Ghost in the Shell Movie Review
The good news is that Ghost in the Shell could very well be the best live-action anime adaptation to come from Hollywood. The bad news is that when your nearest competition is Dragonball Evolution or Speed Racer, that’s hardly a ringing endorsement.
An adaptation of both a hit Japanese manga series, and several feature length animated films and television series’, Ghost in the Shell was one of the more formative works of the early Cyberpunk genre, working largely because it successfully wrapped the genre trademarks around an interesting police procedural along with some memorable characters. Along with Akira, it was one of the first works of Japanese anime to prove a true crossover success in the West, and its influence is felt in several works of the past two decades, ranging from The Matrix to Minority Report.
As for this incarnation of Ghost in the Shell? Let’s dive right in, shall we?
In the near future, the line between what is man and what is machine has been blurred to the point of irrelevancy. Neural implants and cybernetic upgrades are ubiquitous, and cyborgs are the way of the future. Nobody knows this better than Major Mira Killian, one of the first people whose body is entirely cybernetic aside from her brain, and whenever she isn’t helping Section 9 track down terrorists and rogue agents, grapples with fragments of her past and what’s left of her humanity. She’ll have to face both mysteries head on to solve her latest case, a hacker named Kuze who had been hunting down the scientists conducting this cybernetic research, and forced to confront a central question – what’s it mean to be human when all that’s left of you is a ghost in the shell?
The central issue facing any adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is that most of the plot beats and themes of the original movie and anime have been done to death by this point, either by its predecessors like Robocop, to successors like The Matrix, and doing a live adaptation of the animated film isn’t enough to distract from that. If anything, it’s kind of disappointing to see that the live action Ghost in the Shell actually touches on some of the themes and plot beats that the animated series did LESS capably. It doesn’t help that the movie itself is for the most part free of any tension, especially the first hour which drags quite a bit before things get moving halfway through the second act.
The one area that Ghost in the Shell almost treads some new ground, concerning a plot twist – all I will say about is that it plays on the controversy surrounding the film – that had it played with the ideas and themes it presents a bit more, could have added some much needed meat on the bones of this film. As it stands, I almost feel cheated that it didn’t.
While I’ll touch on the casting controversy in a moment, for now, I have to give credit where it’s due, and Scarlett Johansson carries Ghost in the Shell very capably on her shoulders as the Major. The movie probably never would have been greenlit without her, both because she’s one of the few given box office draws left these days, and because I could easily see a lesser actress drop the ball with some of the complexity the roll calls for. There is room for debate over if Johansson should have been cast as the Major, given she’s a Swede playing a Japanese character. Let there is no debate over her ability – that the movie is memorable at all is because of her.
The rest of the Ghost in the Shell cast is a mixed bag. The best of the bunch is probably Pilou Asbæk as Batou, though part of that might just be he gets the second most screentime. Less impressive are the movie’s various villains, who we never get to see enough of to make them feel like a proper threat. Then there are the more curious choices, such as Takeshi Kitano’s Chief Daisuke, who speaks solely in Japanese, even when he’s part of conversations that are being carried on entirely in English.
One of the things that stuck out about director Rupert Sanders’ last directing gig, Snow White and the Huntsman, was that when he wasn’t lifting scenes from every fantasy movie of the past 30 years or sleeping with Kristen Stewart, he pretty much lifted most of his visual style from Miyazaki movies and other anime. With Ghost in the Shell, he sticks to what he knows, and for the most part, does an admittedly impressive job adapting the famous style and scenes of Ghost in the Shell to live action. The problem is that, from the set pieces to the action choreography, nothing really leaves much of a lasting impression.
It’s arguably the biggest weakness of Ghost in the Shell, that even when the movie at its strongest, it never escapes the feeling that it’s all been done better many times before, and done far better than it is here. 20 plus years ago, when the original Ghost in the Shell came out, cyberpunk was still a relatively new subgenre and style. Now, in 2017, it’s old hat, and everything from its themes of what it means to be human in an age of machines to its signature visuals of neon and trenchcoats has been done to the point what was once a breath of fresh air is now a cliche.
As far as the cybernetic elephant in the room – the much talked about whitewashing controversy – I won’t say too much about it, given it’s not really my place to say too much about it. I am after all, whiter than lutefisk. That said, I have several near and dear Asian friends and colleagues who are upset over it, several others who are not, and the director of the original Ghost in the Shell movie has said he’s okay with it, so by all means form your opinions on the issue.
One thing I DO think should be addressed is not so much the whitewashing, but the Sinicization of the movie. Ghost in the Shell has at least two or three Chinese companies that co-produced the movie, and it shows throughout the film in ways both large and subtle. These range from the much talked about casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role, to the much less talked about fact that, for a movie based of a Japanese manga and anime originally set in Tokyo, never once does the city’s name come up in the movie, even in passing. I’d actually be very curious to see what the eventual Chinese cut of the film looks like based on what I’ve seen.
Where the original animated movie and anime series were instant classics, this live action Ghost in the Shell suffers from treading very, very familiar territory, thematically and visually. A couple of decent performances and some occasionally interesting visuals lifted from the animated movie aren’t enough to earn more than a shrug, much less paying full ticket price. If you’re curious, check it out at a matinee in a couple weeks, otherwise, wait for it to pop up on Netflix.
From Blade Runner to Minority Report, I expect more from my cyberpunk cinema than pretty visuals at this point, and so should you. In the end, no matter how lovely the shell may be at times, there is very little heart or soul to Ghost in the Shell.