Should I Watch..? 'Ghost in the Shell' (2017)
What's the big deal?
Ghost in the Shell is an action sci-fi film released in 2017 and is based on the Japanese manga series of the same name created by Masamune Shirow. The film is set in the near future where cybernetics have become commonplace and it follows a cyborg security agent on the trail of a dangerous hacker as well as uncovering the truth about her past. The film stars Scarlett Johannson, Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Juliette Binoche and Chin Han and it was directed by Rupert Sanders. The film received a negative backlash amid accusations of 'whitewashing'—casting Caucasian actors in non-Caucasian roles—and after receiving a mixed reception from critics, the film struggled to take $169 million worldwide against a $110 million budget. While the film's visuals earned plenty of praise, the film was criticised for it's poor story development and the lack of philosophy regarding the nature of technology and humanity that the 1995 anime version possessed.
What's it about?
In the near future, technology and cybernetics allow humans to augment themselves with increased strength, vision, intelligence and other 'upgrades'. Hanka Robotics, which produces these enhancements, has secretly been working on a project to build a complete cybernetic body (or 'shell') ready to install an organic human brain (known as a 'ghost') inside. They succeed in doing this with Mira Killian, the sole survivor of a terrorist attack which claimed the lives of her parents. Against the wishes of Killian's handler Dr Ouelet, Hanka's CEO Cutter decides to let Killian work as a counter-terrorism operative in the security department known as Section 9.
A year later and Killian has attained the rank of Major, working along fellow agents Batou, Togusa, Ladriya and Section 9's chief Daisuke Aramaki. After thwarting a terrorist assault on a business meeting, Killian kills a robotic geisha after it murdered one of the hostages and discovers that it had been hacked by an entity known as Kuze. Haunted by hallucinations that Dr Ouelet believes are glitches, Killian begins a ruthless hunt for the hacker. But who can she trust as the investigation progresses?
Major Mira Killian
"Beat" Takeshi Kitano
Chief Daisuke Aramaki
Michael Carmen Pitt
Jamie Moss, William Wheeler & Ehren Kruger*
Release Date (UK)
30th March, 2017
Action, Drama, Sci-Fi
What's to like?
Let's assume that, for the purposes of this review, you are not familiar with either the original manga or the anime movie that helped inspire the Wachowskis to create The Matrix. Now that this little bit of housekeeping is done, we can talk about some of the strengths of this film which, perhaps unsurprisingly, has more than a feel of traditional old-school science fiction about it. The film is stacked with sweeping views of this pan-Asian metropolis filled with giant hologram advertising slogans and digitised fish swimming in-between the buildings for some reason. It looks very pretty and inviting but to be honest, it's not that different from what we witnessed in Blade Runner 2049. Or even Blade Runner.
Johansson looks every inch the bad-ass cyborg warrior we expect, thanks to her previous outings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Black Widow. The film does a good job of recreating iconic scenes from the animated Ghost In The Shell and costumes also work well in recreating the original's feel. Wisely, the film spends less time zooming in on Johansson's barely hidden nether regions and instead provides plenty of shootouts and high speed pursuits for her to get involved in. The movie is certainly an exciting and energetic exercise but it slows down enough to provide a mystery at the heart of the film as well. This isn't some mindless sci-fi shooter like so many others. This has a brain to go with the pretty visuals and that's always a winning combination.
- Japanese viewers were confused to spot Rila Fukushima's name in the credits but nowhere in the film was she to be found. In fact, she played the robot geisha whose face opens up - the mask was modelled on her face and was not achieved in CG but fully-working mechanics.
- The director of the anime original Mamoru Oshii addressed the whitewashing accusations, dismissing them and giving Johansson his blessing for the part. The film also includes Basset hounds, Oshii's favourite breed, as a nod to the director.
- The backlash against the film's production intensified after stories emerged claiming that the filmmakers had commissioned CGI and effects companies to alter Johansson's appearance to make her look more Asian. Paramount later clarified that the tests were short-lived after being rejected and did not involve Johansson at all.
- This film was released just six months before Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to Blade Runner which was considered an influence on the original Ghost In The Shell.
What's not to like?
OK, lets address the elephant in the room - this film should have been made with an Asian cast. With the revered presence of Kitano the only noticeable Asian actor of note in the film, there is a jarring disconnection between the setting and the characters that is impossible to ignore. The film's story, which completely ignores the philosophical debate of the original, switches to a basic origin tale that attempts to disguise and explain away why the central character isn't Japanese but it doesn't work and frankly, feels insulting and patronising for them to even try. However you look at it, the casting was almost completely wrong and it meant that this needed an original story instead of being a straight-up remake which might have worked better.
Johansson does well in the action scenes but she isn't particularly engaging as the conflicted Major. Granted, she's supposed to be a cyborg but some emotion would have been nice and made us care a bit more about her. The same goes for her supporting cast - none of them particularly stand out besides Kitano whose passive nature works well as Aramkai, the Secton 9 chief who isn't afraid to get his hands dirty when necessary (and if you take anything from this movie, I advise checking out some other Kitano films because they're usually brilliant). Despite having a simpler narrative that makes understanding the film's setting a bit easier, the story moves in fits and bursts and never flows as well as it should. It also wraps up too quickly and not especially satisfyingly either. While the anime stays in your mind after watching it, this film washes over you like a wave. Perhaps that's why the visuals are so good - they try to distract you from realising that the film is about as deep as a puddle.
Should I watch it?
Ghost in the Shell is a visually spectacular sci-fi film but one that fails to fully grapple with the themes of the source material and ultimately, disappoints. It feels far too similar to dozens of other sci-fi movies that recreate futuristic worlds and dystopian urban decay but don't offer much beyond the usual Hollywood action scenes. It makes an occasional fumble towards the original's themes but sadly, tends to bark up a different tree.
Great For: people not familiar with the manga or anime originals, Johansson pervs, evil cyberneticists
Not So Great For: Asian audiences, Asian actors, anyone hoping for an intelligent sci-fi film
What else should I watch?
Assuming you enjoy this then Hollywood has a fair selection of other sci-fi films that focus more on entertainment than making you think. I, Robot sees Will Smith's technophobic cop on the trail of a murderous robot while the original Total Recall is actually much smarter than a sci-fi shooter with Arnold Schwarzenegger in has any right to be. And then of course, there's The Matrix and its confusing sequels which borrows so much from Ghost In The Shell that the Wachowskis' initial pitch to producers was simply showing them the anime and seeing they wanted to shoot that in real life.
Despite having a wretched history of adapting anime and manga into live action versions, Hollywood hasn't given up trying just yet. 2019 saw the release of Robert Rodriguez's long-awaited Alita: Battle Angel, his big-budget interpretation of the manga series 'Battle Angel Alita' which, again, boasts cutting edge visuals but a cast largely devoid of Asian actors despite the film having Asian roles. I am expecting similar from the long-delayed live-action remake of Akira, a production mired in development hell for as long as I can remember. Despite numerous writers and directors apparently involved, rumours suggest that a TV series might be more viable - which I am in favour of, assuming they maintain the ethnicity of the characters. The anime Akira in 1988 had too much to fit into a film and actually left plenty out which is a shame. A TV series might allow more time to tell the story in full which the movie failed to do properly.
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© 2019 Benjamin Cox