo, the princess is in another castle. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 – available next year.

For a movie essentially geared at a young audience who might not even have seen LoTR the movie is an astonishing mix of childish themes, brutal (yet blood-less) hacking and slashing and dialog scenes that drag on for way too long.

The movie’s first 15 minutes are filled with shots of dwarfs eating cheese, juggling plates and two musical numbers.

After two thirds of the movie I had to accept that nobody’s going to get injured or die even after falling downhill for hundreds of meters. I accepted that one of the dwarfs and the goblin king looked like “Fat Bastard” from Austin Powers. I was no longer surprised when Gandalf just showed up and saved everybody at the last moment using his magic powers again and again – this happened at least three times during the movie.

And the HFR thing?

For a movie that is so intend on selling an experience and showcasing new technology (instead of, you know, making you feel sympathy for fictional characters on screen) “The Hobbit” actually tries hard to make you loathe it. The high frame rate irritated me every other minute with its “sped up” effect that you might have heard about. It’s an optical illusion and my fellow movie-goers didn’t notice it but to me it felt like watching a TV documentary about the movie, not the movie itself.

The 3D felt forced as well. I might be from a dying generation of movie-goers but it still irritates me when there are elements in front of the screen while being cropped at the edges. Fast-moving sparks, butterflies or gold coins still are a flickery mess to me even at 48fps. And landscape shots still have that miniature look to them because directors and DOPs insist on using an exaggerated interocular distance.

In a way it’s comforting to know that even huge productions like this suffer from that shit that James Cameron successfully avoided in Avatar. But that’s probably because one disappointed moron in the target audience of 16 year-olds (“omg the 3D was non-existing I could have left my glasses off”) weighs heavier to any producer than somebody who is pulled out of the movie by miniature landscapes.

All of this overshadows the fact that the VFX are of course top notch. Except for one or two scenes you never think about the fact that Gandalf and the dwarfs are composited together for their difference in size. Closeups of wargs and eagles are great and the level of detail in the dwarf city or goblin lair is breathtaking.

In hindsight I should have watched the 24fps 2D version to apprechiate all of this.


“Damn Damn Good:” Movie Bob’s positive review of “The Hobbit”

“I hope the worst is behind us”: Red Letter Media’s more negative review of “The Hobbit”