41. Ghost in the Shell

Slapping a loaded magazine into her rifle, the robot who feels human tells her boss “I’ll leave the detective stuff to you.” Unraveling conspiracies ain’t her line; Sector 9 assault team leader Major Motoko Kusanagi is a weapon, a killer assigned to find the hacker called Puppet Master.

An animated feast of philosophy and action, Ghost in the Shell is Japanese anime that belongs beside Blade Runner and The Matrix in the Pantheon of thoughtful sci-fi gun-and-fist-fight movies.

In 2029, humans augment their bodies more and more with robots parts, because cyborgs are stronger. “Humanity,” however, “has underestimated the consequences of computerization.” The Puppet Master is a consequence, a potential enemy born in an ocean of information. But is he/she/it alive?

To get to him/her/it, Major battles a walking tank that looks like a giant war spider.

Ghost in the Shell’s action is better than Blade Runner’sWe meet Major midway through an assassination mission, when she turns invisible and explodes a diplomat’s head. Then a thrilling chase concludes with a wet, high-tech street fight.  

In quieter moments, against a stormy techno-urban background (like Blade Runner’s), characters earnestly debate what it means to physically bond with computing technology. They’ve plugged in so deeply that consciousnesses are ghosts and bodies are shells. The network rules. Ghost in the Shell is from 1995, almost a decade before Facebook, but this line reminds me of social networking: “The only thing that makes me feel human is how I’m treated.” 

The network starts manipulating people, implanting false memories and convincing them they’re something they’re not. And a government agency has stupid mistakes to cover, so of course the problem worsens. 

The best part? This all happens in an hour and 20 minutes! Such efficiency – a package of interesting philosophical questions and unique, sleek violence. Why aren’t movies short anymore?

The Puppet Master thinks he knows what’s required for something to truly be alive: mortality and procreation. But he/she/it is reaching. He/she/it doesn’t really know, because Ghost in the Shell doesn’t have answers. All it can give us is a fun, provocative ride, with cyborgs and a spider tank.

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40. The Incredibles

At a screenwriting workshop in Mexico, Professor Mark Schwartz told my class about inciting incidents and sudden reversals; that the hero drives the story, and the villain erects roadblocks; that thematic lines begin early and run throughout; and that a love interest provides the destination. There are always exceptions, but the formula is eternal.

The film Schwartz showed to demonstrate these story-theory tenets was Brad Bird’s 2004 action cartoon The Incredibles, whose opening scenes are a masters’ class in setup. We meet Mr. Incredible first in an interview, where he lays two theme lines: the world always needs saving, and he thinks he’d like a simple life raising a family.

The breakneck action that follows establishes Mr. Incredible as a confident and supremely skilled superhero. Over a single evening he frees a cat in a tree, ends a police chase, foils two robberies, saves a jumper from committing suicide, saves a boy from blowing up, and saves a train full of people from derailing. (The boy who almost blew up, Buddy, sets another theme line – be true to yourself – before being coldly cast away by Mr. Incredible. Buddy will return as the villain, putting up roadblocks.)

Inciting incident? The people Mr. Incredible saved all sue, and superheroes are ordered into hiding. Mr. Incredible hangs up his supersuit and goes to work as an insurance agent, forswearing his powers….

Flash forward 15 years and the plot begins.

This was my daughter’s favorite movie when she was 2. She’d pump her little arms and ask for “the movie with corre corre robot.” Corre means “run” in Spanish, and she likes when Dash, Mr. Incredible’s son, runs through the jungle at a hundred miles per hour. She also likes the big robots. We watched it twice a week for months. Now she’s 3 and we still watch it sometimes, and it’s always fresh.

These are signs that The Incredibles might be perfect:

  1. After dozens of viewings, it does not get old.
  2. It is loved, equally for different reasons, by both a screenwriting professor and a baby.

Even The Godfather can’t claim that last one, despite my efforts.

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39. Logan

Logan ends with over-the-top action – commandos, leaping mutants, and superpowers like ice breath and telekinesis.

Six months before Logan came out, a photograph of the first page of its screenplay was released online, probably so people could read this: “Basically, if you’re on the make for a hyper choreographed, gravity defying, city-block destroying, CG fuckathon, this ain’t your movie.”

They promised a good movie, not just a good comic-book movie.

(Context: Logan, aka Wolverine, has metal claws and super healing, and is the greatest X-Man. Hugh Jackman has played him eight times.)

Three Mexicans try to kill Logan and steal his car in the first scene, attacking with guns and a crowbar. The fight is dirty. Logan stabs through heads and severs limbs.

Logan repeatedly references the 1953 film Shane, archetype for the story of a mysterious stranger riding into town to rescue peaceful people from fiendish oppressors. We’re in the future, though, 2029, so add a sci-fi sheen. Logan, reluctant hero, is old and in pain and angry about his past. His friends are dead for unexplained reasons, and he meets more death in the second act after helping a farmer fight corporate goons. Logan, through these scenes, is a throwback to great old movies, with its own nasty twists and claw violence.

But the gritty-western ethos is shit upon when Logan switches from interesting into yet another effects-laden chase/battle. There is gravity defiance, Logan even takes drugs to jump farther. And a city block may not get destroyed, but superkids use powers to fight and it looks stupid.

The graphic novel Old Man Logan does the western stuff better – he begins as a farmer who renounced violence – and features fights against Spider-Man’s granddaughter, Red Skull, and the Hulk. It proves that dark authenticity and comic-book action can mix.

Despite countless villains from decades of Wolverine comics, the toughest foe in Logan is a cheesy clone. Why not a scrappy Sabretooth brawl at the end, something rough and tough that keeps the screenplay’s promise?

Logan lied. If you’re on the make for true grit, this ain’t your movie. Not quite.

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