Oceanu Reviews Vol. 1 ~ 'Ghost in the Shell' (2017)
The Ghost in the Shell series has always had somewhat of a cult following both in Japan and abroad with its cyberpunk elements and graphically visual detail. I must admit, my knowledge of the series is fairly limited aside from some preliminary research conducted for this review and a mild curiosity that has lingered over the last few years. That being said, however, my review of the 2017 version of Ghost in the Shell is to examine the film based on its own merits. While I respect the original source material, I believe in judging something purely based on what is presented before me as opposed to how it compares to other iterations.
From the get-go, Ghost in the Shell appears to have been a box-office bomb by Hollywood standards. Grossing just shy of $170 million USD on a $110 million budget (excluding marketing costs), Ghost in the Shell's return is evident of its middling performance to the general public. Despite its niche origins, the lack of suitable marketing and interest seems to have reflected on the overall sales of the film.
Despite all this, however, just how does the film hold up? Is it as mediocre as other critics and movie goers claim? Let's find out.
Oh, and SPOILERS AHEAD. You've been warned.
Ghost in the Shell is set in a futuristic city in which cybernetic enhancements are commonplace. Our lead character (played by Scarlett Johansson) is introduced to us in the last moments of her human life as she undergoes an experimental surgery to move her brain into the body of a newly constructed android. Upon completion, she awakens and begins the process of adjusting to her new body with the assistance of her designer, Dr. Ouelet (played by Juliette Binoche).
One year passes and our lead character is introduced to us formally as Major Mira Killian, an operative of Section 9. This bureau, focused on dealing with terrorist threats, is headed up by Chief Daisuke Aramaki (played by the famous Japanese director Takeshi 'Beat' Kitano). The Major is sent on a mission to overlook a business conference for the Hanka corporation and is forced into action when a number of enhanced humanoids storm the conference and begin shooting up the place. As Section 9 mobilizes, the Major intervenes in the conflict and encounters a geisha bot that murders one of the Hanka scientists at the conference. Injuring it, the geisha bot briefly begs for the Major to help her before it plays a strange distorted message and is eliminated.
Feeling uneasy about the geisha bot's final message, the Major later attempts a deep dive via mental uplink into the bot's mind with the assistance of Hanka scientist Dr. Dahlin (played by Anamaria Marinca). Here, she briefly encounters the same individual who recorded the earlier message and is nearly hacked in the process. The Major escapes the clutches of the mysterious individual only through the quick thinking of her friend and fellow Section 9 operative, Batou (played by Pilou Asbaek).
Learning the mysterious individual's name is Kuze, Section 9 tracks him down to a yakuza nightclub. Here, the Major and Batou once again fight their way through a number of opponents before heading down into the basement to confront Kuze. Unfortunately for them, it's soon revealed to be a trap as explosives are detonated. The explosion damages the Major and blinds Batou, who is later fitted with a cybernetic upgrade to see.
During this time, the Hanka CEO Mr. Cutter (played by Peter Ferdinando) starts threatening to bring down Section 9 if they can't keep the Major in check due to her recklessness. It's soon revealed that Dr. Dahlin, another Hanka scientist, has been murdered by Kuze and a pattern begins to emerge. As Kuze hacks two sanitation workers, Section 9 mobilize to secure and protect Dr. Ouelet, the same scientist who designed the Major's android body. Upon the eventual shootout, the Major manages to rescue Dr. Ouelet and apprehend one of the workers.
Interrogated inside of Section 9's headquarters, the worker is revealed to have been implanted with false memories by Kuze who later hacks him in the middle of the interrogation and makes the worker commit suicide. Pinpointing Kuze's location at a hideout in the lawless zone, Section 9 mobilizes once again and infiltrates the building. Here, the Major discovers a network made up of human bodies all linking to one central hub. It's also here where the Major and Kuze have their first proper encounter.
Kuze (played by Michael Pitt) reveals his origins as an experimental predecessor to the Major, having undergone the same procedure she did one year ago. Unfortunately, he was considered a failure and was meant to be destroyed but managed to escape from the Hanka corporation. As the Major begins to see a number of commonalities between the two of them, she recognizes a tattoo on his chest being the same symbol she keeps seeing in her glitches, small moments where her mind shows her things that aren't really there.
As Kuze escapes, the Major flees the area as she processes the new information she's received. Confronting Dr. Ouelet in her apartment, the Major learns that there were ninety-eight failed surgeries before hers, leaving her feeling disgusted and devastated. Later, Batou tracks her down in the city river and offers to help. Accepting his assistance, she gets him to hand her over to Hanka in order to find out more information about her true identity.
Although Dr. Ouelet wants to help the Major, Mr. Cutter has sanctioned her for termination. Despite this, Dr. Ouelet refuses to comply and gives the Major a clue to her true identity in the form of an address before the Major makes her escape. Mr. Cutter, infuriated at Dr. Ouelet, murders her in cold blood and frames the Major for the crime.
While Mr. Cutter attempts to remove Section 9 from the equation, the Major meets with an elderly woman living at the address Dr. Ouelet provided. Believing the woman to be her biological mother, the Major retraces her steps to her life as the runaway Motoko Kusanagi. As Section 9's operatives fight off the Hanka corporation hitmen around town, the Major returns to her runaway home and leads Kuze there. Together, they recall their true identities and ideals that they were fighting for before the Hanka corporation had abducted and experimented on them.
Unfortunately, Mr. Cutter sends in a mechanized spider bot to deal with the Major and Kuze. Launching a surprise attack, Kuze is critically injured and the Major is forced into fighting the bot on her own. Despite his best efforts, however, Mr. Cutter is unable to defeat the Major who seriously damages her own body in the process of destroying the spider bot. Lying on the ground, Kuze says his goodbyes to the Major as he withdraws into his network and a sniper puts a bullet through his brain. The Major is saved once again by Batou's intervention, as he shoots down the helicopter before the sniper can pick her off as well.
With the terrorist threat now over, Chief Aramaki confronts Mr. Cutter in his office and attempts to arrest him for the murder of Dr. Ouelet and his assassination attempts on Section 9. Communing with the Major via mind-comms, Aramaki asks her if there's anything she wants him to pass on to the CEO. The Major responds by saying that this is justice and that she gives her consent, a running motif throughout the movie about her rights as a human conflicting with her android body which is a product of a corporation.
The film ultimately ends with Chief Aramaki executing Mr. Cutter and life returning to normal. The Major struggles to embrace her old identity and meets with her mother at the cemetery to see her past self's grave. Section 9 continues operations with Aramaki, Batou, the Major and the other operatives all working as normal.
As a whole, the film's narrative is solid but fairly lacking in the finer details. While there is enough story content here to understand what's going on, there are points in the film where it feels as if the director assumes that the audience is familiar with all the characters in the series and almost skims over them with no major development, personality or even introduction. That being said, the cast do try to make the most of the content they have to work with here.
Scarlett Johansson's performance was great as to be expected with an A-list celebrity. Having quite a few films under her belt now, Scarlett Johansson is in her element here as an action heroine, combining hardened stoicism with a gentle vulnerability. There's very little I can fault her on in this performance as Major Mira Killian.
Most of the supporting cast also provide great performances. Beat Kitano always brings a smile to my face and it was refreshing to see him in something outside of his own films. His performance as Aramaki was great, combining the smooth badass role with his typical over-the-top violence. Kitano feels slightly restrained, but also very much in his element in this film. I'd chalk it up to the less mature PG-13 rating.
Michael Carmen Pitt does a good job in his performance as Kuze, managing to be both a solid antagonist and a somewhat humanized and relatable supporting character. Pilou Asbaek's performance as Batou is good as well, as he injects a bit of humanity and humour into his character while also being rough and badass. Out of all of Section 9's characters, Batou feels the most 'normal' in a sense. At least, as normal as you can get in a cyberpunk setting.
Juliette Binoche does a solid job in her performance as Dr. Ouelet. Despite the ethical boundaries her character has broken, Juliette Binoche's performance emphasizes the internal conflict Ouelet feels in her role as the person responsible for designing the new android bodies for the abducted human runaways. It makes her character believable which is definitely welcomed. Finally, Peter Ferdinando's performance as Mr. Cutter is servicable but still a tad disappointing. I'm not sure if it's the performance itself or the poor script he was given, as his character falls into the cliche role of major corporate villain. Cutter is there to act as the final antagonist and that's about it. He's not overly memorable which is a shame.
Audio / Visual
On the audio front, Ghost in the Shell does a wonderful job. The film incorporates spoken dialogue in two different ways, by physical on-screen performance and through the use of voice-over dialogue. The latter dialogue is used by characters with 'mind-comms', which is the film's way of having characters communicate in serious situations without alerting the people around them. Mind-comm voices sound much louder and crisp compared to regular voices in the film which is an easy way to tell the two apart.
The film's score, composed by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe, does a great job at setting the mood of the film. Most tracks feel futuristic, with elements of eerie unease but also surges of inspired emotion. Of particular note are the tracks played during the initial conference scenes and a track that is played during one of the night time segments when the Major is studying herself in the mirror. I wish I could give track names here but the film's original score hasn't been released as of the time of this review.
From a visual standpoint, Ghost in the Shell is stylish and vibrant in its appearance and aesthetics. There are several panning shots of the city in the film that showcase the vibrant colours, lighting and advertising that is a major part of the city's culture and life. The city itself feels more universal than either Western or Asian culture, though it does have elements of both in it. Section 9 headquarters, while grey and somewhat bland on the outside, looks quite nice inside especially in Chief Aramaki's office with the green light backdrop on the wall behind his desk.
The visual effects are also quite good in the film as well. Scenes such as the conference shootout, the Major's repairs, and the hack scenes all contain beautiful and high-quality CGI effects that further immerse viewers into believing the technology that is showcased in the film. The only mark against the film is the visual appearance of the spider bot near the end. It looks a bit wonky and out of place compared to the rest of the film's stellar visual effects which is mildly disappointing. Other than that, the film does a great job on the visual front.
Overall, Ghost in the Shell is a strong, solid movie with great visual effects and a good score to support it. There are a number of great action set pieces here, with the cast performing mostly well in their respective roles. That being said, the film's narrative is a bit of a letdown, although there are some good moments peppered throughout.
Despite the film's mediocre sales, I did enjoy watching it and could recommend it to fans of cyberpunk films. I'm not sure if I could recommend it to avid fans of the original Ghost in the Shell series though.
7.5 / 10
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