Ghost in the Shell Review
Visually striking, this big budget adaptation of the beloved anime/manga property Ghost in the Shell treads a fine line between playing it safe and staying true to its roots.After a tragic event, the brain of a woman is transplanted into an armoured cyborg body; purportedly the first of her kind. Becoming known as the Major, she takes the tactical lead of an elite cyber counter-terrorism team whose latest case involves a dangerous terrorist named Kuze who is systematically tracking - and hacking - key players who all work for the Hanka Robotics Corporation. The same Corporation that created the Major. Before long, the conspiracy becomes all-engulfing, leaving the Major questioning everything including her own memories and even her own identity.Ghost in the Shell looks amazing. It paints an imaginative futurescape; a fully-resolved universe where seamless CG brings the original animations to life using a mix of Blade Runner noir and Fifth Element colour. But what's beneath the shell? Sure enough, it's the ardent fans of the franchise who are going to be the most frustrated with this creation. After two animated movies, two superb seasons of the ensuing TV series, a follow-up movie of its own, and a reboot series with its own movie finale (not to mention the original manga), adapting this beloved property was always going to be a thankless task.
Besides the ostensible whitewashing due to the casting of Scarlett Johansson in what was, traditionally, a more Japanese role (I say 'more' because the Major always looked quite ethnically unspecific, and, actually, the movie goes some way towards explaining this), getting a flowing, coherent, narrative out of the intellectually and philosophically dense source material was never going to be easy.
They could have just adapted the original movie. They could have just thrown us in media res into the thick of things. Let us ask questions like: Who is the Major? Where did she come from? How did she become the Major? And not even bother trying to answer them. The original Ghost in the Shell was far more interested in what made us human; what makes AI not human; whether or not the Major was too far gone to have a 'Ghost' left; and, conversely, whether the cyber-terrorists she was tracking could have 'Ghosts' even if they were completely A.I. It was dense; at times impenetrable.
Adapting it straight may have pleased fans, but it could have alienated the majority, and there's a certain understandable compromise to this Hollywood vehicle which, rather than dilute the source product, instead seeks to ease newcomers into the wild and colourful landscape with what is - undoubtedly - a safe prequel story.
As a film adaptation of a potential franchise this is a good start
The benefit to this easing us in, is that we get to know things that the original animations never really told fans - mostly about who the Major is - explaining everything from her ethnically neutral aesthetics to her name. It's not necessarily the backstory that fans ever needed, but it's still a nice addition, and it paves the way for - dependent on the success of this - a future where they really can get to grips with the more philosophical overtones that made the franchise so distinctive.
And, in the meantime, fans and newcomers alike can revel in this visually opulent universe; this fabulous new world teeming with wild futuristic designs (geisha robots that crawl backwards up the wall, like something out of The Ring; stealth cloaks; spider tanks) which are firmly entrenched in the source material. Whole key sequences are lifted right out of the seminal animation - including the credit sequence; the first building attack; the invisible fight; the diving; the entire finale - and they make for tremendous setpieces. They are at once brutal and memorable, and never feel apart from the new narrative that has been constructed around them.
The game cast are well-chosen. Sure Johansson spends a little too much time hunched over, scowling (for a cyborg, at least) but it's more understandable given the prequel nature to her character's arc, and she's certainly physically perfect for the role. Pilou Asbaek, a Danish actor from A Hijacking and Game of Thrones, is great as the Major's partner, Batou; Boardwalk Empire's Michael Pitt makes for an interesting antagonist in Kuze; and the legendary Japanese auteur 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano finally gets a moment to shine in Hollywoodland as the Head of Section 9, Chief Aramaki. Sure, Juliette Binoche struggles to give her supporting role any depth, and the corporate 'villain' is flimsy, but there's still a strong Section 9 team set-up here for future instalments.
And that's perhaps what this is all about. A finely-tuned, coherent introduction to this vast and complex futurescape which focuses on the visual wonders, action set-pieces, and origin stories, and eases us into the heady environment of non-vocal communication, cyber-hackers, cyber-control, memory-diving, A.I. humanity, and terrorism that transcends guns and bombs to involve our very minds. Visually, it's a wonderful experience. And narratively, it's a really good start.
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