Reviewby Brian Ruh,
Ghost in the Shell (2017)
“Hack your own brain!”
I remember sitting in a movie theater in 1995, legs bouncing from the adrenaline of excitement, ready to take in a screening of Johnny Mnemonic. I had been waiting for this film for a long time, and, as a fan of William Gibson's writing, was ready to dive into the awesome future cyberpunk world I knew must be awaiting me onscreen. It had to be so much better than my boring life in Indiana, and would deliver me to an urban world of high-tech danger. Walking out of the theater afterwards, I remained entranced by the overall visual impression the film left with me, even though I knew it certainly didn't live up to my expectations or the taut beauty of Gibson's prose. I even bought the officially licensed t-shirt (probably at the Suncoast in the mall, back when that was a key marketplace of nerdy culture) that exhorted readers to, in the words of Ice-T's character from the movie, “hack your own brain.” But in spite of all this, it seemed like a form of wishful thinking - maybe if I tried really hard, I could convince myself that the movie was as good as I had been hoping it would be.
I left the screening of Rupert Sanders's adaptation of Ghost in the Shell in much the same frame of mind as I had left Johnny Mnemonic over twenty years ago. Unlike my younger self, I hadn't been so excited that I couldn't sit still, but I did find myself looking forward to the film more than I thought I would; Mamoru Oshii's 1995 Ghost in the Shell film had been a major influence on the course of my life, and here it was in a different form, about to be shared with a mass, worldwide audience. I had steeled myself for a profound disappointment, though, as big-budget Hollywood films had a tendency to go for spectacle over substance, and Ghost in the Shell was certainly a series with plenty of substance. In the end, I thought that the film handles its source material relatively competently, but it really is a victory of visuals over vision.
I've been on record saying that I don't think Scarlett Johansson was right for the main role of the Major, and that this would have been a great opportunity for an Asian or Asian-American actress. Mamoru Oshii himself came out on record in favor of Johansson's casting, and that seemed to settle it for some people. This really should come as no surprise - if you've seen Małgorzata Foremniak in Avalon or Melanie St-Pierre in Garm Wars, you can see that Johansson is fitting an archetype that Oshii has been working toward in many of his live-action films. And I certainly agree with Oshii that an artist should be free to make whatever art they want and to not give in to societal pressures. Yet with Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, and Michael Pitt as the three characters who drive the plot the most (along with Juliette Binoche as a cybernetics researcher and Peter Ferdinando as the head of Hanka Robotics) Ghost in the Shell becomes an exercise in techno-Orientalism, with its white leads running around a futuristic Asian city, while people of other ethnicities only appear as supporting characters.
Like Oshii's 1995 adaptation of Masamune Shirow's manga, the opening credits show the creation of a cyborg body in obsessive technological detail. We then see Kira Killian waking up in her new cybernetic body, informed that she had been on a ferry that had been attacked by terrorists and that her parents had been killed. Juliette Binoche's Dr. Ouelet had managed to save her brain, though, and had put it into a new robot body. Blessed with this new body as the first of a new type of human, Kira is shaped into the Major, who quickly becomes a part of the antiterrorist fighters of the government's elite Section 9 squad. The Major still keeps in contact with Dr. Ouelet and her team at Hanka Robotics, who perform regular repairs and diagnostics on her body. However, the mysterious Kuze (played by Michael Pitt, who at first really reminded me of Dolph Lundgren's character in Johnny Mnemonic) begins killing Hanka Robotics employees by a number of methods, including assassination by robot geisha. The Major decides to track down Kuze not only to stop these attacks on the company that maintains her, but also to try to figure out what his connection is to the company and why he seems to hold such a grudge.
The creation scene isn't the only detail Sanders adapts from Oshii's film. (And in spite of what the credits say, it really is more of an adaptation of Oshii's adaptation than it is a re-imagining of Shirow's original manga.) There is a whole sequence in which the Major chases and fights with a sanitation worker whose brain had been hacked that is almost a shot-for-shot, beat-for-beat recreation of the anime film. To give the film its due, I don't think I've seen a film where they try to recreate anime so faithfully. The diving scene from Oshii's first film is also incorporated, while other scenes take their inspiration from Oshii's Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), like when the Major and Batou visit another researcher named Dr. Dahlin, who is performing an autopsy of sorts on the geisha robot the major had shot. Other nods to Oshii include a Basset Hound named Gabriel and a scene set at the Avalon Apartments.
Surprisingly, much of the acting seemed rather stilted and wooden. This might be intentional on the part of Johansson, as she tries to capture the cadences of a robot body in a human world. Pilou Asbæk's Batou tries to capture some of the gruff, dry humor of the original character, but the accent he chose for the role just kept bringing attention to itself. Beat Takeshi was his usual badass self (as he was in Johnny Mnemonic), though he wasn't given much to do other than deliver his Japanese lines in a detached monotone. Even an award-winning actress like Juliette Binoche turns in a subpar performance here, unable to effectively sell the role. Only Michael Pitt as Kuze really captured the emotions that it seemed like the filmmaker was going for.
I think most of the blame for the performances, though, lie with the script. A great example of this happens in the first five minutes, when Dr. Ouelet explains to the head of Hanka Robotics what she has managed to accomplish - that she has given Kira a new body, a “shell” if you will, but her brain and her essence, her soul or her “ghost,” are still in there, intact. This is reiterated explicitly a couple more times in the film, just in case anyone in the audience really didn't understand why the film is called Ghost in the Shell. There is also quite a bit of expository dialogue throughout, and emotions and motivations are generally spoken aloud rather than communicated through performance. Subtlety is not the film's strong suit.
One area where the film really succeeds, though, is in the production design. Oshii's 1995 film was set in a Hong Kong that was both futuristic and familiar to contemporary audiences. This new vision certainly dials up the future aspects, leaving only a few scenes that seem unchanged by technological progression. It's a fantastic vision of the future, but in many ways it seems like a designer's vision. One of the most prominent aspects of the city skyline are huge holograms advertising all manner of products and services. However, as the camera panned over the city multiple times, I kept wondering about the poor office worker commuting to the cyber-accounting firm who would have to contend with such hulking distractions on a daily basis. It was a city that seemed cool, but not really lived in. Going back to Gibson, I kept thinking of his famous line from “Burning Chrome” that “the street finds its own uses for things," and wondering when the street would finally find this city and make it seem real.
In spite of all of all my misgivings and critiques, some would say that the main criteria for a big film like Ghost in the Shell is if you are entertained. And I must admit that in spite of my trepidation, I actually found myself enjoying this adaptation. I mentioned above that Hollywood often overemphasizes the spectacle, and that's certainly the case here. But it's entertaining spectacle. Don't get me wrong - a lot of what makes Ghost in the Shell (the anime or the manga) work is lost here, particularly much of the deeper meaning and the relationships between the characters. However, there are so many scenes that are shot with such care and craft that it was difficult for me to maintain my cynical facade throughout the whole film. Rupert Sanders has turned Ghost in the Shell into a marshmallow - lightweight and lacking in nutritional value, yet enjoyable on occasion and in moderation. However, I'll keep Shirow's manga, Oshii's films, and Kenji Kamiyama's television series as the bulk of my Ghost in the Shell diet.
Overall : C+
Story : C+
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Not boring; handsome production design
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