A shell of its former self
Ghost in the Shell stars Scarlett Johannson and is a live-action remake of the 1995 anime film of the same name.
Before I dig too deep, let me be clear that I do not consider myself a fan of anime. I have no qualms about the art and design of anime, and I have no right to judge its importance within various cultures. Simply put, I just have no interest in investing time into watching it and reading about it. My only exception comes with movies, because as a lover of film, I want to get as well-rounded of a cinematic experience as I can get, and it would not be fair of me to exclude anime just because it does not interest me that much. I have a great appreciation for the works of Hayao Miyazaki, and I find the 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell to be a highly thought-provoking film. So, of course, we have to ask, what's going to happen when the anime gets the Hollywood treatment?
Well, the film takes place in a cyber-enhanced future, looking a lot like the version of 2019 in Blade Runner, minus the non-stop rain. Scarlett Johannson portrays the Major Mira Killian, the leading force of an anti-terrorist bureau known as Section 9. Killian is a human brain living inside a cybernetic body, or a "shell", and she is frustrated over not being able to fully remember her past. She has scattershot hallucinations, which are dismissed as mere glitches. The Major and her team soon find themselves playing cat and mouse with a hacker named Kuze, who is killing off the big-head names of the Hanka Robotics company, which is responsible for the Major's existence. As Section 9 scopes out Kuze, the Major finds herself learning more about her past and that it might relate in some way to the motivations of Kuze.
Like one of the cybernetic bodies, the movie removes parts of its source material's body and inserts new parts when need be. For one, the hacker is never referred to as The Puppet Master (his name from the anime). Also, there is no mention of Section 6, another unit that rivaled Section 9 in the anime. Now some details are minuscule and amount to barely anything in the long run, but what is really alarming is that this live-action edition strips away the thoughtful depth that made the anime worthwhile. The thinking component is, instead, replaced with more bullets and slow-motion attacks that would give you a cringe-worthy reminder of the laughably non-stop, slow-mo fighting in Renny Harlin's The Legend of Hercules (2014). Okay, it never gets that bad, as it only happens a handful of times. Comparison and contrasts aside, the film does have some moments that don't make a complete waste of time.
- The film delivers if you look at it from a purely visual standpoint. The cyber-enhanced world of Ghost in the Shell has bright colors, prominent holograms, and an overall pleasing techno-vibe. Of course, any sort of science fiction film that takes place within a non-apocalyptic future features similar details. It's also an interesting change from the murky, desaturated colors of the anime, which gave that film a darker edge. Thankfully, the live-action version abstains from getting carried away with establishing shots, which I think keeps the film from being a total glutton with its visuals.
- Yes, there may be accusations of whitewashing, which is what Paramount is claiming to be the reason that the film is disappointing at the box office, but I find it hard to deny that Scarlett Johannson is a reasonable fit for the role of the Major. Johannson has already established herself as a commendable action star, particularly as Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Her short-haired brunette look, along with her slim physique, is a believable rendition of the anime character. Johannson is definitely trying her best with what lines and fight sequences that director Rupert Sanders and screenwriters Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger provide her with. I will say, I did appreciate when the Major flipped the bird to her partner, Batou, when he loses his normal eyesight, and she asks, "How many fingers am I holding up?"
- This Ghost in the Shell wants to substitute its provocative and philosophical potentials with generic PG-13 action. I must have seen too many R-rated action films lately (John Wick: Chapter 2 being the most recent example), because I found myself bothered by watching characters get shot almost square in the face with little to no blood visible. One character clearly gets shot in the upper chest and shoulder area, and there is just a small patch of blood shown. I should give the lack of blood a pass though, because most of the characters are cyber-enhanced, so it's more likely that bits of metal would get blown off by bullets, rather than blood gushing out uncontrollably. But I digress.
While I do not fully understand the motivation for giving a 1990s anime the live action treatment, I also do not understand why the messages and themes of man vs. machine and what it means to be human are dumbed down. Are we so caught up in what goes through our eyes visually in movies nowadays that filmmakers decide there should be little to nothing to put through our brains anymore? We don't remember the 1995 anime and call it a masterful work of anime just because everyone thought that it was super memorable that the Major fought a guy in a pool of shallow water, or because she got into a shootout with a giant, cool-looking spider tank. We remember it because it's a notable example of tackling heady themes concerning technology and its integration within human society. We live in the 21st century, where these themes are all too important. Sadly, thought-provoking ideas and commentary don't equal money and success in Hollywood's eyes. Guns and eye-candy do.
Ghost in the Shell might boast some neat visuals and another strong outing for star Scarlett Johannson, but it's largely bereft of the critical thinking that made its premise and overall source material all the more intriguing. Let it be a lesson that Hollywood will bludgeon anything that they think can turn out successful and make a profit.
Recommend? I'd say maybe check it out if you saw the 1995 anime film. Otherwise, don't watch it until it comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray and you're bored over a long weekend.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: