Ghost in the Shell | Rupert Sanders | March 31st, 2017
On the heels of some “whitewashing” controversy, the famed anime adaptation of Ghost in the Shell finally hits theaters this weekend. While the backlash has often overshadowed the release of this film, I’m sure some fans just honestly want to know if it’s actually a faithful adaptation of the anime. The answer is mostly….yes.
There are certain scenes of Ghost in the Shell that are almost shot for shot re-creations of the original 1995 anime film. These scenes made me reminisce of the first time watching the original about 15 years ago. I’ve never been a huge fan of the anime, but I remember many sequences and the overall color scheme of that film. While it does somewhat borrow from a few of the other Ghost in the Shell movies of the past, it also sometimes feels like its own thing. It’s a gorgeous looking movie, sleeker and more vivid than the original; cleaner in some ways, and a much brighter neon color scheme. Overall, it all mostly works. In the end, though, the story is one we’ve seen many times before.
Ghost in the Shell takes place in a future version of Japan. Humans have begun to enhance themselves with cybernetic parts. Anyone can give themselves robotic eyes, hands, faces, or whatever body part you want to make better. Scarlett Johansson stars as Major; a cyber-enhanced individual who has had her brain and consciousness (or ghost/soul) transferred to a cybernetic body. We meet her in the opening sequence, which shows us her construction that actually looks very similar to the opening credits of HBO’s Westworld. A year later, Major has been trained and assigned to the government crime fighting organization called Section 9. Her main mission is to wipe out cyber-terrorists and dangerous criminals. During one of her missions, she discovers that an outside entity is hacking into other cyber-enhanced humans. This entity is determined to destroy the Hanka cybernetic corporation, which Section 9 has a powerful partnership with. Major, along with her partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek) must uncover the identity of this dangerous hacker, and soon uncover a conspiracy that goes further than they ever realized.
Conspiracy movies have been a huge draw for decades. The mystery and intrigue of a good conspiracy film has gone down countless alleys in many different movies. Unfortunately, Ghost in the Shell doesn’t really add anything new to that genre. If you’ve seen a Jason Bourne movie, or just saw the latest trailer for Ghost in the Shell, you know where this is going. It’s not entirely the film’s fault, though, as the original had a similar plot, but that version came out more than 20 years ago and a lot of similar films have come out since then. If you can put that aside, you could have a pretty good time with this movie. There are many stunning shots of skyscrapers and hologram advertisements that look absolutely beautiful. Scarlett Johansson’s outfits are impressively slick and look realistic. It’s definitely one of the more visually appealing films to come out in the last few years. It’s the story and the script that, unfortunately, keep the film from being great.
Johansson gives a pretty good performance as the robotic Major and is actually endearing when she is able to let her humanity shine through. Michael Pitt is also a standout as Kuze, the cybernetic hacker and terrorist who seems to have ties to Major’s past. Pitt’s voice for Kuze is digitally altered, resulting in a pretty cool human/robotic fusion of dialogue when he speaks. Juliette Binoche plays a scientist and one of the creators of Major. She does a fine job with the role and is almost like a surrogate mother to Major. Her robotics lab and the CGI effects of her repairs on Major look seamless, in fact, all the effects of Ghost in the Shell are top notch. When Major puts her suit on invisible mode, it looks like her opponents are fighting one angry specter. Seeing this in IMAX 3D was a fairly rewarding visual experience. If you’re going to see this in theaters, this is the way to go.
There are some philosophical ideas brought up about consciousness and what it means to be human. Major questions her purpose in Section 9, and seems to yearn for any type of connection to the real world. Once again, though, the timing of this film being released after Westworld is rather unfortunate. Many of these themes of identity, consciousness, and the blending of humanity and machine were handled much better in that show. You can look past that, though, if you’re just looking for Ghost in the Shell to be a faithful adaptation of the anime. It certainly is that, but almost to its detriment. By making sure that the main story is similar to the anime, the film doesn’t stand on its own as much as it could.
There is an explanation as to why Major looks the way she does instead of looking more Japanese. Other characters who were played by Caucasian actors don’t really have a reason. Although to be fair, a number of the characters in the anime don’t necessarily look Asian either. I’m not trying to downplay Hollywood’s issue with hiring foreign actors, but Johansson’s Major is at least given an explanation that makes sense.
Once again, the trailers and marketing for Ghost in the Shell have showcased many of the action scenes. They are quick and sparse in this film. When they happen, they are exciting, but I was hoping for some big action set-piece that they didn’t hint at in the trailers. That did not happen. A certain battle between Major and a spider-like tank was a particular highlight. I honestly wanted to spend more time in this world. The streets were gritty, and the underground criminal world was only briefly explored. There could be John Wick world building potential here. The films’ brisk pace at 107 minutes, made it feel like the movie ended a little too soon. It wrapped up everything a little too nicely. Events and character resolutions are obviously set up for possible sequels, which I’d honestly like to see.
Ghost in the Shell visually calls back to classic sci-fi films like Blade Runner, The Matrix, and even Steven Spielberg’s AI. The main story of the film, while mostly interesting, just never packs enough punch to be as groundbreaking as its source material. It’s a mostly faithful adaptation, with some bursts of action and good performances. It just never fully comes together to have the type of weight that you’d want to feel from its themes. The inner ghost of the script just got lost in translation.