Reviews: Ghost In The Shell 2017
A pleasantly surprising good anime adaptation.
Ghost in the Shell is, in my opinion, a genuinely pleasant surprise. This movie had a lot of baggage riding on it going in. Negating the valid criticism of Scarlett Johansson's casting (which I will discuss later), Hollywood obviously doesn't have a stellar track record with anime adaptations (Dragonball Evolution and Speed Racer being good, or rather terrible, examples of this). Ghost in the Shell had a lot to prove in terms of whether or not Western filmmakers could successfully bridge the gap between anime and big-budget, live-action blockbusters. Personally, I think this film succeeded with surprising grace. Much has been said about the visuals of this film, which are absolutely breathtaking, from the computer-generated imagery, to the sets and production design to the fantastic cinematography. However, I also think this movie succeeded in creating a very compelling story with a much more emotionally-engaging version of the Major at at its heart. A surprising amount of screentime in this film is dedicated to exploring the same cerebral themes as the original anime, and while the original anime still definitely outshines this adaptation in terms of how it tackles those themes, this film overall manages to stick the landing on these themes quite well. On the subject of Johansson's casting however, I have to agree with the critics. I won't knock her performance, because she absolutely delivers as the Major and nails her scenes on an emotional and physical level, but ultimately I think that given Hollywood's history of whitewashing, particularly of Asian characters, it would have avoided considerable pre and post-release controversy to cast an Asian or Asian-American actress as the Major. Rinko Kikuchi of Pacific Rim fame would be my first pick personally. Overall though I am pleasantly surprised by how well this film turned out. I can give it a solid 8/10 and would definitely recommend seeing it on its opening weekend, especially for fans of the original anime.
Passable, but dumbed down.
First, there are a few big issues I'd like to tackle right off the bat. As a long time fan of the series, I'll address them from that perspective 1. It's a remake/reboot and doesn't follow the original plot: not an issue to me. The original movie, the manga, the TV series, and the new TV series all have different continuities. It's no problem if the new movie has another new continuity as well. What really matters is a good story. 2. Caucasian Major. Not an issue to me. This is set in future Japan where it's now multiracial. The Major has never been explicitly Japanese, nor has she ever shown any particularly traditional Japanese culture/personality. Her body is even implied to be so generic that there are mannequins that look identical to her in the original film. So the fact that they have her a "generic" white female body? No problem. It even plays into the plot, which is nice. Now, back to point 1. Story is what matters. And... It's not good. Not horrible either, but just so generic and predictable that if you saw the trailer, you basically know the whole thing. The villain is cliché. The twists can be seen a mile away. Scarjo's race was not my issue with her. It was her performance. Sometimes I felt like she was too moody when she was supposed to be robotic, though that could have been a script problem. Does she feel disconnected and inhuman? With her mood swings, I don't see why it was ever an issue. Also, she can't seem to pull off a menacing expression very well. Lastly... The themes. It's what made the original a classic. Sadly, it fails here. It tries to express the same themes, but instead of asking you a thoughtful question, it just tells you the answer over and over again. Instead of having an antagonist worth listening to, it's just a generic evil guy who needs to die. Everything is so simple and wrapped up so tidily there's nothing left worth talking about. Even the title... the original really pushed the question of what a ghost was and its role in individuality and identity. In this movie... it's basically just name-dropped awkwardly. The movie does have its good points though. Fantastic visuals. Great music. The worldbuilding was on point. Batou and Aramaki got bigger roles and were excellent side characters. That's not enough to save the film though. Clearly, this film was dumbed down for wider appeal. Of course, that means it's not nearly as thought-provoking as the original, and thus it had no chance of being regarded as a classic the way the original was. This movie was more in line with an extended episode of the TV series, not what I'd consider strong enough to call a good standalone movie on its own. It's okay. It's entertaining. But generic.
Robocop\'s Second Remake in Three Years
Ghost in the Shell has a bit of an identity problem in this day and age. Even back in the 90s, it was a movie who's artistic vision and fresh approach did a lot to hide what was secretly a derivative cyberpunk premise. It still inspired legions of imitators, and now, in a tragic case of Seinfeld Is Unfunny, a live action reboot of the franchise has to fight to stand apart from the dozens of look-alikes that have come out in the last twenty years. Well, at least it looks pretty. We are shown a colourful, claustrophobic future in which ginormous billboard holograms peek out from the buildings and slummish skyscrapers tower over the viewer. On a smaller scale, there is a lot of nice practical effects, glistening interiors and fruity costumes - I love the attention to detail in this film. Unfortunately that's about all I liked about the movie, throughout which I was generally bored. If you have seen the bland, unexciting, unecessary 2014 Robocop remake, then you have basically already seen this film. The plot is a carbon copy of that movie, in which evil executives take a near dead person, stuff them into a killer robot suit and hand them over to the police. As soon as we see the words "corporation" mentioned in Ghost in the Shell's opening text scroll, the audience already know who the villain is going to be at the 15 second mark. Unfortunately it takes our protagonist, Major, the entire movie to figure it out. This is a film without surprises. It rather cynically takes all the most iconic scenes and rough character concepts from its predecessors, and mashes it into a derivative pulp that producers considered simple enough for mass consumption. You can see how scared the movie is of confusing the audience early on: "Begin robotic body manufacture" says an electronic computer voice, whilst we watch a robotic body being manufactured, you know, just in case we can't figure out that we're watching a robotic body being manufactured. Characters repeatedly clarify that "Ghost" in this movie means "Soul", on the assumption that you are too thick to get the metaphor behind the movie's title.Give me some credit, movie! Outside of that, characters are all dour and unrelatable bunch. I don't get it, Scarlet Johansson has something of a pedigree in sci-fi and action movies, so she should have killed it here as the lead. But she just spends the movie looking kind of bored or politely confused. She's also not Japanese, and yes this movie absolutely deserves criticism for failing to provide an obvious and rare opportunity for an Asian actor. Worst still, there is a justification built into the plot, no-doubt added in to explain the stupid casting decision. I can't recommend this movie at all. It is a pretty but unexciting movie, and all the best fight scenes will inevitably be available on youtube in a few months, so just take ten minutes to watch those and skip the rest of this.
Good Introductory Piece
Ghost in the Shell has always been a philosophically heavy series. Talking about the difference between man and machine, what makes someone a human, and does sufficiently advanced AI count as life? This has been part of the appeal of the various series as well as their cyberpunk setting which has bright, flashy newness lying on top of the dark, gritty old foundations. For this adaptation of the loved series, I would say it's generally good. The common critiques of it being absolutely visually impressive, great cinematography, sound and music, and the actors giving solid performances. The major flaws they cite are a weak, shallow story, as well as a heavy speed up of said stories near the end of the movie. All I can agree with, though individual tastes will certainly vary. The end villain is a horrible cyberpunk cliche unfortunately. In terms of a fan, I don't dislike this movie being created and honestly think it might help pull the goalpost up of how to do good anime adaptations in the USA after some abysmal ones. The philosophical aspects of the film are certainly there but they are much more surface level with some just throwing it right at you. This film is made for American audiences and they've never been viewed as too deep thinking of an audience. As such I think it's a good starting off point get people interested in the series. It'll allow you to start a conversation about some of the deeper aspects the others have and get friends interested in seeing them to know where you're talking from. Getting more fans for the series isn't a bad thing at all and this is the good first step to introduce them.
A great example of how adapting animanga to cinema doesn't mean authomatically screwing everything. With captivating visuals, a discrete yet visceral soundtrack and a terrific acting by Scarlett Johanson and Takeshi Kitano, Ghost in the Shell is an orgasm for senses and a solid piece of cinematography. I'm pretty sure the fans least reasonable of the original manga will feel disappointed at seeing GITS's philosophy westernalized and simplified ruthlessly in this film, and they will be right if they think that its casting is irregular and that the writers could have made better decisions for the plot, but the film compensates it all by a great immersion in its medium and some adequatelly epic key scenes. Whatever the critics say (who I'm pretty sure wouldn't have given good reviews to this film even if watching it cured AIDS), in my opinion we have just watched the first decent animanga adaptation in cinema. Highly recommend.
Much of the criticism of the live-action Ghost in the Shell has concerned the whitewashing, which is unfortunate, because that is a minor and subjective issue when there are much bigger problems with the movie. Complaints have also been raised about changing her orientation from bi to hetero, but the closest we ever get to romantce or sexuality from the Major is when she touches a biological human; if anything, she comes across as ace. Honestly, this is one thing I approve of - a female-led action movie with no romantic subplot. It's just too bad the movie as a whole simply doesn't work. The first half of the movie does show some promise with ubiquitous transhumanism and the use of holograms and digital displays for even minor signage, which is a nice touch. The actors all give solid performances, though it's weird that the chief only speaks Japanese while the rest of Section 9 speaks entirely in English; was Takeshi Kitano really more important than coherence? The tone is dour through and through; it's not as bad as Man of Steel, but it still makes this movie about cyborg antiterrorist cops a chore to watch. The effects are decent, until they get downplayed at the halfway point and almost entirely dropped in the final third. The plot is about a vague corporate conspiracy and is nothing special. There is an attempt an philosophical examination of human nature, but it's just a generic "Our minds make us human, regardless of our bodies" that we've all seen before. Plus, characters keep using the words ghost and shell to beat us over the head with the theme, as if we were too stupid to get the metaphor. Also, like the 1993 Judge Dredd movie, it takes a relatively straightforward origin story and makes it some devastating secret conspiracy. Filmmakers, please don't do that. Seriously, don't bother with this movie. The animated movies are much better; plus, they assume that our minds make us human, assume from the start the audience gets that, and explores human nature from that premise.