Hollow Giants, Solid Ghosts

This has nothing to do with the Metal Gear Solid series, by the way, which I’ve never played, but heard good things about.  Then again, I’ve heard good things about Michael Bay’s Transformers, and part of this blog is about my disappointment with that series, so who knows how these things work.

I haven’t updated for a while.  There are some reasons for that, but before we get into that, I thought I’d provide a few quick updates on my life.  People seem to do that on Blogs occasionally.

Most of my major papers for this semester are finished.  I still have one minor paper and another larger paper to do, and a few piddly poem reviews, but on the whole they’re done.  That’s a great relief to me, and it’s allowed me to get ahead in my drawing and writing.  I’ve nearly finished with my “Deeds of the Dwarves” series on DevART, which seems to have been reasonably popular, so I’m good with that.  Unfortunately, I also took up a few minor fanfic projects, so I haven’t gotten much ORIGINAL fiction work done, but on the other hand my poetic abilities have been growing by leaps and bounds this semester, thanks to the Creative Writing class I’ve been taking.  So that’s cool.

One other cool thing?  Next weekend, I get to hop a plane to home, see my family, and then present my paper on Portal (the video game) to an academic conference on Literature, Language, and Media.  After I present it, I swear I’ll post the paper up here–in fact, I may start just randomly posting up my poetry and other stuff up here just to publicize it more–but right now I want to wait until after I’ve presented it.  Presentation is a big part of the academic world, and though I can usually handle speaking in public, this is the first conference I’ve ever presented at.  So I am so incredibly psyched about that.  I’m trying to get a slideshow together, but we’ll have to see if that works out.

 I had a really busy stretch where I had two papers to finish in two weeks (partly my own fault for not getting started earlier), and then I completely vegged out during Easter Break the week directly after, under claims of “recuperating” from all the stress of moving fingers over keys.  Mostly I occupied myself by replaying Mass Effect 1 (see previous blog) as a way of distracting myself from the recent release of Mass Effect 3, which I am DESPERATELY trying to prevent myself from buying, as I really should not spend that amount on a game, at least not at my current budget.  I also occupied myself by sleeping in to 2 in the afternoon most days, but that’s totally unrelated.

The important thing, at least in terms of this blog, is that I also used the extra time to catch up on my research into popular culture in audiovisual media. 

Yeah, that.  Between movie-watching groups here on campus and weekly trips to the library to pick up movies, I’ve managed to watch a lot of movies that I’ve always wanted to see (The Godfather, Seven Samurai, The Book of Eli) and also a few that I really had no interest in seeing but did anyway (Inside Man).  But let’s face it, there are a LOT of movies out there, and as they keep coming out, I doubt I’ll ever actually see all in my list.

Still, it’d been a great shame to me that I, a self-proclaimed geek and avowed Transformers fan, had never actually seen the Transformers movie.

No, I’m not talking about THIS….

THAT one I saw back in high school, and the VHS tape is still sitting back at home somewhere.  No, I’m talking about the 2007 Transformers Michael Bay adaptation, famous for its guns, gears, and girls.

Although, as a Transformers fan, I’d followed the trailers and promotional material, I hadn’t had the chance to see it when it first came out, and avoided the two sequels because I didn’t want to fall into the middle of something I didn’t understand.  But during the crazy weeks of writing and the last week of vegging out, I finally managed to check out all three movies and watch them in order.

First things first.  Undeniably wonderful graphics.  The Autobots and Decepticons are impossibly well detailed, they look totally alien and totally mundane at the same time.  Optimus is really the only one who resembles his cartoon counterpart, but all are fully figured and well realized.  Not only that, but they’re treated as real aliens, with implications at military and political levels, an unusual level of depth for Transformers.  The humans aren’t useless, either, the military has a large role in all three movies and they generally get to kill at least one Transformer without any Autobot aid.  And a lot of the characters are hilarious.

At the same time, some of the characters are bit over-the-top.  While probably this is the point, Shia Lebouf as Sam Witwick gets annoying REALLY fast as a whiny, self-obsessed kid, and while his parents are funny for the first movie, the utter lack of character development on the part of either is a bit draining.  And the girls… Neither of Sam’s girlfriends have any REAL personality.  I mean, they try, but they’re very obviously meant to be pretty faces and nothing more.  The only people who are actually allowed to be respectable and heroic–the American soldiers working alongside the Autobots–are pretty cool, but they’re so perfect as to be flat.  They never develop much beyond: “We are awesome and honorable.”  One soldier has a wife and kid that are mentioned at the start of the first movie and then completely disappear.  Never mentioned again in the series.  Develop the soldier’s character?  Nah, lets spend some more time on Sam whining about how the government doesn’t respect his ability to create problems.

And the plot holes.  OH MY GOODNESS the plot holes.  The Autobots are trying to hide Sam and his girlfriend from the police.  What do they do?  Transform?  You know, the DISGUISE part of ROBOTS IN DISGUISE?  No, instead they grab Sam and his arm candy (Seriously, I can’t remember her name, that’s how blank a character she was), stick them on their shoulder, and go jogging down the highway.  Because a 20-foot tall mecha is totally sneakier.  And then they run under the bridge and crouch under the girders, because that looks a lot less suspicious than a 18-wheeler just driving along.  The crazy part?  This almost works.

Later, (Spoilers!) the heroes need to destroy the AllSpark.  But the Decepticons are coming.  So they decide to (naturally!) drive toward the nearest major city.  It’s not really a comic book fight without hapless civilians in the way, after all.  Then they call in air support, because shooting missiles at things in a densely populated metropolis is a good idea.  Worse, on their way TO the city, they PASS the Autobots (who are in car mode, for once), and the Autobots, instead of stopping them and saying “Hey, listen, we Cybertronians have a lot more ways to destroy that you guys do,” just turn around and follow them into the densely populated city. 

Later, Sam needs to get to a building on the other side of a war zone.  Does one of the mecha/cars transform to take him there?  Nope.  Do they even pick him up and carry him over on those 10-foot legs?  Nope.  Sam runs, on foot, across the war zone, while the enormous Autobots jog alongside.  That makes sense! (This is actually a recurring logic hole, its especially bad in the second movie.)

Second movie is no better–in fact, its worse in some ways.  Magically, the whole world has forgotten about the pesky 20-foot tall robots that nearly destroyed a city a few years back.  Aliens?  Who believes in aliens?  Optimus refuses to give humans Cybertronian technology, as “he has seen their capacity for violence.”  Because Cybertron is the very model of peaceful co-existence.  The government, with incredibly thin logic, decides to ask its most powerful allies to leave, while broadcasting national secrets over satellite communications–communications that were completely hacked in the FIRST movie.  A whole Aircraft Carrier group is supposed to be guarding the remains of Megatron, and when the Decepticons come to revive him they essentially just sit by their screens and watch.  All this, so a Big Bad–who’s apparently too afraid to face up to even ONE robot who might be able to kill him–can activate an enormous machine that has somehow managed to remain hidden inside one of the most famous landmarks in the world.  It’s not like we have educated people who examine those things, after all.

Third movie?  Perhaps not as bad as the second, but still pretty stupid.  Sam is still whiny, parents are still annoying, girlfriend is still bland, government is still stupid, soldiers are still awesome.  Not going to talk about how ridiculous the whole “moon-landing” conspiracy is–it’s meant to be ridiculous and I’m going to ignore it.  More important holes: A secret “master conspiracy” that somehow never came up in the last two movies, even though its supposed to go all the way back to 1969.  One Cybertronian talking about how they were gods on Cybertron(you know, where all the other giant techno-robots live), but here (with all the little squishy humans)they’re just machines.  Whole groups of Autobots getting captured offscreen while Optimus manages to get himself tangled up in CRANE CABLES, of all things, for half an hour and yet somehow remain free.  The main Decepticon ship being completely unguarded.  Megatron making an incredibly poorly-timed betrayal.  Actually, I take it back, the third one may be worse than the second.  It had some more interesting ideas, but OHMY GOODNESS the PLOTHOLES!

So yeah.  Bottom line, they’re technically well-made movies, with good graphics and fight scenes, and they’re an interesting addition to the Transformer canon, examining the wider implications of alien robots, but they’re not really anything amazing, and the stories leave a lot to be desired.  There’s definitely not anything particularly deep, heartwarming, or even philosophical going on here.  Optimus gives out a few meaningless platitudes about how “Freedom is the right of all sentient Beings,” but it doesn’t really apply to the current problem (Megatron trying to get the All-spark).  I’m not sorry I saw them once–they did present some interesting angles on the Transformer mythos–but I have no great desire to see them again, and I can’t really recommend more than one showing for anyone else either.

But all is not lost.  If you can’t get your intellectual kicks watching powerful robots with pretty girls, try watching a series where powerful robots ARE pretty girls.

Pretty after they add the skin and hair and everything, anyway.  And actually, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex has relatively few complete robots, at least completely sentient ones like the Transformers.  Most of the AI’s in this Japanese anime are very simplistic ones that are either childishly curious or mind-numbingly robotic (by design).  The character in the picture here is actually a cyborg, i.e., a robot body with a human brain inside. 

Ghost in the Shell takes place in a near-future type world, where nearly everyone has some kind of cybernetic enhancement.  Eye implants, prosthetic limbs, “cyberbrains,” you name it, people have it.  The show follows an elite team of Black Op military cyborgs that handle national security matters.  They’re super-strong, super-fast, super… well, you get the idea.  The team leader, Major Kusanagi, is a female cyborg like the one shown, and she has a very flexible attitude when it comes to cybernetics.  She hacks others cybernetics and makes them punch themselves, she transfers her brain from body to body, she remote-controls other bodies from a distance away.

Obviously, such an incredible level of cyberization raises serious questions about what a person actually IS, and Ghost in the Shell struggles with that.  “Ghost” is actually a concept very like a “soul” in the future world, it’s the essence of a person.  “Shell” is the cyborg body, the hardware that makes the person move around.  With such technology, the separation between body and soul is often more than merely metaphorical, and at times the central characters wonder even how important the brain is to the “Ghost” of a person.  A major story arc in the series concerns a squad of AI robots the team uses and whether they have developed “Ghosts” despite having no brains.

Don’t mistake me, Ghost in the Shell is by no means a Christian show, nor even a family-friendly one.  The Major also has flexible ideas on clothing–she’s just a brain in a robot shell, after all–and the show takes advantage of it.  Mostly the show’s concerned with social phenomena–the idea of idol worship in modern society, the “stand alone complex.”  But it’s a fascinating show intellectually.  The technology is more or less feasible and remarkably detailed–the show’s writer was a former engineer.  The politics are complex and involved, and the world itself fantastic.  (America has become “The American Empire” in this show.  How is that not awesome?)  I’m still not sure how everything in the series happens, but unlike with the Transformer series, I know that’s not because it’s a plot hole, but because I’m not following the explanation the anime is giving.  And when the characters aren’t blowing stuff up or explaining the politics behind the Russian mafia, they’re usually philosophizing about life and “Ghosts.”

Ghost in the Shell is not for everyone.  It’s Japanese, it’s anime, and it’s risque in parts (those three things are not quite redundant).  But it’s a fascinating show to get into, and a LOT more fun (to me) to watch than a robot-heavy action movie with a plot like Swiss Cheese.  If you like anime, look it up.  Buy it, even.  It’s a good view.

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