Creating an adaptation of a beloved series is always a challenge. Do you borrow from this storyline or the next, or do you find qualities you like from the entire saga and attempt to fuse it together like some sort of greatest hits. Regardless of which direction you go, you always run the risk of disappointing the passionate fan base. While Ghost in the Shell mainly borrows from the 1995 animated movie, it directly lifts a few scenes from the Stand Alone Complex animated series and from a few other sources. Ghost in the Shell is a visually stunning movie steeped in racial controversy due to its alleged ‘whitewashing’ of its main lead character when actress Scarlett Johansson was cast as the Major, a predominately Japanese character.
Now, I’m a huge fan of Ghost in the Shell, it’s my favorite anime series by far, and I was rather nervous through its whole production. While I wasn’t drastically opposed to the race change of the Major, I wasn’t exactly thrilled when Johansson was announced to star as the iconic Motoko Kusanagi. The film does offer a bit of explanation as to why the Major isn’t Japanese, and while the reason is a bit flimsy and mostly appears as a bit of a cop-out, I partially bought into it, but just barely.
While Scarlett Johansson doesn’t do the Major proud, she comes to the role a bit differently than I assumed she would. There are obviously parts of her characterization that I didn’t care for, but the subtle things like how she walks or holds herself was interesting and something I never thought would impress me. I do feel that despite the moments in the film where I think she does a great job, that nearly any capable actress in Hollywood could have taken this role and arrived at nearly the same result. If they were still intent on casting a caucasian actress to play this role, I would have preferred someone like Rooney Mara, as her casting in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was another role I expected to be done piss poor and not only did she knock it out of the park, she became one of my favorite female movie characters of all time.
Ghost in the Shell starts with the creation of the Major, showing the well-known shelling sequence from the many adaptations of this series. Seeing the body coated and coming together is a visual splendor and a fine piece of work from WETA and the visual effects group, MPC. Now, when I say this is the scene where the Major is created, that’s only partially true. While the body is artificial, the brain is very real and its this fusing of organic material and robotics that makes the Major a first of her kind. Ghost in the Shell, like many cyberpunk stories before it, takes place in a future where humanity and robotics go hand in hand, quite literally. Augments and cyber enhancements are mainstream and the conversation of when do we stop being human is one that is very commonplace in narratives like this. While Ghost in the Shell doesn’t devote itself fully to those concepts, it does hang them in the air just long enough for those themes to be apparent.
Ghost in the Shell borrows a bit of story from nearly every iteration of the source material, everywhere from the 1995 animated movie to the recently released ARISE anime series where the Major’s memories might have been implanted and may not be trusted. This idea of hacking one’s memories and implanting a false past is only part of what goes on here and it’s during a hunt for the terrorist Kuze that the Major will learn some well-hidden truths. Ghost in the Shell offers a more slimmed down and basic structure to its story, but given the run time of the movie, I can’t fault them for not packing as much content as a normal series can do with a 20+ episode run. I do wish the story had a few more layers to it and pushed further into some of the themes that it merely just hints at. I’ll also point out that the film drags a little bit in the middle and could have used another action scene to keep the momentum going, specifically something involving the supporting cast.
While the Major is the most important part to cast in this movie, its supporting cast is mostly hit and miss here, but not for the lack of talent, but for the lack of them just being involved at all. Pilou Asbæk as Batou came out of left field as my experience with the actor in prior films didn’t fill me with any sort of confidence, but he was actually rather good here. I wish he had a deeper tone to his voice but frankly, he was a nice surprise to this movie. He’s isn’t used to great effect as much as Batou usually is in the series, but overall they did him justice. The rest of the supporting cast, however; is just barely there. Takeshi Kitano as Aramaki, the man in charge of the Major’s unit doesn’t have a lot to do here, but when he does, he’s a complete badass. You have series regular characters Ishikawa, Saito and, Borma, but blink and they’re gone, and the same goes for Togusa, who at least has a few lines of dialogue but still felt extremely wasted.
There are two villains here and frankly, only Michael Pitt’s Kuze is worth mentioning as the second threat to the Major is barely worth the screen time, let alone time for me to even mention him here. Kuze has a creepy quality to him that makes him such a fascinating character and he is so underused it’s disappointing.
If there is only one thing that Ghost in the Shell will be remembered for is that it is a truly gorgeous film. I’ve usually been let down when it comes to the cities depicted in cyberpunk movies as they just lack the color and detail that my imagination desires. The city that MPC has constructed here seems lifted right out of my imagination and will take me several viewings to look and appreciate each and every bit of detail provided here. The final battle in the movie is also an amazing visual moment and lifted straight out of the original anime. The opening scene that features the Major come face to face with a robotic geisha is a work of art and if you ever get the chance to watch the behind the scenes featurette’s regarding the geisha’s themselves, it’s worth the watch.
Several trailers have shown off the thermoptic camouflage that the Major wears and this ‘naked’ suit is pretty impressive. The character does wear the suit fairly often and it can make the Major appear nude, but it does so in a way you’d expect of both an anime as well as something fitting for a robotic frame, not to mention that since the film is PG-13 that it works well to maintain that rating without being too controversial.
Ghost in the Shell was a far better film than I expected it to be. I’m not totally sold on Johansson, but the cast she has around her is rather impressive when they are on screen, that is. The story is a bit simpler than this series is used to telling, but as far as origin stories go, it wasn’t half bad. Ghost in the Shell has always been good sci-fi for the debates about technology and how far does it advance before it becomes dangerous, as well as hacking memories and political intrigue, but sadly, the movie deviates from these themes and opts for the more simpler route. It’s unfortunate that this movie is not going to perform well, as it is already getting low scores from almost every outlet. I don’t think the film is perfect or deserving of a similar score, but it was rather enjoyable and seeing some of the best moments of Ghost in the Shell in live action was worth admission alone.