Ghost in the Shell takes place in a near-future world where humans are enhancing themselves with cybernetics and the line between man and machine is starting to blur. The film tells the story of Major (Scarlett Johansson), a woman in a synthetic body with a human mind inside, the first of her kind. She works for Section 9, a law enforcement division of the government, as the perfect weapon in eliminating terrorist threats. When a new criminal emerges, Major and her team set out to stop him, all the while she is questioning who she really is and why she exists in the first place.
It’s relevant to point out that I’m no expert on the source material. I’ve only ever seen the original 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell film. I have yet to check out the sequel films or series, so I can only judge this film against the first movie. However, from what I can ascertain from a bit of research, the exact details vary from iteration to iteration, so this film may or may not feel too off the mark for some long-time Ghost in the Shell fans.
Also, before I go any further, it’s important to address the giant white elephant in the room. It’s 2017 and cinematic whitewashing is still very much a problem in this day and age. You wouldn’t think it would be, but it is, sadly. I’m Caucasian myself and even I’m sick of it. It’s unfortunate, but I get why it happens, at least in the case of this film. It comes down to what it always comes down to in these situations: money. The studio wants a hit. It’s hard to argue that famous people get butts in seats and thanks to Marvel and other films like Lucy, Scarlett Johansson is one of the biggest stars in the world at the moment, in action films or otherwise. This role is right in her wheelhouse and I actually thought she was pretty great in the film, which will, unfortunately, be overlooked because of the controversy surrounding her casting. While I’d have loved to see an Asian Major headlining this film, I’d be hard pressed to name a Japanese actress that could open a movie as big as ScarJo. The fact that they’re never given the opportunity to try certainly has a lot to do with that, but alas, that is the state of things right now in Hollywood. The film does show an effort to at least justify why Major is white instead of Japanese in this iteration. This was fine, but still, it shouldn’t have needed to be justified in the first place.
That being said, this film does have a pretty diverse cast, just not where it really counts. As far as I can tell, the original film is completely Japanese, across the board, but just like how I wouldn’t want a 100% white cast, an entirely Asian cast probably wouldn’t have been the right move either, though that would have been cool. You do have a Japenese actor, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, in one of the prominent roles as Aramaki, the badass head of Section 9. I liked this casting a lot, but they do something with the character that I often find frustrating in films. His dialogue is entirely in Japanese whereas all of the other characters are speaking English, even when talking to him. I would have preferred if everyone else spoke Japanese when conversing with Aramaki. It would have felt a bit more respectful.
I thought Danish actor Pilou Asbæk was great as Batou, and aside from his ethnicity, he really looked the part too, more so than anyone else. I liked the dynamic he had with Major, even though it’s not quite as warm as it is in the original film. Aside from Batou, the rest of the Section 9 team is pretty diverse as well, even though they are all pretty underutilized. I could have definitely used more of Togusa (played by Chin Han of The Dark Knight and 2012 fame), as he was a character I quite liked in the original. Ishikawa (Lasarus Ratuere), Saito (Yutaka Izumihara) and Borma (Tawanda Manyimo) are all characters from the various iterations of Ghost in the Shell, so I’m sure fans might be excited to see them here, I just wish we saw a bit more from them. As far as I could tell, Ladriya (Danusia Samai) is original to this version, but I thought she too fit in well. Perhaps if this film gets a sequel, we’ll see the team get more time to shine in the future. Also, I thought Juliette Binoche brought a lot of much-needed gravitas in her role of Dr. Oulet.
As far as the story goes, and here’s where things start to get bogged down a bit for me, it seemed as if the writers (Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger) borrowed liberally from the original film, but really only utilized some of the cooler recognizable aspects as seasoning sprinkled throughout their own original spin on the material. I did really enjoy seeing some of these moments in live-action, but when it came to the original storyline, the exploration of Major’s backstory that was created for this version, that’s where things felt a bit flat for me. The problem is, we’ve seen this sort of story told a million times over. The original 1995 anime was so influential at its time, inspiring such films as The Matrix and filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. The plot wasn’t horrible, it worked for what the writers were going for, it’s just a shame the main thrust of this story was so uninspired. The film also drags a bit near the end of the second act, which shouldn’t be the case because the run-time is still well under 2 hours.
Additionally, this movie could have used a little work in the villain department, something that is a frequent problem with most mainstream fare these days. Peter Ferdinando’s Cutter feels like more of a cardboard cutout placeholder than an actual villain and it should be pointed out that he appears to be another original creation of the writers. Also, while I liked Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Carmen Pitt as Kuze, the character could have been utilized a whole lot more. He’s a character from subsequent iterations of the anime, so I’m sure fans of the TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex will be disappointed with the amount of screentime he was given as well.
One thing that’s for certain, however, is that this definitely is a beautiful looking film. I’m not familiar with director Rupert Sanders’ previous work (Snow White and the Huntsman wasn’t really on my radar when it came out), but he certainly impressed me with this film. I thought he did a really great job of introducing us to this Blade Runner-esque world with its abundance of neon and holograms. The CG, and there’s a ton of it, was pretty solid, and there were only a few instances where I felt the concrete parts of the world didn’t quite look real. Overall, I thought the story, which may have been a bit lacking, was at least told well, visually-speaking. When the credits rolled, I found myself hoping the film does well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel because I would definitely be down to seeing more of this world.
As a whole, I found Ghost in the Shell to be a decent enough film, for the most part. It’s not a great film, but I definitely enjoyed it and felt like I got my money’s worth. If you’re just an average movie-goer looking for a solid sci-fi film to check out, then this is a pretty good bet. However, if you’re a fan of the source material, you may just find that it’s little more than a pretty shell, with a ghost inside that leaves one wanting. I hope not. I really do hope Ghost in the Shell fans dig this movie, but I’d have to be more knowledgable on the series to predict if they will or not. At the very least, it was better than I expected going in and it’s definitely the best live-action adaptation of an anime property we’ve ever gotten. Unfortunately, that’s not saying too much (**cough, cough** Dragonball: Evolution **cough**).