6 out of 10
Scarlett Johansson as Major
Directed by Rupert Sanders
Ghost in the Shell Review:
You can spot most Hollywood trends coming a ways off, and I have the distinct feeling the next one is going to be anime adaptations. Warner Bros. has been trying to make Akira for a few years now; this week’s announcement that the studio is courting Jordan Peele for the director’s chair seems to indicate that these films and shows are ripe for the plucking in Hollywood. Unfortunately, there’s a risk that Hollywood will dull or otherwise stunt what makes these stories so popular for many fans, as Hollywood is wont to do when adapting material like this.
Look, I’ll be upfront: I don’t care for most anime. There are exceptions, of course; the Studio Ghibli films and Hayao Miyazaki’s work in particular are beloved in my house. I especially love the work of Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress is an all-timer). But most of it, especially the episodic shows, leaves me cold. Some of the emotion is too broad for my tastes and many characters aren’t engaging. Some is just plain silly, and although I can appreciate scenery and imagery as much as the next person, for me the story just isn’t compelling enough to keep me interested.
Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (based on the comics by Masamune Shirow) is a case in point. The story pulls from so many influences, as far reaching as Metropolis all the way to Blade Runner and the works of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. There’s nothing wrong with pulling from different sources and influences; all great artists and filmmakers do it. Where would the Wachowskis be, for example, without anime and Ghost in the Shell in particular? But while the Ghost in the Shell comic and anime are free flowing with ideas, they can’t seem to make them work in a manner that is conducive to enthralling storytelling. Some of the work that has come after Ghost in the Shell has told gripping stories that go hand in hand with the philosophies and themes of that story in better ways.
Still, respect is due, because Ghost in the Shell was one of many influential films from that era, and it has a very large fan base. For them, this story is rich enough to get excited about a live-action remake, and Rupert Sanders, along with screenwriters Jamie Moss and William Wheeler, seem to have delivered a loyal adaptation to the original film, filling in some pieces that the original didn’t cover. But they still can’t seem to make Ghost in the Shell exciting. Much of the film is, frankly, dull, with long pieces of exposition explaining the nature of the soul in a technological body, with Major (Scarlett Johansson) trying to piece together her past. The film always looks incredible, full of right cityscapes and walking holographic advertisements that dominate the streets like giant monsters. Many in the supporting cast give spirited performances, especially famed Japanese director Takeshi Kitano, who seems to be having a blast.
But the action isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. Much of it is shot in that kinetic, fast-edited way that tends to distance audiences, and it is interesting comparing a movie like Ghost in the Shell to something like John Wick: Chapter 2, which while full of gunfights, manages to be innovative with each action sequence. Here, it’s more of the same, with the added burden that we care very little about the characters involved. Johanssen’s performance feels withdrawn and lacking empathy or warmth, which may be part of the point of her character, but it doesn’t allow us to empathize with her struggle to find out the truth about what happened to her. Is Major just a corporate lackey for Hanka Robotics, going on missions for Section 9, or is she a victim of their plans? Only the mysterious terrorist Kuze (Michael Pitt) seems to know the truth, and when Major discovers what she has become, she will do whatever it takes to get the answers she wants.
Again, there is much to appreciate in Ghost in the ShellL – the set design, the effects work by Weta, and even Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe. I really liked Pilou Asbæk as Batou; he comes across as a muscular Malcolm McDowell in the prime of his Clockwork Orange years, but his Batou is also fiercely loyal to Major and treats her with respect and admiration. But the long scenes of exposition, with the dull droning of the action sequences, turns Ghost in the Shell into a bit of a slog.
And then there’s the ending, which feels engineered to address the controversies of Scarlett Johanssen’s casting as a white American playing a distinctly Japanese role, and the way the movie handles it is so clumsy and ham-handed that they shouldn’t have even bothered. This is an instance where there should have been someone in development urging them to put on the brakes, and while I can understand the motivations behind this problematic story wrinkle, it comes across very badly. Some audiences won’t care, but I assure you that there will be many who do, and for those, this particular plot development will feel like a direct betrayal of everything they loved about the original manga and anime.
If Hollywood wants to adapt Japanese manga and anime, more power to them; I feel certain a live-action film will come along that will knock all of our socks off, if the filmmakers pay the proper respects to the source material. Ghost in the Shell isn’t it. Listless, boring, but pretty to look at, Ghost in the Shell feels more like a missed opportunity than anything. Fans may find much to love, but the rest of us will be scratching our heads.