Chosen, by K.F. Breene

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

Shanti is a bad-ass. Not that you’d know it when we first encounter her, staggering through the wilderness on the edge of death, after an ill-considered choice of route as she escapes from… Something. We’ll get back to that. Fortunately, she is found by Sanders, a career soldier from a nearby city, out on a training mission with a band of raw recruits. They take her back to their town, where she’s nursed back to health – then the awkward questions begin, concerning where she was going and precisely why she was carrying weapons. But the key turns out to be Captain Cayan, who possesses the same psionic warfare capabilities as Shanti; except, he’s all but unaware of it, a sharp contrast to her finely-honed and practiced expertise.

When the city comes under attack, it appears initially just to be another raid by the Mugdock, a barbarian tribe who have caused trouble for years. However, it turns out they aren’t alone, and have partnered up with others who pose a bigger threat. While her adroitness, with both mind and sword, are key in fending off the enemy, it offers only temporary relief, because Sanders is then captured while out on a mission, and tortured to reveal the city’s secrets. Cayan, together with Shanti, lead the expedition to rescue him, but the resulting conflict brings her presence in the area to the attention of the very people she least wants to find out.

I enjoyed reading this – after a couple of fairly lackluster entries in the genre, it was refreshing to find something where you wanted to keep turning pages, to find out what would happen next. Shanti is an excellent heroine: smart, fiercely loyal to those who have earned her trust, takes no shit from anyone, with a sardonic wit and possessing copious back-story, some of which is filled in over the course of this book. But woe betide you get on the wrong side of her, for she can kill you quickly with her sword – or very slowly with her mind. As we see near the end of the book, you’d better pray you get the former fate. Speaking of which, her talents are showcased particularly well in the following passage, depicting her defense against the Mugdock attackers:

Words could not describe how thoroughly Sanders had underestimated her. How they all had. She moved as if in some elaborate dance. Every nuance of her body was in perfect harmony as she glided through her fighting postures, slicing and cutting, weaving in and out. Even her sword was part of the dance, moving like an extension of her arm. She was breathtaking. And extremely deadly. Her pile was larger than her male counterpart’s. It was neater, too. One cut, maybe two, and they were brought down. Appendages sliced off, heads, limbs, incapacitated, then she moved on. Every so often she would throw a knife, hitting someone in their head, heart, or, most often, their neck. He had never seen anything like it.

Damn. It’s a bit of a shame that there isn’t more action, because it’s described so evocatively when it comes along, you’re left feeling as if you were there, and wanting more. To her credit, Breene also does a good job of Shanti’s psychic abilities; I’ve seen books where that kind of thing turns into clunky and ineffective prose, not the case here. A couple of other points worthy of praise. While there’s obvious unresolved sexual tension between the heroine and the Captain, this provokes a lot less eye-rolling than usual; indeed, it makes sense, given their mental bond. It’s also a fully-formed story – Shanti’s saga goes on, obviously (there are six books in The Warrior Chronicles to date), yet this finishes at a point that feels complete, not an obvious “Continued in Volume 2!”

There were occasional passages which I did find myself having to re-read, because the intent or meaning of them seemed rather confused. But that’s a small quibble, for an engrossing story in a universe a bit reminiscent of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle (albeit with fewer dragons… at least, so far!). My rule of thumb for deciding whether a book is good or not, is whether I watch it unfold cinematically in my mind’s eye as I read. That wasn’t just the case here, I was also actively casting it. What do we want?! Cecily Fay for Shanti. When do we want it? As soon as someone gets the budget. :)

Author: K.F. Breene
Publisher: Through Amazon, both as an e-book and in a printed edition.

Angel Force

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“In the jungle, the Lee-on sleeps tonight…”

This is confusing. For the IMDb lists a completely different film by the same title – also made in 1991 and starring Moon Lee. That one stars Simon Yam: this one doesn’t. Meanwhile, Amazon has Yukari Oshima in the cast – I may have blinked and missed her, but more likely she was in the other one. It is also, despite the title, entirely unrelated to the Angel series, though did remind me I’ve not yet got round to reviewing parts two and three of that. If you see it referred to as Mission Kill and Mission of Condor too, I think that’s the “other” Angel Force as well; one site even refers to this movie as Lethal Blood 2, although it bears no relation to the first movie there either. I hope this helps…

Regardless, I wondered early on if this would even qualify, as May (Lee) takes a back seat, playing second banana to her boss, Peter (Lam). He has been tasked with rescuing kidnapped Westerner Harrison, stashed away after his capture, deep in the Burmese jungle by local drug lord, Khun Sa [who appears to have been a real person]. After putting together a team, on virtually the eve of the recovery mission, Peter is gunned down in an attempted hit, and it’s up to May to lead things. There are problems both outside and inside the team. A mole is leaking information on the mission to the people they are after, and the first guy Peter recruits, Benny (Ng), turns out to be a borderline psycho, who gets a bit rapey with a captured enemy. It’s up to May to complete the mission, get out alive, and then figure out who is the informant.

Right from the start here, there’s no shortage of action. Though a bit too much of it consists of two group spraying automatic gunfire at each other, through thick jungle foliage and with all the accuracy of Imperial Stormtroopers. While I am never averse to seeing a guard-tower explode in a good, giant fireball, there is a limit to the appeal of such things, and it is certainly reached here, well before the arrival of what may be the first deus ex helicopter in cinema history. I was also amused by the painfully early nineties approach to both mobile phones the size of bricks,  and high-tech searches represented by a computer screen where the text largely consists of word-processor installation instructions. No wonder the team ended up with Psycho Benny.

Fortunately, the guns here jam or run out of ammo with regularity which could be concerning if I were a weapons manufacturer. As a viewer though, the film is on far more solid ground when dealing with the hand-to-hand action. Lee leads from the front with some fights that showcase her speed and agility to good effect. The most notable of these is a battle against Fujimi Nadeki after the near-assassination of Peter, in which May chases the killer through the streets on a motorcycle, to a half-demolished building. A savage gun-battle follows, notable not least for May’s point-blank execution of one man, ending with her going up against Nadeki. While it forms the high point, more or less any time Lee puts the gun down is a good indication you should start paying greater attention here.

Dir: Shan Hua
Star: Moon Lee, Wilson Lam, Hugo Ng, Fong Lung
a.k.a. Tian shi te jing

Miss Diamond

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“More like, Miss Cubic Zirconia”

diamond1There’s an exhibition showcasing the first diamonds ever mined in Germany, dug up by the company belonging to Buhler (Kier). Keeping thing safe is the responsibility of security expert Tim (Kretschmann), who doesn’t realize that renowned jewel thief Lana (Speichert) has her eyes on the jewels. So they’re both in for a nasty surprise, because after Lana is caught by Tim in the process of stealing them, it turns out the diamonds are completely fake. Buhler gives her an ultimatum: Lana must find the real diamonds, or she’ll be handed over to the police, and to ensure she doesn’t just run off, tasks Tim with keeping an eye on her. It soon becomes clear, though, that there is more to the mystery than there appears initially, and someone is very keen to stop them from getting to the truth.

This is flat and uninspired in almost every way, beginning with the complete lack of chemistry between Speichert and Kretschmann, though in their defense, the dubbing isn’t exactly helping them. [Or the beloved Udo Kier, who seems to be sleep-walking through his role] However, that can’t explain away the story, which is about as far from sparkling like diamonds as possible, even if you allow for the ludicrous central concept. Diamonds. In Germany.  It features villains who resolutely refuse to behave with even a modicum of common sense. For example, if ever I become an evil overlord, capture my enemies, and need to dispose of them, I will kill them on the spot, not tie them up underground, with the intention of letting them be run over by a slow-moving tunneling machine.

Which brings me to the topic of the action showcased here, and unfortunately, most of it ranges from the physically impossible to the cringe-inducing. The former is showcased during that escape from the tunneling machine, where Lana somehow dangles from a chain with one foot, while simultaneously pulling the 180-lb plus Tim up off the ground. The latter sees Lana doing front flips as she is simply trotting across a roof. Who does she think she is, Catwoman? This soundtrack also appears to be composed by somebody who has listened to too many James Bond films, which simply reminds the viewer of the gulf between this and any 007 movie of the same era.

A couple of marginal saving graces do exist, just not in the central performances, main story-line or cinematic direction. I was kinda amused – perhaps unintentionally – by how crap Tim is. He’s the one that’s always getting knocked out, captured, falling out out boats and generally put in peril, from which Lana has to save him. Some of the vehicle stunt-work is not too bad either. But overall, what you appear to have here is little more than a underwhelming TV pilot, certainly bad enough not to make it to series.

Dir: Michael Karen
Star: Sandra Speichert, Thomas Kretschmann, Udo Kier, Michael Mendl
a.k.a. Die Diebin

Prophecy of Eve

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“Puts the ‘eve’ in dry heave.”

This will be a slightly shorter review than usual. For there’s not much to say about a film which runs only 77 minutes, yet still somehow managed to feels both confused and full of unnecessary padding. “Well done”, maybe? Certainly, as a model of what not to do, this hits all the necessary marks. It seems be set in Los Angeles, renamed Angel City, for no particularly good reason. There is a struggle between demons and those they possess – whose eyes flash red at dramatic or necessary to the plot moments – and those on the side of good, whose eyes flash green. Leading the latter side are the Order, and two of their members have, in defiance of the rules, have a child, Eve. Her parents are attacked and apparently killed by the demon-possessed, and Eve is left to fend for herself on the streets, while the Order try to locate her.

They are apparently a bit crap at the locating thing. For 15 years later (!), Eve (Villatuya) is still roaming the streets taking out bad guys with her sword. Meanwhile, demonic possessions have increased dramatically, and it appears to be connected to a certain company and its headquarters downtown. Fortunately, the Order have managed to infiltrate the place, and their operative, Esther (Maxali) has just escaped with footage showing exactly what the company are up to. Eve may be the only thing standing between the world and disaster. Or maybe not. Because the film may not even bother with anything approaching a coherent ending, opting instead to finish just when the film should be ramping up to an exciting climax.

Admittedly, any excitement would likely be a large improvement over what the movie provided to that point. Which would be a string of B-grade martial arts fights and C-grade performances. At first, I thought it was refreshingly ambitious of a Filipino production to attempt to make a movie set in Los Angeles, and quite brave of them to do so in English, when it clearly wasn’t the native tongue of the lead actors. Then, I realized my mistake: this is actually American. Oh, dear. I’m struggling to find many positives, but have to say, the look of the film is rather better than you’d expect from the reported $15,000 budget. It has a nicely drenched sheen of wet neon, that appears to have strayed in from a much bigger production. The poster, too, looks slick, and promises much: unfortunately, these positive aspects only stand in sharp contrast to what the film can actually deliver.

Dir: Ron Santiano
Star: Ia Villatuya, Michelle Laurent, Nicole Maxali, Roberto Divina

The Avenger

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“It’s a cover-up!”

Teetering on the edge of qualifying as false information, this TVM was originally released under the more relevant, yet great deal less salacious (and, let’s be honest, less appealing) title of A Nanny’s Revenge, along with a greatly subdued sleeve. Marketing works, people: for put it this way, I’d never have watched it in that presentation. I can’t feel utterly cheated, even if what I got is closer to a low-rent version of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle than the tempting treat promised by the cover. 

Gina Wright (O’Keefe) has a really bad day – though likely not as bad as her parents. For her father dies in a building-site accident, and her mother in a car crash as she rushes to hospital. The site owner, mogul Parker Randall (Pratt, channeling Alec Baldwin), seeks to cover up the shoddy Chinese materials responsible, and fakes a toxicology report to show that Gina’s dad was drunk. A bit of a white knight – we first meet her quitting her job as a teacher, in support of an unjustly fired colleage – Gina won’t stand for that. So she hatches a plan to expose Parker’s wrongdoing, and to that end, worms her way into a job as nanny to his son, by befriending his wife, Brynn (Pratt). Little does she know, however, that her  employer’s predatory instincts are not limited to the business world, and he’s making plans for a hostile takeover, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

There was a moment towards the end of this, where for one glorious second I thought Gina, Brynn and Parker’s spurned mistress were going to team up in order to take revenge on the man they all have good reason to hate, in a Murder on the Orient Express kinda way. I’m filing that one away in my box of script ideas for potential future use, since the movie here failed to take advantage of it. That’s inexplicable, since what it instead delivers is more or less entirely predictable, and if generally competent and not badly-acted, rarely gets beyond the obvious. For instance, we know Gina is impulsive. Because someone explicitly tells us she is. Oh, and she wears a nose-ring (although does not sport the neon highlights shown on the cover), which in the world of TV movies, is one step above being a crack whore.

There’s an entirely unnecessary subplot involving a colleague of her Dad, who is trying to take Parker to court – he meets the end necessary to the plot, in order to show how ruthless a villain Gina is facing. Indeed, by the end, you’ll likely find yourself with a long laundry-list of ways in which this could have been improved, or come closer to the movie promised by the sleeve. More violence. More nudity – well, make that any nudity. Boost the subtext about big business being bad into a whole class-war thing. Make Parker look slightly more like Donald Trump. Instead, you’ll get this vanilla pudding: filling enough, just not what many people would call tasty.

Dir: Curtis Crawford
Star: Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, Michael Woods, Victoria Pratt, Cynthia Preston
a.k.a. A Nanny’s Revenge

Deidra and Laney Rob a Train

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“Criminal train of thought.”

After their mother has a meltdown at her job and ends up in jail: teenage sisters Deidra (Murray) and Laney (Crow, somewhat infamous for her post-elimination meltdown on The X Factor) are left to fend for themselves. With household bills piling up – never mind trying to fund Mom’s bail, or even Deidra’s long dreamed-of college tuition – and Child Protective Services looming, things look bleak. But a visit to deadbeat Dad Chet (Sullivan, channeling David Spade), who works for a railway company, gives Deidra an idea. Hop aboard the freight trains that run by the back of their house, pop open a container to take some goods, and fence them on for cash. Things go surprisingly well, until a disgruntled railroad cop, Truman (Nelson), starts to close in on the pair, intent on rebuilding his reputation after an incident in Arizona.

A somewhat awkward mix of elements, some not working as well as others, it still manages to survive and be entertaining. This is largely through sheer force of will from the lead characters, who manage to make you forget the actresses playing them are both too old for high school. The pair share a fierce bond, prepared to do anything for each other, even at the cost of their own dreams – for as well as Deidra’s education, Laney finds herself a finalist in a beauty pageant, which sets her at odds with her best friend at school, who is also a competitor. You know I said, some elements don’t work as well as others? That would be one of them: Drop Dead Gorgeous this isn’t.

It’s much better off when not trying too hard to be heartwarming. For example, the reason for Mom’s meltdown, turns out to be so saccharine as to provoke eye-rolling rather than tugging on your heart-strings. It has a nicely cynical edge about small-town life, such as the school guidance councilor who is as desperate as Deidra to get out of this dead-end – if only she could just get someone accepted to a college which doesn’t have “community” in its name… Like most of the adults here, there’s a sense of benign incompetence here: they don’t so much pose a threat to our two heroines, as bumble around and get in the way of them achieving their goals.

That these involve repeated grand larceny… Well, best not dwell on the implications there, regardless of how righteous the cause may be. For the lack of effort the pair put into any legal methods of fund-raising to solve their issues, could be seen as a troubling indictment of modern youth and entitlement culture. But it would be particularly tough to blame such an adorable pair of siblings, they appear to have strayed in from the Disney Channel. All snark aside, these are fun characters to watch bounce in and out of scrapes, and you can’t help pull for them as they turn into fun-sized versions of Ronnie Biggs.

Dir: Sydney Freeland
Star: Ashleigh Murray, Rachel Crow, Tim Blake Nelson, David Sullivan

Weekend Warriors, by Fern Michaels

Literary rating: starstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2
“Poorly written, crypto-fascist vigilante wish-fulfillment.”

I think it’s the “poorly written” aspect which I find most offensive. For I’m entirely down for some good ol’ entertainment in the form of justified violence, from Dirty Harry through Ms. 45 to Starship Troopers. But this… Oh, dear. The most stunning thing was discovering that this was the first in a series of twenty-seven novels in the “Sisterhood” series. Twenty-seven. I guess this proves there’s a market for this kind of thing, though I am completely at a loss as to who it might be. It certainly isn’t me.

The concept of the Sisterhood is a group of women, who have all suffered some kind of unpunished misfortune, and have been brought together to enjoy the vengeance which they have been denied by the official system. The ringleader is Myra Rutledge, who conveniently for the series is an extremely wealthy woman. She lost her daughter Barbara in an accident caused by a driver with diplomatic immunity, which inspired her into acction. Assisting is Nikki Quinn, her late daughter’s best friend, now adopted by Myra, who is a defense attorney; and a suave, British former MI-6 agent Charles Martin, who can apparently pull anything needed by the plot out of his suave, British arse.

There are various other characters, but they’re so poorly drawn as to be little more than ciphers, ranging from a securities broker, to a token Oriental, Yoko, who runs a flower shop (and it appears, turns out in later books to be great at martial arts. What are the odds?). The only one worthy of note is the wronged woman in this opening installment, is Kathryn Lucas, a truck driver who was brutally raped by three members of an upscale motorcycle gang, while her disabled husband (now deceased) was forced to watch. She didn’t bother to notify the authorities, for some unconvincing reason, and now the statute of limitations has expired. Naturally, They Still Must Pay – in this particular volume, with their testicles.

No, seriously. The convoluted plan hatched by Myra, Nikki and Charles involves some kind of contest involving the prize of a motorcycle, which will let them kidnap the culprits, castrate them in the back of a 16-wheeler converted into an impromptu operating room, and then dump them off with their now-separated family jewels. There is absolutely no part of this which is interesting, plausible or packs any kind of charge. You’d expect, or at least hope, that there would be some kind of dramatic arc here, but even Kathryn appears to achieve about as much closure from the retribution as would be gained by a trip to the supermarket. About the only plus is the lack of any real romantic subtext, though even here, I sense Nikki will be the source of much sexual tension down the road, with her district attorney ex-boyfriend, Jack.

I guess you could call it inspirational, in the sense that if this is the kind of rubbish which can lead to a 27-volume book deal, I’m inspired to take the same concept and knock up a bestseller over the course of this weekend. But otherwise, this is feeble nonsense – likely reaching its worst with the section where someone explains to Yoko, how to drive a manual transmission car. I should have given up at that point, and saved myself from further punishment.

Author: Fern Michaels
Publisher: Zebra, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

Catfight

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“All teeth and claws.”

My wife is a big fan of Sandra Oh, for her long-time work on soapy medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy. This is about as far from that as imaginable. It’s a gloriously mean-spirited “comedy” [and I used the quotes out of reverence, not in a bad way], which combines social satire with gleeful hyper-violence, at a level where you would not expect to find serious actresses. Veronica (Oh) and Ashley (Heche) knew each other in college, and have since grown apart. Veronica is now wife to a defense contractor; Ashley a largely unsuccessful artist. They meet at a birthday party, and instantly the hate begins, each representing everything the other finds reprehensible. The night ends in a stairwell brawl, which leaves Veronica in a coma for two years. She awakens, to discover she has lost everything, and Ashley is now on top, enjoying commercial and critical success.

But things are only just getting started.

This is cinematic schadenfreude: watching two thoroughly unpleasant and entitled people lose it all, and take it out on each other. The three-act structure here has each act culminate in a ferocious bout of fisticuffs, whose only point of comparison would be the Roddy Piper/Keith David fight from They Live. It is, equally as much, entirely over-the-top and deliberately so, not least for being backed by classical music e.g. The Stars and Stripes Forever or even Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Particular credit goes to the sound design crew, who really go to town, with the blows having so much impact, it feels as if the punches are being launched from a missile silo in Wyoming. You’ll certainly come away with a new appreciation for the art of foley.

It’s nicely even-handed in its cynical view: most films would be inclined to come down on the side of one or other protagonist, but here, any bias is more likely to reflect the viewer’s point of view. Personally, I though Oh hit it out of the park with her performance: she has a great face, capable of conveying a wealth of emotion with a look. Though no, darling: I still won’t watch Grey’s. [Bonus points to Chris, as she did notice the hospital in which Veronica wakes up is called Mercy General, a name likely chosen as a nod to the rival hospital in the show, Mercy West.] But it is undeniably a two-hander, with credit due to both: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and in that, I was occasionally reminded of a more brutal version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Credit is particularly due for the ending, where I felt certain the movie was going to cop out, delivering a sappy “kiss and make up” conclusion. There would probably be hugs, it would be utterly at odds with the acid venom of the previous 90 minutes, and I’d walk away disappointed. I’m delighted to say I was entirely wrong, and the ending fits the film perfectly. This is an ugly, guilty pleasure: yet, a pleasure it undeniably is.

Dir: Onur Tukel
Star: Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone, Ariel Kavoussi

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

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“Majors in stunning visuals; minors in everything else.”

I really wanted to like this. Seriously, this had the potential to be thoroughly kick-ass, innovative and visually stunning, in a way never before seen in action heroine cinema. However, the end result is only somewhat kick-ass, and might have felt more innovative. if Ghost in the Shell hadn’t already been strip-mined for ideas over the past two decades, as noted over the weekend, by everyone from James Cameron to the Wachowskis. Rather than pushing the imagination envelope further, Sanders and the film’s script seems content to coast along on the original ideas, and these are no longer as cutting-edge as they need to be.

The story still concerns the Major (Johansson), here the marginal survivor of a terrorist attack, who has her brain transplanted into an entirely artificial body by the Hanka Robotics corporation. She has become the top operative of a government security group Section 9, working alongside somewhat-cyberized Batou (Asbæk) and the still entirely human Togusa, under the command of Aramaki (Kitano). Hanka becomes the target of a series of cyber-terrorist attacks, investigated by the Major, despite experiencing “glitches” of audio-visual hallucinations. The culprit is revealed to be a hacker known as Kuze (Pitt). Turns out he has more than a slight connection to the Major, being in possession of disturbing information about her origin, as well as her life before becoming a full-body cyborg.

The story has a very clever approach to the whole “whitewashing” controversy: at least initially, rather than Motoko Kusanagi, she has been reinvented by Hanka Robotics as Mira Killian, who give her a whole new set of memories, which may or may not be accurate. It’s this quest for her real identity which drives the plot, containing more than a few echoes of Robocop. And that’s an illustration of the main problem here: it feels less like anything cutting edge, than a conglomeration of elements taken from films which has gone before. That half of these stole from the animated Ghost, doesn’t help the live-action version much.

There are are some aspects which work. It looks lovely, and I can’t say I felt shortchanged by having gone to the cinema to see it: though even here, it’s like Blade Runner with less rain and more daylight. The cast are good too. Johansson has the correct deadpan approach, Asbæk is ideal for the hulking Batou and Kitano knocks it out of the park, as the most bad-ass bureaucrat you’ve ever seen [this will be absolutely no surprise if you’ve seen classic Kitano films such as Violent Cop]. However, in action, it only works in intermittent moments, such as the raid against the hacked geisha robots, or the battle against the spider-tank – the latter certainly lives up to expectations from the other versions.

The aspect which did work better than in the animation was the blurred line between humans and cyborgs, which is more striking when you have real people involved. There’s one scene, for instance, where Kuze is talking to the Major, and he simply reaches out and lifts a quarter-panel of her face off. It’s a startling image; truth be told, perhaps too startling, as I spent the rest of the scene thinking, “SCARLETT JOHANSSON IS MISSING PART OF HER HEAD!” rather than about the conversation between the two characters. I’ve also heard a number of people say this was a case where 3D genuinely improved the experience – we saw it in 2D, in deference to Chris’s motion sickness, which ended 3D viewing for us at Avatar.

At a brisk 106 minutes, it doesn’t hang around, though the story appears to shift gears at about the half-way point, and becomes more focused and driven. It’s still barely able to scratch the surface of the universe: having watched four movies, 52 TV episodes and four hour-long OVAs over the past couple of months, I was painfully aware of how much was going on that had to be utterly discarded here – yet they still found time to include a number of scenes e.g. the water fight, which felt inserted, purely as homages to the original material. Did appreciate the way languages were completely fluid: Aramaki spoke all his lines in Japanese, yet the Major was entirely in English, as if this was as much a stylistic choice as the shape of your “shell.”

Unfortunately, it looks like this will likely be one and done for the franchise, with the film being crushed at the North American box-office by – pardon me while I throw up – Baby Boss. If the makers are to recoup their investment, it will need to follow in the footsteps of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and perform well in overseas markets. [RE: TFC has now taken 11x as much in foreign markets as it did in the US/Canada] Action heroine fans will be hoping for better results on June 2, when Wonder Woman opens.

Dir: Rupert Sanders
Star: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano

The Ghost in the Shell universe

Science-fiction writers largely whiffed on predicting the Internet: as a sweeping generalization, they were too busy with rocket ships and flying cars to see the biggest change in human society since the invention of the internal combustion engine. William Gibson’s “Sprawl” trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive), which began in 1984, is a rare example which saw how the interconnectedness of people and things would become an everyday part of life, for better and worse. But one of the more accurate projections of our networked future was a Japanese manga series, first published in 1989: Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, which has been powerfully influential since, from The Matrix through to HBO’s Westworld.

It was not Shirow’s first foray into the interface between man (or, more frequently, woman) and machine. He began in 1983 with Black Magic (made into Black Magic M-66), which preceded The Terminator in its story of a journalist trying to save a young woman from a relentless android. This was followed two years later by Appleseed, a series which according to Wikipedia, “merges elements of the cyberpunk and mecha genres with a heavy dose of politics, philosophy, and sociology.” Sound familiar? 1986’s Dominion then introduced readers to the fictional setting of Newport City, which would also become the home for Major Motoko Kusanagi, the protagonist of Ghost in the Shell.

The world

It is the near future. The world has become highly information-intensive, with a vast corporate network covering the planet, electrons and light pulsing through it. But the nation-state and ethnic groups still survive. And on the edge of Asia, in a strange corporate conglomerate-state called ‘Japan’…

So opens Ghost in the Shell. First published as a serial in Young Magazine, it began in April 1989, and was set, at that point, forty years in the future. By this point, technology has advanced to a level where every aspect of humanity, physical or mental, can be augmented by prosthetic devices. Almost everyone has taken advantage of at least a few upgrades. Some, such as Kusanagi, have embraced the concept to such extent they have entirely artificial bodies in addition to a “cyberbrain”. This enhanced version of the organ can be transferred at will between physical forms, and allows direct connection into information networks.

However, these innovations are not without their downside. If something is networked, it can be hacked. And if it can be hacked, it will be hacked, leading to potentially lethal acts of cyber-terrorism. These can be deadly, not only to the direct target – for if you can take over someone’s brain, they can then be used as your “puppet,” to commit further crimes. The hacker can even implant false memories into the victim, covering their tracks. Such sophisticated criminals require equally sophisticated law-enforcement, and this is where Section 9 come in. Led by Major Kusanagi, and operating under the watchful gaze of bureaucrat Daisuke Aramaki, they have the freedom of action necessary to tackle the most difficult cases.

It’s not just technology that has changed from the current time. Between now and then, there have been two further world wars: the third was nuclear, and the fourth was not. The net result has been the break-up of several world powers into smaller fragments. Most notably, the United States of America split off two sections, leaving only nine states behind. The American Empire occupies the South and East, while the Russo-American Alliance controls the West coast and North-East corridor. This seems eerily prescient too, with some in California currently contemplating secession. Let’s hope the American Empire’s bloody and brutal invasion of Mexico, included in the future world here, does not come to pass as well.

Japan, however, survived the two global conflicts relatively well, and has developed into a superpower. While some areas were hit with nuclear weapons in WW3, “radiation scrubbing” technology was developed, which meant these were not long-term wastelands and could be rebuilt relatively quickly. It remains a democracy, though as the opening text suggests, it’s an occasionally fragile one, with pressures from interested parties – in particular corporations – creating a dynamic tension between the needs of business and individuals. As a result of the wars, there are also a significant number of refugees from other Asian countries, which cause tension and represent a serious political powder-keg.

The Major

The heroine has had almost as many forms as there have been adaptations of the manga. Which is not a problem, because this is a universe where, if you want, you can change your body as often as your socks. It’s also why the criticisms of “whitewashing” leveled at the film for casting Scarlett Johansson never made any sense to me. Kusanagi can take any shape she wants, because her body is entirely artificial. The Major has described herself as nothing more than a fist sized clump of brain cells, without her robotic body. How she looks is purely an aesthetic choice. And, let’s face it: if I were a woman, and could look like anyone I wanted, ScarJo would be a more likely selection than most.

However, the differences are not limited to how she appears: indeed, in some incarnations (Ghost in the Shell 2), she has abandoned entirely any definitive physical semblance. The Major’s personality is also subject to variation: the anime version is a great deal more stoic than the manga one, where she appears to have come to a fairly happy place with regard to her situation. In the films, she worries frequently about whether or not she is still human – and what that even means. Another aspect which separates her from most of her contemporaries in Section 9, is that she went through full cyberization at a very early stage in her life. Although the details are murky (and also vary, depending on the adaptation), it appears she has been living an entirely artificial life, virtually for as long as she can remember.

Let’s talk about sex. Shirow has had a reputation as a bit of a lech, since virtually the start of his career. It’s an aspect which seems to have increased in his work over time; while he has almost abandoned linear story-telling, his latest artwork book is called Greaseberries, and is about what it sounds like. But even relatively early, content was controversially removed from the Japanese version of the manga, for its original American release: pages which depict the Major’s sideline, involving sex software called “Endorno.” [For the curious. You’re welcome! NSFW, obviously] Many of the Major’s costume choices also seem to come from Stripper Couture R Us, even if somewhat required by the plot, e.g. that skin-tight bodysuit is really necessary for her thermo-optical camouflage. Honest! Just don’t ask why her head doesn’t need it…

Yet curiously, actual fornication is largely missing from the Shell universe, particularly in the animated versions. Perhaps it’s the result of Kusanagi’s cybernetic nature, with her body just a tool for the job? Indeed, love is equally notable by its near-absence. Actually, this is among the things which I find most refreshing about her as a heroine: she’s not defined at all by traditionally feminine conceits like romantic relationships or family values. These tend to get shoehorned in far too often to action heroines, and most of the time (I admit, there are some exceptions), do little more than bring proceedings to a grinding halt, and get in the way of the fun stuff. This diversion of energy isn’t a problem with the Major: she had little or no interest in affairs of the heart. “Career oriented” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

The influences

The 1995 movie of Ghost in the Shell is not the first large-budget attempt at putting the “cyberpunk” world on the big screen. It was beaten to the punch, by a few months, by Johnny Mnemonic, an adaptation of a William Gibson short story, starring Keanu Reeves. The less said about it, probably the better, though coincidentally, Takeshi Kitano is in both it and the live-action Ghost. I’ll just leave you this sentence from another review: “After Henry Rollins is crucified by a fundamentalist Christian assassin played by Dolph Lundgren whose catchphrase is “Jesus time!” (AWESOME), Keanu and his sidekick Jane eventually hook up with the Lo-Teks, a gang of outlaws in the ruins of Newark led by Ice T and a cybernetic dolphin.” Yeah, Unsurprisingly, it was a critical flop then, and hasn’t exactly improved with age.

The reviews at the time of release for Ghost were stellar in comparison, though still mixed. It’s one of those films whose impact and relevance only becomes apparent over time. Like Blade Runner, you wake up one morning and suddenly go, “Holy shit, we’re living in that movie.” Okay, we may not quite yet be seeing the cyberization seen in Ghost; yet we’re getting there, in terms of the amount of time people spend interfaced into virtual worlds, from Facebook to Netflix. Consider this: 1989, when the original comic was published, was the same year Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Even by 1995, there were less than forty million users of the Internet world-wide, the majority in the United States, and just 23,500 websites. [Working eight hours a day, you could spend a minute on every website, and see the entire Internet in under seven weeks.] The relevant figures in 2017: 3.77 billion users and about a billion sites.

The film-makers who have acknowledged its influence include virtually all the heavy hitters of genre cinema: James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and, most obviously, the Wachowski brothers sisters siblings. When they pitched their idea for The Matrix to their producers, they showed them the Ghost in the Shell movie and said, “We want to do that for real.” Spielberg would make AI: Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, reflecting ideas explored in Ghost, and his studio, Dreamworks, are behind the live-action version, having bought the rights all the way back in April 2009. Cameron provided a glowing quote for the DVD release, and the transference of personalities seen in Avatar seems to bear a debt to Shirow’s creation.

It’s a two-way street, naturally. Ghost was influenced by what had gone before, and it’s also notable for being a rare anime film co-funded by Japan and Western companies. The results straddle cultures and have stood the test of time better than most of its contemporaries, animated or live-action. It will be interesting to see whether the latest version proves to be so well-regarded and influential, more than two decades after it comes out.

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