Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images.
Review by: Benjamin Ferrarini
“Ghost in the Shell” is a long running franchise which started with a Japanese manga first run in 1989. The manga received its first big screen adaptation in the anime film of the same name in 1995 which was considered a classic masterpiece of Japanese animation and a functional adaptation of its source material. A 2002 spin off anime series “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” took inspiration from the film and manga but built its own story around the core characters and world. Thus the live action “Ghost in the Shell” released earlier this year is only the most recent incarnation of this beloved franchise. The film made headlines early on for a white washing controversy surrounding the casting of Scarlett Johansson as a main protagonist who is largely known as Major. There was also quite a lot of fans who quickly dismissed the film based on the early pieces of information that began to trickle out. Being a fan of the original anime film I was fairly critical of a western adaptation. However, having finally settle down to watch it I am finally able to render my take on whether the new film lives up to its name.
Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) helms this version of “Ghost in the Shell” focusing on Johansson as the Major. She is part of a cyber crime police force in some unnamed futuristic city with an odd mix of western and eastern features. In this vision of the future nearly everyone has adopted some form of cybernetic augmentation. Robotic arms, cybernetic eyes and even synthetic livers are all common place. Major however is unique as she is the first true cyborg. Her human brain was “shelled” inside a robotic body due to some mysterious accident. While attempting to adapt to her new reality Major is drawn into the hunt for a terrorist who is assassinating the employees of the company that created her. This mysterious assassin named Kuze, played by Michael Pitt, has a strange pull on Major causing her to begin questioning much of what she’s believed. This is a slightly different take on the character with a Major that is still trying to get a handle on her new body. She also suffers from memory loss of everything before the shelling process.
Standing on it’s own “Ghost in the Shell” is competent enough bolstered by Johansson’s performance. She plays Major with a compelling mix of strength and vulnerability. There are a number of other characters that stand out too, chief among them Major’s partner Batou and boss Aramaki. What really stands out, though, is the world Sander’s created. The futuristic city “Ghost in the Shell” takes place in has rich cinematic visuals. Towering holographic billboards dwarf buildings and people alike, the costumes and production design work together to flesh out the world Major lives in. This is especially true of the people, almost all of whom show signs of cybernetic augmentation. Likewise robots and androids walk around constantly reminding you of the technology that pervades this world. It makes the city a character in itself and helps to imbue the whole film with a certain flair. Much of the action is done well with energy that keeps things moving.
However there are a couple points where energetic devolves into frantic and it’s hard to keep up with what’s happening on screen. Likewise the film’s attempts to make use of John Woo style slow motion that sometimes works but more often then not feels unnecessary. Some of the characters come across flat and one note without enough substance to make them feel believable. The mix of Japanese and American elements is odd because there’s no real explanation given for it. English speaking American actors like Johansson play along side actors like Takeshi Kitano who speaks only Japanese. There’s seemingly no rationale for this and it becomes somewhat distracting as the film goes on.
That brings me to my biggest problem with this film. “Ghost in the Shell” doesn’t stand on its own very well. The film uses some rather iconic imagery from the manga and the anime but repurposes it. It also makes an attempt at the existential philosophizing that defines the other incarnations but cat pull it off as successfully. Both the manga and the anime serve as a sort of commentary on technology and humanity. It ask questions about the nature of what makes us human. In fact what defines the other iterations of “Ghost in the Shell” is that they ask these questions without answering them. The philosophical elements in the new film don’t work because it spends too much time setting up some rather cliche questions and then attempts to answers them itself. Because there are so many callbacks, references and even recreations of moments from the manga and anime it is hard to separate them, to see them as distinct, if parallel, entities.
If “Ghost in the Shell” were an original sci-fi property it would stand as a competent though cliche adventure, but as it represents what many still see as Shirow Masamune’s masterpiece it falls terribly short of the mark.