Like most of us, when we heard this film was being made, I was quite skeptical as to how this would turn out since Hollywood has a tendency to turn every adaptation they touch into shit. On top of that the film also received harsh criticism for its casting, accusing it of “whitewashing”. After hearing mixed responses I decided to go watch it myself and create my own opinions about it. I initially went into this film with low expectations and came out very impressed with what I saw. I did not go into this film with any sort of agenda, I went to watch this film with an open mind and as an anime fan.
Ghost in the Shell is based loosely on the 1995 anime film of the same name. Like the original film it follows Section 9, lead by Major Kusanagi (Scarlett Johansson), who are on the hunt for a man named Cruz (Michael Pitt), who is essentially the “Puppet Master”. The Major’s hunt for Cruz leaves her pondering who she really is and what it really means to be a human living in a synthetic body – a “ghost in a shell” if you will.
One of the things that stood out for me was the cinematography – the shots used were absolutely gorgeous. The film also nails the cyberpunk, neo-noir aesthetic of the original film perfectly, presenting a dystopian future that’s stylish, yet dangerous at the same time. Speaking of stylish, the action sequences were also really great. I love the aerial shot where the Major is running across a wall and shooting the guards in slow motion. It felt a lot like a nod to The Matrix, which was inspired by the original Ghost in the Shell film. What I appreciated, as a fan, was the film’s effort in recreating some of the original film’s most iconic scenes; like the Major jumping off the roof of a skyscraper, for example. There are other famous scenes present, but a) it’s very hard to describe them and b) it’s better if you try finding them yourself. I also appreciated some of the outfits the Major wore, which made reference to Stand Alone Complex and Arise.
The film finds interesting ways in addressing its controversies. Firstly, Major Kusanagi is simply referred to as “Major” throughout the film. This serves two purposes: it prevents Johansson’s character from appropriating a Japanese name when she is, in fact, Caucasian and it adds to the plot twist near the end of the film. On that note, the plot twist genuinely shocked me; not from a storyline perspective, but in the way the filmmakers address the “whitewashing” controversy. Without giving away spoilers the film actually justifies Johansson’s casting as the Major, to the point where I actually wanted to shout “Oh My Gosh” inside the cinema.
The film, however, is not without its shortcomings. One of these is the dialogue interactions between Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano) and the rest of the cast. Aramaki, apart from Saito (Yutaka Izumihara), is the only character who speaks Japanese throughout the film – probably because Kitano is not fluent in English. This makes the cast magically seem to understand what the other is saying, despite the language barrier and the film does not make time to explain this. The plot is very standard for a series that is filled with many psychological and philosophical ideas and influences. When I watched the anime film it left many questions in my head, but in a good way. It was one of those films that I had to watch multiple times in order to understand what was going on. While there are some psychological and philosophical ideas at play in the film, they are very simplistic and only scratch the surface as to the real questions the series asks you. Because of this the film suffers from inconsistent pacing. I found that there were moments where the film started to drag and it only picked up again near the end. Also, I found some of the characters to be quite flat, especially Dr. Ouélet (Juliette Binoche) and Cutter (Peter Ferdinando). This was not a case of “whitewashing”, this was just a case of poor writing and performance.
I really enjoyed Scarlett Johansson’s performance as the Major; I think she did a good job in the role. She definitely gave one of the more stronger performances in the film. Her performance reminded me a lot of her role in Lucy. Despite his limited role, Takeshi Kitano does a great performance as Aramaki. His outfit, hairstyle and demeanour reflected the character perfectly. Considering that he has a background in performing in crime dramas in Japan, he was definitely one of the best casting decisions in the film. Pilou Asbæk’s performance as Batou just missed the mark by a little bit. Though he was one of the more well developed supporting characters in the film, he wasn’t very convincing as Batou. It’s a shame, given the fact that Batou is one of the most important people in the Major’s life and it could have added a lot as to how the Major deals with who she is. Togusa (Chin Han) was hardly featured in the film and when he did he didn’t add anything significant to the plot. That was another missed opportunity for the filmmakers. Michael Pitt’s portrayal of Cruz/Puppet Master captured the spirit of the character very well, but not as well as it should have. I felt as though the character left a lot more to be desired, but couldn’t develop properly due to time constraints.
Overall, Ghost in Shell is not perfect, but it is definitely one of the better live-action adaptations Hollywood has put out in a long time. As an anime fan I was flabbergasted just how well it was made. This is one of those rare instances where the filmmakers respect the source material and try to capture the spirit of the original and they were definitely able to achieve that. If you do decide to give this film a chance, watch it with an open mind. Also, if you are familiar with the original film, there is a lovely Easter Egg at the end of the film that made me smile as I walked out.