Ghost In The Shell

 ★★★★★ 


The year is 2029, the world is made borderless by the net; augmented humans who live in virtual environments. Watched over by law enforcement agents that are able to download themselves into super-powered, crime busting mecha. The ultimate secret agent of the future is not human, has no physical body and can travel freely through the information highways of the world. Hacking and manipulating whatever, whomever and whenever required…

In my recent review for Akira, I claimed that it set a sci-fi benchmark that Hollywood has failed to match. It wasn’t a one-off though and it is a point anime has continued to prove, especially with Ghost In The Shell to the point of a specific example. Released in 1995, the theme of the story bears some resemblance to 1999’s The Matrix. And so this film has always been my favourite stick to beat the overrated Wachowski’s with! If you like pure action, there are few films better than The Matrix, but a lot of people held it up as brilliant sci-fi to rival Bladerunner, especially as the producers weren’t shy about Ghost being an influence. Actually, in comparison to the challenging and sublime Ghost, The Matrix is nothing more than a clumsy gimmick.

It’s a political story, with perhaps very vague echoes of Robocop. The main character, Major Kusanagi is a cyborg and a brilliantly effective agent, but she contemplates the possibility of having a soul, or a “ghost” and worries how much of her is natural or just a result of AI programming. She works for Section Nine who are investigating The Puppet Master. Although they argue about how it’s possible, it is likely he is just a ghost with no physical form himself, hacking into various shells and networks as a form of cyber terrorism.

While it isn’t as epic as the ambitious Akira, nor animated quite so brilliantly (it does have its moments though), it does share that earlier films skill for balancing gorgeous, wide open cinematic action with an incisive sci-fi plot. In fact, this focused, tightly plotted story is arguably better. It has a nostalgic poignancy that gives the film a soul, smartly mirroring the story of cyborgs wrestling with a conscience. The haunting theme adds another layer. And I was being picky about the animation only to demonstrate the difference with Akira, but actually the attention to detail is incredible, something only recently matched by people like Pixar.

It can’t match Akira‘s confident pacing. A couple of scenes are a bit talky and suffer from the static anime style Akira avoided, but there are several moments that are achingly beautiful. Especially when the Major goes diving and drifts weightlessly to the surface, embodying the emotional struggle she has with being whatever it is she is. Another example is the frequent nudity from the Major or even the damaged cyborg “shell” they find. It sounds strange to point it out, but it’s done with a tasteful obvious quality that live action could never pull off and it suits the story without being in any way gratuitous (the Major’s partner, also almost all cyborg, claims he doesn’t understand why she wishes to do things like diving, but then ironically catches himself staring at her body, revealing his own very human qualities).

It is very difficult to describe the atmosphere of this brilliant film and give it justice. It amused me when I watched this again that there is a quote from James Cameron on the sleeve, rightly praising Ghost for its “literary excellence” and another from the original Empire magazine review, saying that this is “the kind of film Cameron would make if Disney let him” (indeed he has often mentioned another manga, Battle Angel Alita, on his wishlist). Ironic that now, some years later, Cameron’s Avatar is The Matrix of its day with most people agreeing the story is derivative. Sounds exactly like the film Disney would have made! I wonder if Avatar‘s Japanese poster has got quotes from Mamoru Oshii on it?

Avoid the Blu-Ray, “2.0” version. Although the transfer is superb, they have gone as far as replacing some key sequences with cgi and it looks horrible and jars. Strangely, you are far better sticking with the DVD.

Akira

 ★★★★★ 

In 1988, the landmark Anime film Akira, by director Katsuhiro Otomo, defined the cutting edge of Anime around the world. By today’s standards, Akira remains a landmark achievement in cell animation and retains the explosive impact of its highly detailed animation and its intensely violent saga of power and corruption. Pioneer Entertainment proudly presents this classic film, completely restored and digitally re-mastered. Childhood friends Tetsuo and Kaneda’s motorcycle gang encounters a military operation to retrieve an escaped experimental subject. The military captures Tetsuo and conducts experiments on him that unleash his latent psychic ability, but when these new powers rage out of control, Tetsuo lashes out at the world that has oppressed him!

Akira is the film that introduced me, along with thousands of other naive Westerners, to Anime. It’s been the favoured poster boy of Manga ever since and still stands today as one of the finest examples of animation, Japanese or otherwise. The opening scene of warring motorcycle gangs colliding with a revolutionary plot and wrinkly psychic kids is still a top favourite movie moment for me. I remember when I first saw it; after being brought up on nice, safe Disney, I think it blew my mind and I’ve never quite recovered! Thank goodness.

That scene sets the balance for the rest of the film which is a dizzying clash of plots. You have the cool, irreverent, often violent action provided by Kaneda’s bike gang as they look for their friend Tetsuo, who has been taken by the military after an accident. The military in turn are dealing with politicians and revolutionaries alike in a powerful sub-plot, while a girl from the revolution is tolerating Kaneda, as they have a mutual interest in finding Tetsuo. He is the heart of the story, struggling to come to terms with strange powers that are quickly getting out of hand. The wrinkly kids are also very powerful and are trying to keep him in check for his own sake, especially as he is learning about Akira. Who or what Akira was is left ambiguous throughout, but whatever is left of “him” is buried deep under the city and Tetsuo is determined to get at it. The last act of the film is all the various factions converging on one point for an epic, breathtaking finale.

The various plots are wound together with an assured attention to detail, never at the cost of pace and all the elements balance each other perfectly. For instance, the kids attacking Tetsuo disguised as huge toys that bleed milk would be unbearably disturbing but for the next scene of cathartic, wanton destruction or a wisecrack from Kaneda. The sci-fi plot is deep and philosophical, concerning human evolution. If there is a complaint, it’s possible only the surface of potential was scratched. Certainly the original manga, also by director Katsuhiro Otomo, is much larger. This is really picky though and newbies won’t notice because they will be too busy trying not to fall off the edge of their seat!

The quality of animation is astonishingly detailed, fluid and cinematic (some Anime has a tendency to be stilted), and the sound design and bonkers score match it throughout. This DVD release is getting on for 10 years old, but it’s a fantastic transfer. Also the 5.1 is only available in English dubbed, but it’s unusually good. I did have the dubbed VHS first, then VideoCD and remember the latter subtitled version being a big improvement, but this dubbing is excellent.

It is a very modern and dynamic piece of film-making and a benchmark for the sci-fi genre, a benchmark Hollywood has consistently failed to match. It treats the viewer with intelligence and doesn’t compromise the story at all. If you enjoy the genre, but are wary of watching “kids cartoons”, I urge you to try this. You owe it to yourself.

Alien: Resurrection

 ★★☆☆☆ 

200 years have passed since Ripley made her noble sacrifice in Alien3. But now she’s back, albeit a clone.

And that’s all this film amounts too at its best: a clone of something so much better. We’re off to a bad start with the poster: ”From the director of Amelie”… just who the hell are they trying to market this film to? Good grief.

This film is a diabolical mess. A skid mark right across the franchise. Whereas all three previous films demonstrate a graceful elegance and a terrible beauty, this is just plain ugly, full of empty gimmicks. All the blame can be rested squarely on Jeunet’s shoulders.

Still, it isn’t all bad. Barely. The cast is fantastic and the characters they play have great potential. After the interchangeable bald heads of Alien 3 it’s a pleasure to have such distinct people with something worthwhile to say. Most of the dialogue is cool, as you’d expect from a script by Joss Whedon. His vision is in here somewhere.

The look of the film is wonderful. The colours continue from Alien 3 and the sound design is identical. The creature effects are the best of the series. Sigourney Weaver is once again the strong anchor for the film. After all it is her story. But good though she is, should it have been about her still?

I’m not sure about them bringing Ripley back. It was always going to have a hint of cheese about it, but on the DVD they include Whedon’s first draft. If they had followed this exactly, it would have worked. It is simply brilliant. The opening shot as described evokes the previous films, as do enigmatically powerful dream sequences as the cloned Ripley comes alive. With the look of the film down, great characters played by brilliant actors, why did it go so wrong?

Jeunet didn’t follow the script. That simple wonderful opening shot Whedon describes is replaced by an odd scene with a guard squashing a insect, loading it into a straw and blowing it against a window. Pardon? What the hell is that for?

It seems Jeunet wanted to make a whimsical comic satire of the original lean horror and worse, he’s bastardising a perfect setup to do so. From what I’ve read of the script so far, he changes very little. It’s all how it was filmed. We watch Ripley, rather than follow her which is vitally important for the audience. Whedon’s script gets inside her head and Weaver acts it very well, but Jeunet obviously doesn’t give a damn. The film is amused by her and the other characters, rather than being empathic, so they become two-dimensional.

The marvellous creature designs are undermined by his complete inability to understand them as well. Their clean efficiency is lost as he’s more interested in showing them having personalities. The underwater sequence is ok, but it was obviously supposed to be a match for the trap scene in Aliens, where the drones work out how to get above, but Jeunet’s sledgehammer approach to tension means it’s just one more noisy gag.

It could have still just about worked. It’s a fun movie, as good as the Alien v Predator films, and there’s something to be valued in Ripley’s character. But then Jeunet goes and makes sure the shark has been well and truly jumped. The pregnant Alien Queen is the single worst image I have ever seen in a mainstream film. No exaggeration. That he should de-claw one of Stan Winston’s greatest creations is a pure insult. Injury is added by having her killed by a podgy alien baby thing.

In another film (Invasion of the Marsh-Mallow Man?) that stupid looking dough-boy creature would be a decent villain. The effects guys gave it such incredible emotion. Strangely, in that element, I can still see Whedon’s mark. His script developed the human/alien mix and I think a better director with a deadly serious intention like the others, could have made it work. But no. What a complete cock-up.

I don’t think the Scary Movie/Date Movie/Epic Movie guys have stolen anything from Alien yet. There’s no need. They couldn’t screw it up anymore than Jeunet.

Alien3 (“Assembly” Cut)

 ★★★☆☆ 

Ripley crash lands on a prison planet, the only survivor of the Sulaco in Aliens. Into this world of rejects she brings another Alien.

What a fascinating mess of a film! I can’t hate this movie, I won’t hate this movie. It’s a noble effort and a decent sci-fi film in it’s own right. It just had neglectful parents. It’s crying out for a Criterion release because I bet they could get uncut features with Fincher ripping into Fox. I’d love to hear the true story of how Fox screwed their own franchise. The twats. That the film is as good and as watchable as it is, is a miracle.

I watched, for the first time, the “Assembly Cut” and it is a very different beast. Without the still bitter Fincher it is as flawed as the theatrical release, but in a different way and more commendable. There is a glimpse of what could have been.

It was doomed from the start. Despite Aliens being a massive success, Ripley’s back story had been removed (restored in the SE) which pissed off Sigourney and so she favoured a script for this second sequel with a reduced role so she could walk away. But the meddling doesn’t stop there and Alien 3 is a mash-up of several ideas, and it shows. The creature design design is a let down (they asked Giger to update it, but he overdid it, so they ignored him) and then there’s David Fincher. Ridiculous move to hire the current wonder-boy then take every decision away from him.

You can’t start a production like that and expect it to work and those fundamental flaws formed the building blocks of the real villain of the franchise, Alien: Resurrection. It seems to me from the features on this film that some threads of the rejected scripts made it into the next film and possibly some of Giger’s more ludicrous designs which make Resurrections Alien/Human hybrid baby look good. Although his work should be honoured, I do think the man is utterly bonkers and his raw creativity was tempered for the first two so us mere mortals could actually understand it. Have you seen his books? He doesn’t think like the rest of us. His design for Alien 3 included lips and the creature would kill by “kissing”! Seriously. Get the man his tablets. Fincher said he wanted to get back to the erotic nature of Alien, so Giger swapped the jaws for big lips. As you do.

Another one who needs medication is Vincent Ward. His version of the screenplay was set on a wooden planet. With monks. Have they even seen Alien? This was almost the shooting script by all accounts. Fincher comes in at the last minute to deal with the new script. Poor sod made a decent go of it really.

So lets deal with what’s on the screen. The good stuff. Lets take a step back and think for a moment. How many good part threes are there? Not many, especially on the back of two genuine masterpieces. At least Alien 3 tries to go back to scary basics of one Alien, while extending the story to a new level. A natural level, because it’s always been about a fight between species and how our human nature keeps crippling us. Here the humans make a stand by becoming less than human.

The first two films are about survival. This is about death. So starting by killing off Newt and Hicks was controversial, brave and for this story, the right thing to do. This is nihilism. You liked those characters? Tough. They’re dead. It kind of puts the viewer in Ripley’s position. We’ve gone to hell and back with her and the reward is more death. Time for a change in attitude, which is only right really, because the shit only hit the fan last time because of her. Go back for Newt, she gave the Queen a ticket off the planet and didn’t check the ship before hypersleep. That’s silly. You always check the back doors locked before going to bed, don’t you? It’s about time she accepted some responsibility!

The idea of her being infected forces the issue. On this world, she’s as alien as the creature. To ram the point home it’s a prison planet. A female is the very last thing they need, especially as their exile is their own doing. They’ve made a conscious decision to separate and form their own society, where they simply function until death which they welcome in whatever form God chooses to deliver because they’ve found religion too. This efficient, unemotional and committed group is the first match for the Alien. There are no cats or little girls to worry about here. They’re going to fight to win, even if they die.

Excellent idea. Brilliant extension to Alien themes. However, it’s miserable. The first two films were just as deep, but remembered to wrap it all up in something recognisably entertaining. A haunted house and a rollercoaster. Here they give us depression. Cheers. Killing two fan favourite characters might have suited this story, but they alienate (snigger) most of the audience.
The assembly cut really improves things with plenty of back story to the prisoners, which only serves to support the excellent performances by the three or four main characters played by Dutton (the funeral is beautifully done), Dance, Glover and a deservedly extended role for McGann. They actually have personalities beyond Bald and Ugly now, which was a serious problem before, and they’re funny. A whole subplot was cut where they successfully capture the Alien and lock it up, before the nut (McGann) who was going on about “the dragon” lets it out again. That reminded me of Renfield from Dracula, obeying his enigmatic master. I loved that angle, absolutely made the film for me and they make me recommend it for you. It deserves a second chance on this score.

I wasn’t so keen on them changing the dog for an ox. I always liked the shot of the dog barking at the facehugger. Here the crash is completely different and you don’t see how the facehugger meets Babe (the name of the ox… just go with it). But the prisoners reaction is funnier when one finds the dead facehugger. The Alien overall is simply not that scary in either version. The sleeker design is cool, but CGI just doesn’t work. There’s even more of it in the SE.

Pacing and editing is an issue and is the biggest black mark against the movie compared with the first entries. No build up to pure adrenalin here and Lance’s cameo is just… odd. Without Fincher on board the whole enterprise was irretrievable, but I really recommend seeing this version. It had some good ideas as I said, looks great and could have been a perfect end to the trilogy.

Aliens: Special Edition

 ★★★★★ 

After the events of Alien, Lt. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) returns to Earth and no-one believes her story. In fact, the planet is being colonised. Soon however, they lose contact with the colonists and a rescue mission is mounted. Ripley reluctantly agrees to go along as consultant.

In the mid-1980s, sequels were not as expected as they are today and the only truly successful ones were often part 2’s of a continuing story (Empire Strikes Back for instance). So I feel confident in saying that Aliens is the best “unnecessary” sequel ever made.

Although it lacks the grace and unique atmosphere of the peerless Alien, it expands on the original without compromising its themes, rather it emphasises them, using the familiar motifs in new ways. In Alien, the creature was so perfect it represented a shift in the food chain. Marines armed to the teeth should be able to kick nature in the nuts and force the balance back, but the cocky soldiers (all with their own personalities rather than faceless grunts) are on the back foot from the first attack and need rescuing by Ripley who is only there as an advisor on the “bugs”.

One of cinemas icons, Ripley is the one who evolves to find a common ground and a foothold to survive. Not as the kick-arse Ripley everyone remembers because she was clearly that by the end of Alien and comes back pretty quick here to take charge of the disintegrating military. Here, more importantly, it’s as a mother to runaway Newt that will get her through this time. The Alien lifecycle may be perfect, but that humanity is the best weapon they have. Sigourney Weaver was deservedly Oscar nominated for the role. Newt (Carrie Henn) is a brilliantly written child character, something that is frequently mishandled and annoying. Cute, but tough, she gets some great lines and her expression is faultless at conveying real terror.

The mother angle is what brings Ripley face to face with the Alien Queen. Stan Winston’s fantastic creation still causes a shiver down the spine. I’m not sure if a Queen was actually envisaged in Giger’s original bio-mechanics and simply not used in Alien, but either way, its development here is perfectly handled and honours the original cycle. She’s truly the stuff of nightmares.

Aliens greatest trick though is that all this worthy psychological extension of the themes in Alien is wrapped up in one of the best and most influential, balls to the wall action films, peppered with quotable one-liners. It’s a brutal masterpiece that leaves you exhausted and gets the adrenalin pumping, and that’s before the final act! The power-loader sequence is superb. The music and editing build to a crescendo few other films can match.

The fact that the Aliens theme is used time and time again in trailers is proof alone of the enduring power of this rollercoaster.

Alien (Director’s Cut)

 ★★★★★ 

The crew of the Nostromo are awakened early from hyper-sleep to answer a distress call from a seemingly abandoned planet. While investigating on the ground, they discover an alien craft, seemingly lifeless. Yet one of their number is attacked and brought back to the ship, complete with unwanted guest.

Alien is one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made and if you’ve never seen it, erm… why? It’s influence is huge. That it can be accurately described as near-perfect is astonishing given the scope of it’s ambition.

The Nostromo is essentially a huge tug-boat, dragging an even larger refinery. Inside the camera moves slowly around the quiet vessel, languishing in the design. Finally stopping at a panel that bursts into life, processing what we later learn to be a distress call. The fascinating thing about The Nostromo is it looks old and well used. A working, grimy industrial ship. I suppose to most people at the time, the clean regimented Federation ships of Star Trek would be the typical sci-fi notion of space travel and this couldn’t be a starker contrast.

Throughout the film, the sets boast huge lonely cavernous storage areas, dark and full of feasible equipment that looks like someone has it there for a reason, though a long forgotten one judging by the rust. Aesthetically I don’t think there is a better realised film. There is an almost Victorian look to it,  including lots of steam, in keeping with that industrial mood. That old fashioned look means it should never date, right down to computer panels with CRT monitors, basic text readouts and “clack-clack” operating noises. This is a machine age where flat screens and holograms will always be unwelcome.

Soon the crew awaken from their hyper sleep. A dishevelled bunch, ranks are observed, but not formally. As it is a working class ship, this is a small working class crew and even Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) has the weary look of someone who is simply doing his job. That must have struck a chord with audiences in the economically rough ’70s. In keeping with which, the relations between the crew are typical of any factory. The engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) are always arguing with the others about money and one step away from calling their union and going on strike! Lt. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) similarly pisses everyone off by waving a rule book around all the time, though in retrospect maybe they should have listened. A “told you so” wet dream for any Health & Safety official!

While investigating the call that caused them to be awoken early, Dallas, Kane (John Hurt) and Lambert (Veronical Cartwright) discover the alien vessel and the dead pilot. As with everything else, a lot of work has gone into this to make it look like it could work without actually showing us how or why. Soon Kane finds eggs and is attacked.

And so begins the intricately detailed lifecycle of the greatest monster ever to stalk cinema. This thing is an invasion in more ways then one. Importantly it is as alien to the crew as it is to us. These working class people expect to find gooey bugs in their factory as much as we don’t.

The Alien was created in the mind of bio-mechanical genius H. R. Giger and it has specific stages in its process to match the machinelike environment it attacks. It’s the most effective monster because that process is sexual, attacking the human psyche at a base level. The Facehugger stage is mating with -perhaps raping even- Kane and the result is flippantly called “Kane’s Son” by science officer Ash (Ian Holm), who seems a little too fascinated by the creature that the others are happy to destroy.

If this all sounds a bit deep and Freudian, well the birth scene is a notorious horror classic. The resultant creature then haunts the ship and it’s scary as hell. Each set-piece picking off the crew one by one is different to the last, dripping with metaphor and tension. And what a magnificent beast it is too, brilliantly photographed. Strobe lighting, slow movements, more steam; we never see the creature in full, but all the shots combine in our imagination. Ridley Scott directs the whole thing with an almost priapic confidence and he throws everything in to grace his creature with as much terror as he can muster.

The director’s cut includes a scene of Ripley finding past victims cocooned against a wall. Though hardly explored this is the next stage in the creatures cycle. Even on first viewings it’s obvious the Alien has a purpose beyond a bogey man in fancy dress. We’ve just been dropped down the food chain and that gives the story a lasting fear. Ripley going back for the cat is a human weakness this ruthlessly efficient thing would never do and such a small act just emphasises that it is better than us. That’s scarily one of the most important elements in any horror. Superiority. The victims don’t even have a moral high ground; they’re extinct.

All things considered, there’s a lot could of gone wrong. The film is so rich without a single cliche (even the black guy doesn’t die first! And picking the survivor when you first see the crew is impossible) it almost seems a waste to pace it as a simple haunted house story. But that’s the sort of ambition that is lacking in todays cinema. This is possibly Scott’s masterpiece.

Mindripper (aka Outpost)

 ★★☆☆☆ 

Scientists have created a virus in an underground lab and find some guy dying in the mountains so inject him with it. Months later he starts to mutate and picks off the staff. Meanwhile Lance Henriksen’s doctor had resigned and is looking forward to a camping trip with his son, daughter and her boyfriend, but after a distressed call from his old colleague he decides to check on the facility.

Mind Ripper? The only ripping going on is off better films: the basic story of a mutant getting even more mutanty and a trapped facility is The Thing; the facility and staff (bonkers general, action woman) is Day of the Dead; but the absolute cream comes from Aliens. The sound is the same for a start! The gentle hum in the background, echoed random drum beats, motion sensor blip-blip, sudden blares of trumpets… it’s so blatant I bet you could listen to Aliens, watch this and it would fit!

That’s not all they take from Aliens though. The creature (with a spike for a tongue, like a second jaw from you-know-what) sneaks around the ducting (oh, that’s more Alien… but he’s got a Bruce Willis Die Hard vest. Whatever, stick ’em on the list! Picky? You bet I bloody am.), they manage to fit in multi-camera P.O.V. and a facility in lockdown. There was even a bit where they realise the thing is above them, and past victims are still alive, hung on a wall in a “nest” of cabling until it chooses to eat their brains.

Urgh. It’s all joined together by inane dialogue and a childish plot. Early on an alarm goes off as the comatose experiment starts to go wrong and they ring Lance immediately! I mean, they barely even check why the pissing alarm is going off. They just pick up the phone. And he comes! What the…

Ok, good points. Erm… hold on. Let me think. Oh, the make-up on Barney isn’t bad. That’s the creature. They call him THOR (Transmuted Human Or-Ganism), but I preferred to call him Barney. It made it funny. And there’s a brief moment toward the end where I couldn’t think where they’d stolen that bit from, so I have to concede they came up with it all on their own. They even switched off the Aliens soundtrack, bless them. Then they almost redeemed the whole thing with a really sick joke, but… no. They prefer a happy bonding moment instead. They definitely screw it up at the finale when they escape the facility, but so does Barney. How he got out, God knows.

Thank goodness for Lance Henriksen and Giovanni Ribisi, who are predictably good. To be fair the others aren’t terrible, but if you’re given shit to say you may be accused of being shit yourself. There is the father/son bonding sub-plot which is just cringeworthy, but not as much as the shoehorned in teen angst.

Avoid, avoid, avoid, avoid. This was a Wes Craven production so I should have known. By produced I think he handed over a pile of his favourite movies to a 12 year old kid (we’ll call him “director”) and told him to re-enact the best bits.

The DVD is hilarious from the normally dependable Anchor Bay. Bad framing, grainy quality, but somehow they thought it was worth DTS. But the best bit are the film notes. They make it sound like a classic! They called the script “elegant”. And it “recalls The Thing and Hollow Man”.  I see the link with Hollow Man, but that came out five years later.

Whatever.