GHOST IN THE SHELL REVIEW
GHOST IN THE MACHINE
Back in 1995, the anime film known as Ghost in the Shell was released; a movie that went on to be considered one of the greatest anime films ever created). Based on manga (i.e. Japanese comic book format style) by Masamune Shirow and directed by Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell followed the story of Major Motoko Kusanagi and her cybernetic team members of Section 9 who hunt a mysterious hacker known as “The Puppetmaster”. The film has been praised with its themes of self-identity and philosophical questions and reasons of advancement in technology; themes that would grow and become main staples in many science fiction projects and mediums. The success of Ghost in the Shell was indeed palpable, becoming a fan-favorite feature fans of anime and being a source of inspiration from several prominent storyteller and filmmakers, including the Wachowskis siblings (the duo behind the uber popular sci-fi Matrix trilogy). Furthermore, the story of Ghost in the Shell branched out and continued to expand through several more anime films, with the most recent addition Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie being released in 2015. Now, after 22 years since 1995 version was released, Paramount Pictures and director Rupert Sanders present the live-action adaptation of the anime classic with the film Ghost in the Shell. Does this movie succeed in translating (or enhancing) its jump from anime to Hollywood film or is it a failed project that gets lost in its own sci-fi world?
THE STORY – In the future, advancement in cybernetic technology has expanded into the world’s culture, with humans looking to upgrade their bodies with robotic parts. Protecting a Japanese metropolis is Public Security Section 9, a secret agency unit using cybernetic tricks to amplify their show of force, with Mira “The Major” Killian (Scarlett Johansson), a recent addition to the squad after a horrible accident reduces her to a brain contained inside a robot body. Joined by he fellow partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek) and boss Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), Major manages to interrupt an assassination attempt on a Hanka Robotics executive, but the incident leaves her shaken, triggering her to purse clues to an enigmatic figure known as Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), who knows information pertaining to a life before Major’s robotic duty. Drawing ire from Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), the man who runs Section 9, Major goes out on her to learn more about the life stolen from her, hoping to find help from her handler Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche). However, the deeper Major investigates, the deeper she questions her cyberntic life of her current situation.
THE GOOD / THE BAD – During my teenage years, I was a huge anime fan. Not a complete diehard fan as some (I still prefer the English Dubs vs. Japanese with English Subtitles), but I’ve seen many of the series, including Sailor Moon, Dragonball Z, Gundam (Gundam Wing or Gundam Seed are my favorite), Outlaw Star, The Vision of Escaflowne, and many others. Eventually, I sort of grew out of that phase as I started to watch more live action TV shows / movies, but (several years ago) I started to reconnect myself back into the world of anime.
Anyways, I remember hearing about Ghost in the Shell (the 1995 original anime) and how much people praised it for its innovation in storytelling and its A.I sci-fi ideals, but I never watched it. I wanted to, but just kept on forgetting to view it. Then I remember hearing about that Paramount Pictures was going to produce a live-action movie that was based on the 1995 anime classic and I was sort of intrigued by it. Judging by the film’s trailers, this 2017 version of Ghost in the Shell looked like it was going to be a very visual film and something a bit similar to The Matrix trilogy. So, with this live-action film peaking my interest, I decided to finally sit down and watch the 1995 version before seeing the new one. I have to say, while the 1995 film is a bit dated (in comparison to recent anime series / movies), I personally enjoyed it and I can see why many have praised it over the years. Now I was ready to see this 2017 movie. What did I think of it? Well, the 2017 version of Ghost in the Shell succeeds in its visual flair and recreating some memorable scenes, but suffers in characterization and in an engrossing plot. In short, it was good, but flawed.
Bringing this popular anime to the live-action big screen is director Rupert Sanders, who previous directorial work includes a few short films (Black Hole and Greatness Awaits) as well as the 2012 film Snow White and the Huntsman. Sanders seems to have a good idea of how he envisions his version of Ghost in the Shell, piecing together an iteration of the popular anime movie as well as brings his owns style to the feature. Perhaps the best part of the movie is in its visually appearance, seeing the world of New Port City as a futuristic Asian-style city. It’s a beautifully bold design (large advertising logo / commercial) being displayed all over the city) and feels like a living breathing science fiction world more gritty and real (something like Blade Runner) rather than sleek ultra-design that many have always envision a future setting look like. Also, the film’s production quality is also pretty good through its various outlets of costumes, set designs, and concept art. In addition, Sanders doesn’t stray away from the main points made in the 1995 version. What I mean is that Sanders doesn’t take the Ghost in the Shell story and make it something it’s not (i.e. focuses on more action oriented battles or excludes certain thematic elements). As a side-note, the film score (composed by Lorne Balfe and Clint Mansell) is pretty good.
The film’s writers, consisting of Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger, adapt Masamune Shirow’s famous anime / manga story and do a good job to make the 2017 version both different and familiar at the same time. For the most part, the movie follows a similar narrative to the 1995 version, including several scenes, which are pretty cool to see playout in live-action. My personal favorite was the opening scene with a creation of Major, which is iconic scene from the 1995 version opening credits. However, Sanders and his writers interject new elements into the narrative (i.e. Major’s journey of discovering her past and of Kuze), which makes this 2017 version stand out a bit more and not a beat-for-beat remake. Thus, the overall translation between anime and live action film is (to me) pretty good.
Unfortunately, despite the film’s overall positive points, Sander’s Ghost in the Shell movie doesn’t reach its lofty goals that it aspires to be. Perhaps the reason for that is that the film’s source material is dated. Yes, many have praised the 1995 version for its innovation in story and quasi-philosophical take of artificial intelligence (including film directors), but 2017 version doesn’t over a fresh take on that sci-fi scenario. This is due to the fact that many have already drew upon mythos of the original Ghost in the Shell for inspiration and influence (again see The Matrix, Avatar, A.I, and Surrogates). As a result, this means that the live-action version needs to evolve beyond what’s already said in many science fiction mediums. Unfortunately, it does not, playing out familiar situations and scenarios that are commonly found in sci-fi tales of robots, androids, cyborgs, and other robotic advancements in artificial intelligence. Basically, some viewers might look upon Ghost in the Shell and only see a glossy film that seems to be a clone of other sci-fi features (aka The Matrix or Blade Runner).
This then comes to the movie’s narrative. While I do praise the film for having a somewhat parallel storyline to the original 1995 version, the films focus on Major’s self-discovery journey has been played out before many times, which makes the 2017 version a bit formulaic. Coinciding with that, the film, aspiring to be sophisticated take on sci-fi elements and A.I usage, suffers from a weak villain, which should’ve been given more depth and complexity to add a new dynamic to the proceeding. Additionally, this 2017 version common themes and message, while always poignant and thought-provoking, don’t quite resonate as strong as they were meant to be. It’s as if the movie has an idea about those intellectual meanings, but doesn’t know how to “land its plane” by the film’s third act.
Of course, the big elephant-in-the-room with Ghost in the Shell is in its cast, which many have pointed out by presenting the film with mostly white actors in a film that’s set in a futuristic Asian setting. The chief amongst this decision that many people have pointed is in the film’s central protagonist character of Major, who is played actress Scarlett Johansson. It should be mentioned that the movie doesn’t make the notion of why “Major” looks like Scarlett Johansson, it just seems an underwhelming and sort of glossed over a bit (they never really state the reasons why for Johansson’s look for Major). All in all, the film could’ve explored that reason (and more of Major’s past), but Saunders never does. As for Johansson, known for his reoccurring appearances in the recent MCU movies as well as Lucy, The Island, and The Other Boleyn Girl, she does solid work as the film’s main character (proving her action star chops as Major), but the character herself is too much like a blank slate as we (the viewer) never warm-up to her throughout her journey of discovery. In short, Johansson is fine as Major, but it’s not really a powerful / dynamic character nor is her best role in her film career.
Ghost in the Shell’s supporting cast also struggles to be memorable in this sci-fi futuristic setting. Naturally, this cultural melting pot setting makes it a bit weird when most of the supporting characters in the film are (for a lack of better term) “white-washed” and played by non-Asian actors /actresses. Personally, this didn’t bother me as much (I kind of figured that Hollywood would go that route), but this decision might draw some negative criticism from fans / moviegoers. Of course, looking beyond the cultural ethnicity, there are some standout performances from these supporting players. Perhaps the best one (in this selection) is actor Pilou Asbaek as Batou, Major’s right-hand man in Section 9. Asbaek, known for his roles in 2016’s Ben-Hur as well as Euron Grejoy in HBO’s Game of Thrones, brings a sense of warmth to Ghost in Shell (especially since the movie is really serious) as well as bringing his own charm and likeability to the character. To me, I think he was my favorite character in the movie, more so than Johansson’s Major.
Another standout role in the movie is actor Takeshi Kitano as Section 9’s chief boss Daisuke Aramaki. Although not as entirely memorable as Asbaek’s Batou, Kitano’s Aramaki does prove to have some important scenes with enough screen-time to make a lasting impression. Michael Carmen Pitt, known for his role in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, plays the film’s antagonist, Kuze. While Pitt is a fine actor, his character in the movie is less memorable than what Saunders wants him to be. He’s acting is good and does a sort of Stephen Hawking-style processed voice, but it just seems that Kuze is a bit underdeveloped. Likewise, the rest of Section 9 team members, including Lasarus Ratuere’s Ishikawa, Chin Han’s Togusa and Danusia Samal’s Ladriya, play their part of Major’s team members, but are given only minimal things to do and merely in the background. The rest of supporting players, including Juliette Binoche as Major’s handler / creator Dr. Ouelet and Peter Ferdinando as the strict upper level official Cutter do fine acting jobs, but are otherwise unremarkable portrayals of very familiar archetypes that are commonplace in most sci-fi narratives.
FINAL THOUGHTS – Scarlett Johansson goes a journey of self-discovery as Major in the film Ghost in the Shell. Director Rupert Sanders newest film brings the classic anime movie / manga to life, presenting a visual sci-fi tale that delivers on producing something engaging to the eyes as well as reproducing some of the anime’s iconic scenes. Unfortunately, the film’s story narrative isn’t groundbreaking and the characterization of many of supporting characters aren’t compelling, causing the movie to feel less than what Sanders wanted the film to be. Personally, I thought it was just a good movie (nothing super great, nor super bad). Yes, the film’s visuals were slick and impressive, but the movie’s narrative, character motivations, and psychological ideas are nothing new to recent mediums in pop culture (books, TV, and films). Diehard fans of the anime movie (and of its franchise) and sci-fi action movie buffs will probably enjoy the movie, while non-fans and casual moviegoers might feel find the movie appealing beyond its glossy appearance. Thus, I would say its iffy-choice (it’s sort of a tossup movie). Its still hard to determine whether or not that this movie will have any power in being memorable beyond its fanbase. Whatever opinion on this movie is (good, bad, or indifferent), Ghost in the Shell is a step in the right direction for Hollywood in adapting anime movies into live-action features films, opening up the possibilities for better translations and erasing bad memories of some past endeavors (see Dragonball: Evolution). So, I just have this left to say…. I am Jason and I give me consent for you to like and comment on my review of Ghost in the Shell.
3.5 Out of 5 (Iffy-Choice)