TL;DR – This is a difficult film to review as it excels in so many different ways, the music, visuals, and it really nails the aesthetics, but something is missing and it just felt more ‘safe’ than anything else.
Score – 3 out of 5 stars
So it’s the future and the world has moved towards merging the biological and the machine with people adapting themselves with cybernetic implants. However, this is only augmentation, but now the supposed next step in human development is here, with a human brain inserted into a robot body, a ghost within the shell. Is this the next stage in human existence or simply a weapon being released into the world, a saviour or a curse? This is the set up for Ghost in the Shell a movie adaption of the original manga series of the same name. Well it has been a rocky launch for Ghost in the Shell, and we’ll get to that issue in a moment, but first I need to take a moment to explain my relationship with Ghost in the Shell before talking about its positives, and then we’ll get into what didn’t work.
Now before we start I need to explain where I am coming from with regards to Ghost in the Shell, because I’m not coming into this blind as I would for most films, but more so I think this past experience has impacted on how I view the film. Growing up I never read the manga, nor watched the original anime film, however, what I did watch was the anime television series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. I bring this up because SAC gave us a much deeper insight into the world of Ghost in the Shell and the themes at play, indeed I would consider it my second favourite anime series of all time. So I’m more of an Inner Universe than Making of Cyborg guy, but more than that I was enthralled with the ethical issues around Transhumanism that the television series really explores in depth, what does it mean to be human, when are you not human, when is someone alive, is there morality? I bring this up because for me Ghost in the Shell is more than just an interesting setting, and people shooting at each other with CGI in the background, it is this exploration of themes which are becoming more important questions to ask today with the rise of drone warfare.
So let’s talk about what I really liked about Ghost in the Shell because there are so many things that it does get right. I really loved the music, they got the tone just right with a blend of classical instruments, vocals and electronic sounds that feel both familiar but also slightly off, like there is a discord in the music and in the film. The visuals of the city are simply stunning, it feels like a real place in our future, because you know if they got 3D projections the first thing they would be used for is advertisements everywhere, go big or go home. More than that is the little details that you can see everywhere, that shows the filmmakers put a lot of effort into getting the details right. This is also helped by getting Weta Workshops to design for your movie, they are experts in their field and it shows here. You know, I have to reiterate how good the visuals are, sure there are one or two odd CGI moments, but the use of colour to accent in a world of darkness really works, and aesthetically they have nailed that cyberpunk feel. There is a good arc to the story, and the world is filled with interesting characters. While the action is not quite up to the Dredd or John Wick standard, it is all well executed, as well as this, the action is easy to follow, except for those times where it is clear that the film is deliberately making it difficult to see what is happening because it is there to be deliberately confusing, rather than the actually confusing in movies like Taken 3.
Now talking about the cast before we discuss the contentious part I have to say that on the whole I actually liked the casting in the film. They film goes out of the way to show a generally quite diverse cosmopolitan city and you can see that in most of the casting. I did quite like Pilou Asbæk who played Batou, and Takeshi Kitano who played the chief. Now this being said we then come to Scarlett Johansson who is not Japanese who played Major who is Japanese in the original film and manga. Now I can actually see why they did that, as there are no other big name actors in the film, and to get funding I would suggest that it was probably a condition that there was a big name as the lead. Now this, of course, puts it squarely in the same camp as films like Gods of Egypt or Pan, and other films which have had similar problems. However, the issue is the body is just a shell, and the original director of the films Mamoru Oshii has gone on record and stated that “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply”. This all being said I didn’t really gel with Scarlett Johansson’s performance because it felt more of a riff of her character from Lucy than a portrayal of Major. Also [MAJOR SPOILERS] it is revealed that she was Japanese and her brain was planted in her current body by an evil corporation to hide where they got the brain from, which I don’t know if that makes it better or worse, but it does feel like the kind of thing an awful corporation would do, and of course it is not helped by the diverse cast of the squad getting very little on-screen time. [End of Spoilers].
This aside just, in general, I found myself not gelling with the movie as much as I would have liked, and I think it was a combination of factors, some of which I have already touched on, that created some distance between me and the film. Firstly, I think it was a mistake to tone down the film to secure the American PG-13 rating. This is not because I particularly like R-rated films over PG-13, it is because contextually it would have fit the tone of the manga and original film, but more importantly it would better fit the themes at play. Now of course they went for a PG-13 rating because it is a safer bet, but for example in a film about what is it to be a human or a machine it was a mistake to have that clinical PG-13 action film where people are getting shot/stabbed but there is no blood anywhere, because one universal thing about humans is that we bleed, and thus immediately you have lost an important juxtaposition. Now films like Logan and Deadpool and many others have proved this notion wrong, but as always they went for the safe option. Indeed being too safe may be my biggest issue with Ghost in the Shell because we see it in the themes of the film, or the lack of it. As I said at the start the themes at play here are about what is it to be human in a digital/cybernetic world, this is an important area to explore because we may be living it sooner rather than later. However, Ghost in the Shell might dip its toes into these ‘what does it mean to be a human’ debates, but it is content just to tell a story about corporations and technology, a story lost of meaning and one we have seen play out time and time again. Another area where it fails is in the relationships, for most of the squad we get a single line of dialogue, oh I’m the ‘don’t like enhancements’ guy and that’s it, we don’t see them as a team.
In the end, I think somewhere during the production the film lost a lot of its spirit in an endeavour to be safe forgetting that everything about the original was meant to be provocative or indeed challenging. So while Ghost in the Shell still has a lot to recommend, and indeed the things problems that I had with the movie may just be subjective issues. However this being said, overall I felt Ghost in the Shell was on ok film but not a great film, and given its legacy that’s honestly a bit disappointing.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Directed by – Rupert Sanders
Screenplay by – Jamie Moss, William Wheeler & Ehren Kruger
Based on – Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow
Music by – Clint Mansell & Lorne Balfe
Cinematography by – Jess Hall
Edited by – Neil Smith & Billy Rich
Starring – Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Lasarus Ratuere, Danusia Samal, Yutaka Izumihara & Peter Ferdinando
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: PG; NZ: M; UK: 12A; USA: PG-13