Ghost in a Shell - Review: More Shell Than Ghost
A great man or lion, to be precise, once told his young son how everything was connected in the great Circle of Life. It doesn’t always spin so evenly but the same applies to the great circle of pop culture that moves us all through faith and hope as it fills out the product range of Hot Topic. A property comes along in a genre to be truly inspirational and groundbreaking. It redefines audience expectations, sets the curve and becomes the new go-to influence for a whole new generation of properties taking inspiration or being an imitation. Time passes and eventually, that original groundbreaker fades out of prominence. A new generation of emerging fans identify more with those subsequent influenced properties and are less concerned about tracing their lineage. Then finally, things circle back around. Someone tries to remake, reboot or make a long belated sequel to the said original groundbreaking property that ultimately gets compared and deemed inferior to those very properties it inspired during the in-between years. In the mid '90s, Ghost in the Shell was such a game-changer. Now a couple decades later, after influencing titles such as The Matrix, Minority Report and Avatar, it finds itself getting the big live action remake treatment but in doing so, can’t help feeling less original against comparisons to those very films it inspired. It may be a new (and beautiful) shell but rather an old and a touch worn-out ghost.
In the near future, most humans are enhanced by cybernetics. After a terrorist attack destroyed her body Major Mira Killian’s (Scarlett Johansson – Lucy) mind was uploaded into a breakthrough new mechanical body to be a counterterrorist weapon.... or so they told her.
Let’s start off positive because I could easily burn through 1,000 words telling you how visually outstanding the film is. Chances are, you’ve seen images of the scrawling cityscapes dominated by colossal 3D advertising holograms. Merely watching the camera moving through the streets and around rooftop is frequently jaw-dropping while creating a vastly immersive world. Right from the opening “big-budget Westworld” creation of Major’s body, all the visual depictions of robotics and cybernetic enhancement are excellent. There are clear contrasts in social class based tech quality shown through combinations of CG and physical prosthetics. A number of the source material’s key set pieces have been recreated on-screen and many have unexpected moments of visual flare. From the grim and trippy stills of the Deep Dive to delicate motions of Major in action while camo suited-up. It all combines to make the film feel like a cinematic experience so that even if the story doesn’t work for you, there’s still a lot to takeaway and enjoy from seeing this on the screen.
Despite being a huge source of glitches, the film still had strengths. The core theme of questioning what it means to be human in a world where the line between human and android is rapidly disappearing. As the poster child for that blurry future, Major becomes the embodiment of that debate as fading memories of her past make her feel more like a weapon than a person, like the machine in her is taking over. The problem is to be expected but it is still a problem. The source material content vastly outweighs the film’s narrative capabilities. It makes a valiant effort to cram as much as it can it.... too much. By moving the plot at a rather quick pace, the secondary characters feel very underdeveloped so that when the story develops into a web of their involvement, it turns into more of a mess. There is just too much going on at once between too many people. As a result, some events and plot developments lose their intended impact because they haven’t achieved their same level of character investment as their literary counterparts. Neither does the film do anything we haven’t seen before in terms of human/AI stories. In general, it feels like all the visual magic has come at the expense of substance, like we’ve focused on the shell and forgotten about the ghost.
I wasn’t crazy about Johansson’s performance either. I’m normally team SJ all the way, I haven’t disliked her in a film since Home Alone 3 (yes, she was in that) but I really struggled with depiction of Major. Firstly, her hunched clunky walk looked ridiculous and completely detracted from the idea of seeing her as a person rather than a machine. While her character requires a certain level of being cold and emotionless in key moments where this is lessened, Johansson doesn’t make them count, leaving her character difficult to relate to or empathise with. The surprising star attraction is Pilou Asbæk (Ben-Hur) as major’s partner and friend Batou. His gruff charms combined with occasional humour work ideally against the more sedate Major, and the film is often at its best with him on-screen. While Michael Pitt’s (Boardwalk Empire) sound mixing team do a fantastic job in making his worn down dialogue sound like Stephen Hawking is reading it, his terrorist Kuze suffers from being very underdeveloped. The likes of Chin Han (The Dark Knight), Peter Ferdinando (Starred Up) and Juliette Binoche (Chocolat) all contribute well and give the film a much more diverse feel than its white-washing accusations have claimed. Finally, a solemn and respectful bow to Japanese screen legend “Beat” Takeshi Kitano (Battle Royale) for being quietly brilliant as the composed old fox Aramaki.
Do not go into this film expecting it to be a Blade Runner, a Matrix or even a spot-on representation of its source material because you’ll be disappointed. Instead, Ghost in a Shell is best viewed as a summer action blockbuster that’s arrived a little early; it’s an enjoyable casual spectacle rather than the thought-provoking cultural reflection it’s trying to be. If manga/anime fans can keep their “triggered” switch deactivated. they’ll enjoy the way many aspects have been brought to life. Or just wait for the next entry on that great circle of pop culture.