Review: Ghost in the Shell
One of the most famous and widely lauded manga and anime series, Ghost in the Shell finally gets the live-action, big budget treatment from Hollywood, under the direction of Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman).
Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), a survivor of an attack that leaves her body useless, has her brain placed into a cybernetically enhanced body (a shell, as it is constantly referred to) where she is transformed into a weapon for a counter cyber-terrorist organization. She and her squad attempt to bring down a nefarious hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt), though as the Major comes closer to tracking him down, the reasons behind her rebirth are slowly revealed, challenging everything she believes about the people who made her what she was.
The film has been the subject of constant controversy since it was first announced that Scarlett Johansson would be playing the Major - a character that has been portrayed as Japanese in every previous incarnation of the series to date. Johansson's performance feels very wooden and emotionless, and though she is part machine the Major is still supposed to have a conscience. It's understandable that she was cast to help the film do well in the international marketplace, but it's near impossible to believe her as the Major, and not think about the dozens and dozens of Asian actresses who would have done proper justice to the part. This could have been an important breakthrough in on-screen representation to cast someone who could have brought the Major to life, but instead the decision casts a shadow over the entire film that instead ruins what could have been.
It should be noted that there are a number of supporting roles that go to diverse actors in the Major's squad, most notably 'Beat' Takashi Kitano as Chief Aramaki (who delivers all of his lines in Japanese even when every one else addresses him in English). Sadly none of them (except for Batou played by Pilou Asbæk) get much dimension or screen time, feeling like a failed effort in trying to better the situation. As the villain Kuze, Michael Pitt manages to be creepy until his motivations are laid clear and then he becomes boring, and an element about his character that is hinted at in the beginning never makes a reappearance in a strange bit of cutting down the intended story.
Outside of this, the biggest problem with this adaptation is how the core of the original's narrative has been disposed of, in favour of a basic, generic plot centered around the loss of identity, something which feels more ingrained with a Hollywood action film. Long, exposition-driven sequences bring the story to a halt and make the film feel much longer than its 107 minute runtime. The biggest offender is the change in the Major's story meant to justify Johansson's casting, which has hints of self-reflexivity but results in being unnecessary and at worst, horribly offensive.
What made Oshii's film so remarkable is the interwoven philosophical nature that carried throughout, even in its violent, high octane action scenes. Here we get a lot of those, and they are admittedly well done and stupendously gorgeous (many of which are transplanted from the source material), though they serve as a hollow, high gloss distraction from the other areas in which it is lacking. It's also sad to see much of the blood and gore stripped out to make the film earn a PG-13 rating so that more tickets could be sold, effectively watering down the tone in itself.
I really wanted to like this movie more than I did, having been excited to see this story done in live-action ever since seeing it for the first time years ago. The amount of work that went into the aesthetic design makes it worth watching at the very least for the curious-minded. But making such grave changes to the original story, even with the blessing of its creator, cannot be overlooked. What we get is a fairly uninteresting piece of spectacle that rips scenes right from the original to project the guise of being faithful when it's merely fan service. Ghost in the Shell is a bastardized attempt at turning one of the most beloved anime properties into a cynical cash grab for the worldwide market, and doesn't warrant a recommendation.