Review - 'Ghost in the Shell'
I've been very curious about Ghost in the Shell ever since Paramount released that visually arresting first trailer in the latter half of 2016. In that preview a modern rendition of Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence" played loudly as Matrix-y action beats draped in cyberpunk sheen flashed upon the screen. While Ghost in the Shell doesn't quite deliver on all of its promises, and makes a pretty poor case as for why the main character is Caucasian, it is still an enthralling and highly-stylized ride that is worth experiencing.
The film follows Major (Johansson), a cybernetic being with the transplanted brain of a woman named Mira Killian, who's body had been damaged beyond repair in a terrorist attack. Major and the anti-terrorist group she works for called Section 9, thwart a terrorist attack on Hanka Robotics. Through a "deep dive" into the electronics of a robot Section 9 captured from the attack, Major gains vital clues as to who is behind these burgeoning acts of terror. While on the hunt, she must also uncover the dark secrets of her past.
Ghost in the Shell has been one of the more controversial films in recent memory, and that's mainly due to its casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead. To sum up the issue: the character of Major was Japanese in the original anime and Scarlett Johansson is obviously white. I can understand the anger that this is drawing, but it's also probably the only way this film was ever going to get a shot at being made. Let's be real here; Scarlett Johansson, save for maybe Jennifer Lawrence, is the most popular and highest-grossing female actor on the planet. Ghost in the Shell, while popular in some circles, is most certainly not what many would consider "mainstream". The people behind this film were obviously fans of the original, and I bet in a perfect world they would have gladly cast a Japanese actor in the lead, but we don't live in a perfect world. To investors, having Scarlett Johansson in the lead makes the oddball concepts of Ghost in the Shell a lot more appealing and palatable to a wider audience.
Suffice it to say; yes, it does bother me that the character of Major was not ethnically accurate to the source material. I even believe the film might have been more successful with a Japanese actor in the lead. In the end, though, I didn't allow that aspect of the film to impede my ability to enjoy what was presented on-screen.
Controversy aside, Ghost in the Shell is a confidently-made film that conveys the ideas of the original faithfully. While the story can initially be a bit tough to get into if you're not familiar with the source material, director Rupert Sanders does a good job of establishing the framework of the story and doling out pertinent information that should please newcomers and fans alike. The film does hit a few speed bumps in the second act, though. I wouldn't go as far as to say that it's boring, but there are certainly some dry patches as it struggles to find its footing.
Despite the film's inconsistent pacing, Ghost in the Shell posits some very interesting and relevant ideas about what might be on the horizon in our future. A world reliant on cybernetics isn't as far-fetched as it might have seemed back in 1995 when the original anime was released, which really adds to how genius that film (which was based on an even older manga) was. Thankfully, these interesting ideas keep percolating throughout the film, which kept my mind active and stimulated, even when the film lacked momentum.
It's also easy to rag on some of the performances in Ghost in the Shell. I was so ready to ink this film in red for its seemingly dull, hollow characters. However, at least for me, the film's characters started to show genuine personality and heart, especially in the third act where everything hits a breaking point. Scarlett Johansson gives a great, understated performance as the film's lead. I admired how she crafted a nice blend between human and robot through her performance; you can tell she's no longer human but that she's still trying to figure out what her place is by identifying with humans.
I also liked her sidekick operative, Batou, played by Pilou Asbaek. He's a good support to Johannson and though he's a no-nonsense character, there's a playfulness to him that had me enjoying every scene he was in. Though it's a bit part, I also enjoyed the short-but-sweet performance by Takeshi Kitano, who plays Chief Daisuke Aramaki. His character gets two of the most applause-worthy scenes in the film.
What really brings everything together in Ghost in the Shell are its visuals. Rupert Sanders might not be the best at telling stories, but his eye for world-building is top-notch and should be applauded. The color palette used throughout is absolutely gorgeous in the ways it makes the combination of grime and neon look like a match made in heaven. This is honestly one of the few films where it's worth seeing for its style, even though it's lighter on substance. The dark, synth-y score by Clint Mansell is also a treat to listen to and does a great job of pulling you into the dystopian world. Seriously, why isn't that thing on Spotify yet?!
Overall, there are plenty of things to criticize in Ghost in the Shell, but none of its problems bothered me enough to knock it too harshly. Sure, you could say it's miscast and the pacing is sort of all-over-the-place; but the film really picks up towards the end and Scarlett Johansson's Major actually grows a bit of a heart within her cold, cybernetic rib cage that makes her worth rooting for.