Now Watching: Ghost in the Shell

April 1, 2017     Ro     Movie Reviews

Genres: Action & Adventure, Anime

I’ll be talking about this movie in two parts because – despite having some… thoughts, I still don’t believe in heavy spoilers in reviews if can be avoided – I do think, however, reviewing this movie quite naturally leads to talking about this movie. So, once you’ve seen the movie (or if you have no intention of seeing it) or just want to get a little more real, check out my piece “I Don’t Know About You But: Ghost in the Shell Somehow Manages to Miss Its Own Damn Point” because, well because where there is controversy, spoilers will out.

Now on with the show…

For those unfamiliar with the original 1989 manga (written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow) or the 1995 anime film, both released under that name, “Ghost in the Shell” (GITS) is the story of Major Motoko Kusanagi, “first” of her kind; a human brain transplanted into a fully cybernetic body. The world and people are interconnected through technological enhancement and constant data streaming. The Major and her team, from Public Security Section 9, hunt investigate terrorist and high level criminals throughout the city. It’s a post-cyberpunk murder mystery taking place in 2029 Japan.

The World of GITS

This movie, visually and sonically, has everything you’d want from a live action GITS. The look and feel of the city is breathtaking with just the right touch of hyperrealism. If there’s to be a 2029 and a Japanese city, you no longer need use your imagination, the cinematographer, Jess Hal, the special effects, art direction and set production teams behind GITS all nailed it; in fact, they knocked it out of the park. The entire environment is exactly what you hope to see when beautifully done graphics get translated into three dimensions. Watching the action sequences unfold with this backdrop is a stunning and immersive display worth both IMAX and 3D viewing. The highly recognizable and imminently suitable soundtrack from the original blends well with the additions here to create a sound and tenor that does the visual and the action justice.

Scarlett Johansson as The Major in Ghost in the Shell from Paramount Pictures & DreamWorks Pictures

The Story of GITS

This version of Ghost in the Shell is based on a script written by Jamie Moss and William Wheeler and directed by Rupert Sanders (Snow White and The Huntsman). If you’ve any previous exposure to this universe, you’ll recognize the been heavy influence of “The Puppet Master” storyline from the ’95 film version and the original manga story “The Puppeteer.” Someone’s targeting and killing scientists of the Hanka Corporation (the company responsible for the Major’s unique existence) and hacking robots, or people, to do it… but unlike the original, this story doesn’t carry you in all directions seamlessly weaving the exploration of ideological and philosophical themes about what is “self” and consciousness around the ever-spinning ball of violent intrigue that is the hunt for the cyber-terrorist The Puppet Master.

Instead, the plot unfolds in a decidedly straight line; cluing the audience in early this isn’t a movie that’s planning to make them work for anything. We see the birth of the Major (Scarlett Johannsen), her insertion onto the Section 9 police force with a hint of mystery lurking around the circumstances, the introduction of Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) and Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) further hints at secrets and struggles over both the Major’s past and her place in the future. Unfortunately, this mystery too unfolds rather quickly with very little fanfare as juxtaposed against the original’s story choices.

Every step of this movie is clearly plotted and narrated. Nothing is left to interpretation or chance. Sanders shoves the audience along liberally handing out cliff notes as each scene progresses to ensure maximum understanding. He’s not interested in laying a trail of breadcrumbs and permitting the story to emerge, he wants to know his point is received. In a Hollywood movie with many of the common plot stutters present, it’s good the story takes place in such a beautiful landscape because it quickly becomes predictably standard fare as mysteries/thrillers go.

This means despite the scripting pulling great touch points and story from the original material, Sanders, unfortunately, stripped far too many of the layers that elevated the original and contributed to its lasting appeal. Everything is pre-packaged for dissemination; every.little.thing.

For example, instead of being a shadowy figure who heightens the existential thrill (and kill) factor, the cyber-terrorist, Kuze, barely reads as ominous – and not even that for very long. GITSrushes his portion of the story pulling him ignominiously into the light a painfully watered-down version of the Puppet Master on display with a neatly crafted connection to the bigger picture just ready to spoon feed the audience. This is a greatly missed opportunity for both story development and adding depth and dimension to the digital world of 2029 Japan. Saunders could’ve explored his character and cat and mouse game with the Major among the zeros and ones. It was a perfect opportunity to dovetail comments made by a character in an opening sequence about the effect of cybernetics on the ghost (the soul) of the person; it’s a moment to dance among the code and see what becomes of it cinematically so to speak. The audience gets none of this.

Though this is in no way the only thread left frayed and dangling throughout the movie, it is one that speaks to a sad departure from a core tenet at the heart of the world of GITS.

On the one the hand, this Ghost in the Shell clearly intends to invoke the Major’s conflicted sense of self, agency, and purpose but just never fully brings it all together cohesively. There are moments, littered with beautiful people and gritty scenery, clearly intended to speak to her internal struggle to settle into her cybernetic shell and her new life. There are encounters, navigated by heavy-handed dialogue between the Major and Dr. Ouelet or over-burdened by inference intended to demonstrate her detachment from her human-ness and seemingly dispassionate outlook. There are moments that expose the connection between the Major and Batou (Pilou Asbæk) – there should’ve been more; here anther missed opportunity – and demonstrate that her humanness and ability to “feel” remain. But none create a lasting connection to the Major or her psyche for the audience and are easily sluffed off with the next action sequence or explosion.

This version of GITS is a truncated ride of self-discovery swiftly turned hunt for vengeance that doesn’t deviate far from the tropes or delve too deeply into its own motives despite having the source material (and the budget) to do so. That being said, I now understand the casting of an actress like Scarlett Johannsen – I’m talking skill type here – as the Major. She doesn’t need to be emotionally nuanced and capable of conveying such with little more than a twist of her lip or tip of her head. She needs to look flawless, feel slightly out of sync and disaffected, but have just that touch of come-hither to make it believable those around her would choose to be loyal to her. Her awkwardness needs to be able to read as ever-so-slightly animatronic (although it annoyed me to no end her often were far too close to just lumbering about) yet compelling enough to draw the eye. It’s a cast that sets off – many – the artistic choices to advantage and as a result does an outstanding job of invoking the visual feel of an anime properly brought to life. Just don’t expect the story to do it the same justice.

Ghost in the Shell is not the blend of the cerebral and visual amazement it could have been. As a fan of this property I’m disappointed at the severe dumbing down of the script and the hand-holding storytelling style. Beyond its visual success, it brings nothing new to the table. Its makers have instead chosen to stick to standard fare – yet took none of even the possible risks well within its wheelhouse – with a clear hope to begin a franchise. Pretend – if you can – that you don’t know it could’ve been so more and go enjoy the very pretty but obvious story as they lay it out for you. Bring candy.

Then go pick up the original anime and meet the real Major Motoko Kusanagi.

I give it a very not blown-away 2.5 because – despite what they say – being pretty is just never enough.

*originally posted on Slice of SciFi