Review: Ghost in the Shell (By: dee.reid)

“Blade Runner” + “RoboCop” + “The Matrix” = “Ghost in the Shell” 2017

In many ways, “Ghost in the Shell,” the 2017 live-action film adaptation of the Japanese Manga series of the same name by Shirow Masamune, represents how the film industry has come full circle.

Mamoru Oshii directed the original 1995 Anime’ “Ghost in the Shell,” which was one of the earliest Anime’ films I ever saw as a teenager in high school and is one of my all-time favorite films ever, and one of my all-time favorite science fiction films. The Wachowskis cited “Ghost in the Shell” as one of the key cinematic and visual influences on “The Matrix” (1999). And we all know “The Matrix,” with its groundbreaking, time-bending “bullet time” effects, would influence many action films afterward.

(Is it also a coincidence that today marks the 18th anniversary of “The Matrix”?) (31 March 2017)

And now “Ghost in the Shell” has been released, which employs many of the same slow-motion special effects that “The Matrix” pioneered. It only seems natural that the source material would return the favor in some way. That, and the obvious cyber-punk visual influences borrowed from Anime’, William Gibson’s 1984 novel “Neuromancer,” and also Ridley Scott’s landmark sci-fi picture “Blade Runner” (1982) are about the only things really worth mentioning here.

Like many others, I was concerned with the obvious Hollywood white-washing of a uniquely Japanese film and Manga property. Rupert Sanders’s take on “Ghost in the Shell” tries to remedy those concerns by having a multi-national cast of actors – some of whom are Japanese themselves (but are still short-changed for screen-time, anyway) – playing characters who were originally ALL Japanese. The biggest sin of all, of course, was the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi.

To be fair, and as I’ve commented many times in the past when news of this film first broke, Scarlett Johansson’s career has probably led up to this point. After her roles in “Lucy” (2014) and as The Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Ghost in the Shell” seemed like the next logical career step for her. In fact, I kept thinking throughout this film how her portrayal of Major Motoko Kusanagi was just a cyber-punk-influenced variation of her role AS The Black Widow from the MCU, complete with dazzling, “Matrix”-inspired gun-play and martial arts action sequences.

(And as I’ve ALSO stated plenty of times before, they should have gotten actress Rinko Kikuchi, who IS Japanese, to play the Japanese Major Motoko Kusanagi, but alas.)

It’s a shame, because “Ghost in the Shell” did have the potential to be something good. Of course in translating Masamune’s work to English-speaking American audiences, some things inevitably get lost in the translation. For instance, the original 1995 film was a great philosophical and quasi-religious meditation on the human soul and the meaning of individual identity and the impact that rapidly advancing technology has on either one, as well as the integration of computers and “‘Net” into nearly every aspect of society. This film does make some odd references to the role memories play in forming individual identity (one’s “ghost,” if you will), but it gets muddled by a spotty script and performances, and weak simplifications of Oshii’s ideas for the American mainstream.

“Ghost in the Shell” 2017 follows very closely to the 1995 Anime’, and also borrows a few ideas from the TV series “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” (which I also love, and the film’s opening action sequence reproduces the opening moments from the first-season episode). Another of the only things it does retain is the profound seriousness of the 1995 Anime’ film, and none of the humor that was present in the original Manga series.

Using a story set-up that will strike fans of the American sci-fi satire “RoboCop” (1987) as oddly familiar, Johansson plays the “Major Mira Killian,” instead of Major Motoko Kusanagi, who as a child was badly injured in a terrorist attack and whose brain was then placed in a cyborg body, the first of its kind. (The film also treats us to an opening credits sequence that’s reminiscent of the opening credits of Oshii’s film.) A year later, she is with Public Security Section 9 as their top operative. She’s investigating a series of ghost-hacking incidents that are being perpetrated by a master computer hacker named Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), who is somehow connected to Killian’s past. Together with her cyborg partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and her supervisor Aramaki (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano), they go about trying to track him down and bring him to justice.

Fans of the original 1995 “Ghost in the Shell” or Shirow Masamune’s Manga may be sorely disappointed with Rupert Sanders’s take on the material. The film looks dazzling; it’s a perfectly realized live-action cyber-punk fantasy inspired by the not-so-futuristic visuals of “Blade Runner” and action scenes that seem like something out of “The Matrix.” But die-hards may have a hard time buying Scarlett Johansson as the Major, and just may see her playing another version of The Black Widow – or hell, even Lucy. She can deliver the goods in the action sequences, but when it comes time to meditating on her cybernetic existence – like her Japanese Anime’ counterparts were prone to doing on their downtime – she’s kind of a bore and quite wooden.

“Beat” Takeshi Kitano, a legendary figure in Japan, is the only other real stand-out here. As the paternal father figure in the Major’s life, he speaks all of his lines in his native Japanese tongue (though the filmmakers could have forced him to speak English, which I know he can) – which is about one of the most authentic things about his performance, and the film, period.

In short, I would suggest seeing “Ghost in the Shell” 2017 just once to satisfy your curiosity and to say that you’ve seen it. And then you can go back and re-watch Mamoru Oshii’s masterpiece or re-read Shirow Masamune’s original Manga series.

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