Two Ghosts in the Shell

We had a date night with the soon to be wife and decided to go see the new Ghost in the Shell film starring Scarlett Johansson. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the animation, so obviously I had to watch that soon after.

Ghost in the Shell [2017]


The Ghost in the Shell anime has been kind of a seminal work for me. By the time I saw the film, I’d read Neuromancer and I was familiar with the role-playing game Cyberpunk 2020, but this was the first time I saw strong visuals based on the genre. Obviously Blade Runner did exist and is a better film, but besides the cityscapes, it is visually very toned down. Ghost in the Shell on the other hand oozes cyberpunk visuals in every scene. In any case, with this background and with the trailers of the film looking very nice, I just had to see the new film. We received some tickets for the cinema as a Christmas present with the addendum that the giver of the present would baby sit, while we went to the movies, so we headed out on a date night to see this.

What is good about this film is the visual side of it. It takes some scenes straight from the anime and even the manga and transfers them beautifully on screen. It takes those scenes and runs with them in an elegant and imaginative fashion. There’s several occasions of being awestruck by the beauty of the film. There’s even more occasions of being inspired by the way this vision of the future is brought to the silver screen. It is by far the visually stronger piece of the two versions of this film.

The thing that didn’t work for me was change of focus in the plot. Instead of being about advancement of technology, specifically about the meaning of humanity in the face of artificial enhancements to human bodies and finally the birth of an AI, this is about Major (played by Scarlett Johansson) trying to come to terms with her new living condition. The Major was saved after a terrorist attack, but the cost was to replace everything in her with the exception of her brain with cybernetic parts, and she is trying to struggle with what it means to be 99% machine. The plot is moved forward by the revelation that she wasn’t actually saved, but stolen to be an experiment in how far cybernetic enhancements can be taken. There are further revelations about previous failed experiments and the Major manages to meet one badly disgruntled experiment that got away. At this point the Major becomes a liability, but manages to escape and the whole Section 9 key staff agrees with her – that she is not a liability and the party that has been funding the experiments is executed instead. Section 9 is somehow kept alive despite the execution, and life goes on with the Major having realized that the cybernetics don’t define her.

The Major comes off as an emo kid with her quest to come to terms with herself. The muddled corporate and government interests isn’t bad of itself, but the resolution is just full of gaps. Advancements in technology are turned into a thing to be feared, since they are demonized into experiments committed by people, who will forgo all morals in the name of progress. That is, the original is a somewhat intelligent essay on progress, how it can be used for good and bad, and how we can find meaning in the face of all that, while this is a very classic scifi from the time, when scifi was just a horror sub-genre (no horror though – even suspense is rarely there), where technological advancement was the root of all evil.

Despite the film being turned into a meaningless and weak effort, the visuals are stunning and the action is riveting. If you are a fan of cyberpunk and futuristic visions, that could be enough to salvage the film. For me, it was just enough.

  • Director: Rupert Sanders
  • Watched on: 1st Apr 2017
  • Watched at: Kinopalatsi
  • 2.5/5

Ghost in the Shell [1995]


I’ve seen this several times, but after seeing the new live action film version of this, I realized that I didn’t remember much about it, and I had to dig out the DVD from my shelf and give it another go.

Turns out that the live action version filled a few gaps on this cyberpunk classic for me – this was actually the first time that I managed to follow the plot completely. The plot is quite complex and the film puts little effort in making it understandable. There’s a lot of players, who aren’t properly introduced, or who play an important role, but come and go so quickly, that there’s not enough context to get the full meaning. There’s a few occasions, where it feels like 20 minutes of the film was lost on the cutting room floor by accident with some important bits of plot just gone. The live action film is done in current Hollywood fashion, where it is considered a failure, if the viewer has to put any effort into figuring things out. Despite the differences between the plots, the live action version filled a few gaps for me and I managed to follow the plot through. Nice bonus for seeing the live action version.

In any case, the film is a cyberpunk classic. It is one of the very first pieces of work in the cyberpunk genre, where the world is so vividly visualized, and it has influenced countless visions of the future ever since. Despite not being the first or even one of the best works in the genre, it is still most often the baseline for cyberpunk visualizations. It is a story about Section 9 government agency and especially about Motoko Kusanagi, an agent almost completely constructed out of cybernetic parts, going after a weird hacker, who turns out to be an AI escaped from military experiments. The plot is heavily dozed with ruminations about the nature of humanity in the face of exceeding amounts of artificial improvements and finally in the face of an actual AI – a completely artificial, self-aware, and intelligent being.

The film seems to exist mostly as a vehicle to ask the questions. Instead of providing answers, it points out a few things we need to give a bit of thought before long. Along the way it is a nice but not really an exceptional piece of film making. The chase after the mysterious hacker is interesting for a while, but there are a few occasions, where the film pulls out the rug from underneath itself just in order to advance faster into the questions it sees as interesting, that is, suspense is lost in the name of efficiency. There was opportunity for more, without cutting away from the philosophical questions that the film poses.

It is a testament to the film, that even after having seen it at least half a dozen times, it still had a few things to reveal to me, and it still held me captive for its duration. This is a classic for a reason and I heartily recommend it for anyone.

  • Director: Mamoru Oshii
  • Original Title: Kôkaku Kidôtai
  • Watched on: 11th Apr 2017
  • Watched at: Home (DVD)
  • 3.5/5

Deus Ex: Revision


I finally managed to play through the legendary Deus Ex from 2000. I first attempted to play the game, when it was still fresh. I’m still not sure, if there was a bug or if I was just too bad at it to make it through one mission pretty early on, but I hit a wall back then and couldn’t finish the game. I had another attempt some time around 2012 or so using several mods to update the graphics of the game, but I lost interest and just quit playing.

This time around I used the Revision mod from year 2015. The mod advertises its main modifications as re-designed locations, new soundtrack based on the original score, high resolution textures, high detail 3D models, Direct3D 9 rendering and various gameplay modes that tune the game rules one way or another. The full list of changes and fixes is really extensive. Forums are obviously full of complaints about the mod changing the maps and thus ruining the experience. I wasn’t too familiar with the original maps, so I wasn’t bothered by this, and I would imagine that the complaints are just the usual whining from people not wanting any changes that actually change something. I would fully recommend utilizing the Revision mod, if you are looking to play through the game now.

The game is a cyber punk RPG with a first person view. The gameplay is pretty standard computer RPG stuff – conducting missions, progressing in the story, improving your character and gear. The story tells of JC Denton, a cybernetically enhanced agent of UNATCO, who ends up finding clues about a conspiracy to take over the world and rule it from the shadows, while the common people live in squalor and practical enslavement. UNATCO is obviously involved, or rather a tool utilized by the people in the shadows, and Denton ends up defecting and defeating the conspiracy.

The game is commonly listed on best games lists and for a reason. Every area of the game is well implemented – maybe even exceptionally at the time it was released. The story is where the game shines though. For the first half of the game, you are in the dark about many things and the way you start to find pieces of the puzzle and put them together keeps you playing just one more mission to find the next piece for the puzzle. For the same duration, the suspense is so tangible, that going into new areas and meeting new people always feels dangerous – you can never be sure about what you’ll encounter and if you’ll be making a huge mistake and getting caught. You actually end up getting caught and escaping from the prison is probably the best individual sequence of the game. After about a dozen hours of tiptoeing through the game scared of your own shadow, ending up in a holding cell and trying to get out without basically any equipment, managed to ramp up the suspense another few levels.

After the escape sequence, the game finally starts to ease up though. You have most of the pieces and you can guess the rest. Instead of figuring things out, you do odd jobs to gather allies and find the opportunity to take down the conspiracy. This part takes maybe even a bit more than what it took to get here, which is a bit unfortunate. There’s still interesting bits here and there, but I was mostly not so interested in the triad wars or helping the French resistance movement or any of the other bits late in the game. There were a few points, where I thought about giving up for good, but I pushed through to the finale, which was pretty basic fare – a few more twists and turns, several conspiracies within the major conspiracy and you finally choosing, which way the world will turn next.

I’m really happy that I did push through to the end. If the latter half of the game was maybe only half as long as it currently is, I probably would’ve enjoyed the game even more, but that is pretty much its only weakness. The gameplay supports the story very strongly, the story is one of the most interesting ones I’ve ever experienced in a game. There are several types of players – I play games to experience the stories, so this really hits the spot for me.

The various characters and locations that make up the world of the game are very good. The locations are impressive and it’s exciting to go looking through the nooks and crannies of most locations, when you first go there. The characters are mostly well written. Some of the are more serious and some more funny. Although the tone of the game is mostly very serious, there’s a lot of humor (not just the characters), but it manages to not break the suspense. There’s also a ton of references to inspirations of the game and spotting those is another source of fun. Altogether, the amount of detail and love put into the game is just astounding. Although you hit the walls of the game just as you do in any other CRPG, the walls are just a bit further out and what is inside those walls is really well built.

With the mod, the graphics improvements are just good enough to not hurt your eyes. Obviously it’s still far from bleeding edge, but while I can be wowed by graphics, they never are too important for me. The bug fixes and gameplay modes (I used the BioMod, if I remember correctly) are further improvements to the experience that I appreciated a lot. The fixed bugs mostly weren’t show stoppers, but just some logic failures and side quest problems. Still, a more seamless experience is a more seamless experience. The BioMod mode is more subtle just tuning things slightly here and there and making a few character development aspects more flexible and balanced.

Altogether, with the Revision mod Deus Ex is now modern enough and bug free enough that no one should have no reasons not to finally experience this classic of a video game, if you haven’t done so yet. The game itself has earned the classic status for a reason. If you play games to experience the stories, this is probably one of the best choices out there. While this is not the best game I’ve ever played, this is easily within the top 5.

  • Play Through Finish Date: 28th Mar 2017
  • 6/5

Évolution [2015]


I went to see Innocence by Lucile Hadzihalilovic at the local film festival, when it was playing, and I was enthralled. It was set in a boarding school for girls, but instead of getting an education there, the girls were being prepared for their role in the patriarchal society. It wasn’t as straightforward as that, but that was the allegory. The film has an oppressive atmosphere that is present everywhere, although you can never quite catch the cause of it. Seemingly mundane and innocent things happen on screen, but you feel like something really bad is going on. You expect the feeling to turn into something violent at any moment, but it never does.

As a child growing up, you are expected to accept many things without an explanation. In certain situations, that can feel oppressive and even threatening. Many of those things directly affect you, but you are still expected to just nod and accept them without any understanding of what is really happening. The film depicts young girls being molded into young women fitting into the role reserved for them by the patriarchal society without the girls understanding what is happening. The atmosphere makes you feel it through their experience – you don’t understand what is happening, but you have a feeling that it is something bad.

My head still spins at the way the film is put together. Naturally, I was disappointed, when I missed Hadzihalilovic’s follow up, Évolution, in a later edition of the same local film festival. Later I jumped at the chance, when I saw that Orion was playing it as their film of the month.

Èvolution takes the exact same point of view as Innocence. The film is about girls growing up in a world, where they don’t understand things happening to them, and they experience said things as threatening. This time around, it is not molding them into their role as women in patriarchal society, but about puberty – them turning physically from girls into women capable of birth.

Just as with Innocence, it is quite difficult to wrap your head around everything that is happening in Évolution. I went and read a bunch of reviews about the film, when I was thinking about what to write about the film in this blog. Even most of the positive ones seemed to conclude that in the end this film won’t give up its secrets and you just have to accept it as an enthralling but impenetrable piece. I don’t agree.

This time around Hadzihalilovic just fudges things up a bit more in her allegories. The girls are boys on screen. The adults are all depicted as red haired women with blank and bleached faces that have some alien things on their backs. Sex is a weird ritual performed hidden from the eyes of the girls. Menstruating is a horrifying disease nobody tells you about. And finally birth is some parasite sucking you dry.

In Innocence, you could mostly trust, that if you were seeing a woman on screen, it was a pretty identical woman, when interpreted through the allegory of the film. Here you can’t trust that anymore, but with a bit more work everything still becomes clear. I assume that the allegory shows in more physical and thus more visual ways here, because the change being depicted is more physical and visual, than it was in Innocence.

My head spins again. How can you build such an experience on screen with such acuity. Nothing is what it looks like, because everything is experienced through the eyes of someone, who does not understand anything about what is happening, but when you finally catch up with it, it all makes sense, but doesn’t reduce from what you just experienced. Hadzihalilovic is truly a genius director and I will be certain to keep up with her future works.

Just see this film. Don’t give up on it. Sit through it and concentrate. Spend time on it afterwards. When it finally opens up to you, wonder at the way it is put together, wonder at the way everything seems to perfectly fit together like a beautiful puzzle. The thing is, it doesn’t end there, it isn’t just a magically perfect piece of film making genius. It is also a film, that tells a very strong story. The story is rarely told, although it is very important. It teaches you about humanity. I feel kind of embarrassed at this point by the praise I’m heaping on this film, but the thing is, I have one final piece of it – the weird way the film is put together is there not just because Hadzihalilovic can do it, it’s there because it supports the story she is telling. Just see this film.

  • Director: Lucile Hadzihalilovic
  • Watched on: 17th Feb 2017
  • Watched at: Orion
  • 6/5

Marvel Cinematic Universe – Phase 1


I started this project of watching through the Marvel Cinematic Universe films in late April. The idea had been bubbling under for some time after repeatedly hearing that the MCU is more than the sum of its parts. I’d seen a few of the parts and they mostly did not convince me, but deep down I’m a fan boy of even super hero stuff, so I couldn’t avoid being intrigued. The final trigger was seeing a few more of the films, when Nelonen was showing one MCU film every Saturday during the spring.

The MCU films (and series to an extent) have been divided into phases. Currently films are being released for phase 3. The phases seem to consist of a bunch of films featuring individual Marvel heroes finishing off with an Avengers film that gathers all the heroes into one film.

This extended film universe project has been hugely successful. There’s been 16 film releases thus far and about 3 films scheduled per year for the future. In addition there’s 6 TV series with released seasons and further 3 scheduled to start already this year. The production rate seems pretty astounding.

There’s already imitators with DC Comics trying to build something similar with its cadre of heroes, and now even Universal Studios dusting off its B monster films of yore in order to build an extended film universe of its own.

I’ve now gone through all the films and series of phase 1 (well, actually I’ve seen two phase 2 films already, but I’m a lazy blogger). My reviews of the phase 1 products I’ve seen can be found here:

The MCU is the reason I’m watching the Marvel films – the wider universe and a meta plot that runs through several separate film franchises and connects them into one story. The idea that they might build something bigger than just individual films or even just franchises based on individual heroes. Phase 1… is starting to get there.

With the exception of Iron Man 2 and the phase finale, The Avengers (Well, even The Avengers can be thought of as the origin story of the Avengers, the group of heroes.), phase 1 consists of origin stories. Mostly they are bad. Super heroes are by definition on a level above us. At first glance they seem invulnerable and it would seem that they’d have to be able to build a happy life for themselves – being capable of what they are capable of must mean that they can build a fortune and a stable life and occasionally go face off with a big bad. This is obviously a bad premise for any story that’s supposed to have some drama in it. Hence, origin stories. They are meant to build some drama into the heroic characters, so that they can partake in dramatic stories. Unfortunately, at the same time we are talking about super heroes and that’s taking the story straight out of anything that is directly connected to our mundane reality and thus our capability of connecting with the drama is limited.

Watchmen (the comic, not the film) spends great amounts of time taking its super heroes apart and showing the flawed characters underneath the masks, and does it really well, but that’s pretty much the only super hero product that succeeds in that. These films – not so good. Marvel has always been the popcorn of super heroes, so the fan base has expectations of popcorn. Marvel has to meet the expectations, if they want to keep building the universe. Unfortunately, it means that popcorn takes over, drama is very thinly built and it the whole just doesn’t work. The exception to this is Iron Man, as the character is a playboy billionaire, who works better with popcorn.

The lone TV series connected to phase 1, the Agent Carter stories, turned out mostly to be a waste of time. While it shows some glimpses into the birth of S.H.I.E.L.D. and some other important early players of the game, it headlines a character, who is either dead or otherwise completely sidelined by the time of the main MCU events. This is a pity as I liked said character. Despite the agent Carter, the series veered into deep boredom by season 2. I expect that this is a problem with most of the MCU series – they can’t contain major events important for following the meta plot, as most of the audience is doing that just through the MCU films, so the series are bound to struggle with irrelevance and boredom. I expect to be skipping most of the series in later phases, as there’s more and more of them being produced all the time.

Even with a bunch of at best average films and a mostly irrelevant series, the phase 1 starts to show the strength of the meta plot and the MCU. The films contain more and more hints and scenes about the meta plot the later they were produced. The Avengers brings this to the front for major parts of the film. Ultimately at this stage, the meta plot is stuck in the same struggle with the individual origin stories – it is being introduced, justified, dramatized, but in the end, brushed aside too quickly for audience expectations of popcorn.

Still, I’m hooked. The meta plot has caught me. I’m watching all the films waiting for glimpses of agent Coulson or Nick Fury or something. It is kind of like with the X-Files series in the past – the weird unexplained thing of the week got boring quite fast, but I was looking towards all mentions of Deep Throat or any other character connected to the deep plot that was running through the series. It’s a fun feeling.

It has been a somewhat conflicted ride thus far, but I guess I’ve swallowed the hook, line and sinker. I’m at a point, where I’m sad to see the phase 3 films in theatrical release, as I feel like I should see all the phase 2 and earlier phase 3 films, before I can go see the latest ones, so I can follow the meta plot as it unfolds. Oh well, I’ll catch up with them pretty soon at this pace and then I can enjoy my fan boyish giddiness with the other fans at the premiere of whatever the next film will be at that point… I feel weird to say that I’m looking forward to it.

The Avengers [2012]


After a bunch of origin stories for the various heroes, this film brings the heroes together and the phase 1 of the MCU to a close.

Loki was set adrift in the finale of Thor, and now turns up in earth preparing the way for his new allies, the Chitauri, to invade earth. Loki enters earth via the Tesseract, an artifact held in a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility. Loki promptly converts a few S.H.I.E.L.D. agents into his followers and escapes. The heroes that have gained their origin stories earlier in the MCU films are then gathered up on the S.H.I.E.L.D. flying air craft carrier with even Thor arriving in pursuit of his brother. This was obviously Loki’s plan all along – get the Avengers together, sow disorder and chaos among them, escape, and open a portal to bring the Chitauri to New York. Obviously, S.H.I.E.L.D. allowed this to happen to give the Avengers a reason to actually work together (death of agent Coulson) and thus stop the invasion and Loki. Furthermore, the whole chain of events gives Nick Fury a justification for The Avengers in the first place – Earth needs a defense force and The Avengers are it as demonstrated during the battle of New York.

It is nice to finally see a bit more of the meta plot, the structure intended to hold all the MCU films together, that is, the S.H.I.E.L.D. We even see the World Security Council, that seems to be in control of S.H.I.E.L.D., although Nick Fury is something of a rogue – he seems to agree on the goals, but takes liberties with the methods.

As an individual film, this is a fun romp. The fight scenes are mostly interesting as there’s more heroes involved and thus more variety. The calmer sequences are mostly nice, as there’s more surprising interactions, and some actually impressive revelations. The dialogue is kept on a not too serious level, so it is fun to follow.

The climax, the battle of New York against the Chitauri, is unfortunately a bit of a letdown. The Chitauri are boring – it is just about taking out the next half a dozen Chitauri infantry and the next Chitauri war machine, interspersed with scenes of the heroes becoming more and more desperate as they are taking small hits all the time, but there’s no end to the Chitauri force. Loki is mostly sidelined during the fight, so he completely fails to impress.

Altogether, it seems that everyone involved had loads of fun creating this – as the screen time between all the heroes is pretty evenly split, the script or the performances don’t even try to reach deeply personal or dramatic depths (which the MCU has mostly failed to do thus far).

One of the more impressive films of the MCU, as it aptly avoids the weaknesses of the franchise. I did hope for even more time spent on the meta plot, but, oh well, I had a lot of fun with this.

  • Director: Joss Whedon
  • Watched on: 13th May 2017
  • Watched at: Home (Nelonen)
  • Fanboy grade: 4/5
  • 3/5