Ghost in the Shell (2017) Movie Review

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The original 1995 “Ghost in the Shell” is among the greatest Japanese animated films ever made.  It’s deep, it’s complex, beautifully animated, and intellectually challenging.  When watching “Ghost in the Shell” it’s clear how much influence the Wachowski’s took from that when making “The Matrix”.   I was fairly late to seeing “Ghost in the Shell”.  I watched it actually quite recently. The 2016 remake (or update or reboot or re-adaptation whatever you want to call it), similar to how I felt about “Beauty in the Beast”, it might have been a fools dream to hope it would live up to the original.   I think there is more room to play with the concept than the “Beauty and the Beast” had, though (more possibilities and some improvements even).

Of course, this film was filled with controversy before its release (just as “Beauty and the Beast” did; there are a few parallels between these two releases isn’t there?).  Western anime adaptations have not fared very well.  “Speed Racer” and “Dragonball Evolution” are films that you don’t want to think about but are forced to when examining the track record of live action American anime adaptations.  This new “Ghost in the Shell” is not those films.  This is the best adaptation of an anime in America, however, that doesn’t say much.  “Ghost in the Shell” is a solid, well intended, well-acted and visually gorgeous film that suffers from a very weak third act and a clichéd weak villain.  This is a decent film but watching it you can’t help but feel it does not reach its full potential.

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The movie takes place in the near future where the line between machine and human is becoming blurred.  Humans have been enhanced with cybernetic parts as they see fit.  Major (played by Scarlet Johansson) is the “first of her kind”.  A cybernetic human; the brain of a person who was almost killed in a cybernetic body.  She is assigned to Section 9 (a highly advanced police force) where a hacker begins to hack into the minds of others and has a special connection to Major’s unknown past.

Let’s address the elephant in the room, the casting of Scarlett Johansson.  This caused great controversy with many people accusing the movie of white washing.   That has been an (and I do mean this) problem in Hollywood.  However, I don’t think this is the case with this movie once you understand the material and rules of the world it’s not really whitewashing.  To let the original director of the 1995 version of “Ghost in the Shell” speak for himself, “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply.”  I think this type of criticism takes away from actual films with white washing.  It’s a more nuanced and complex issue than some want to make it out to be.  Johansson is a good choice for the film.  She can come across as a bit robotic but that’s by design.  She saves her emotions for the breakthrough moments where she is able to express emotions without becoming overly expressive.  This comes across in some really touching scenes in the second act.

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The second act of this movie is easily the best parts of the film where Major begins to learn about her past and the conspiracy around here.  I can’t go into too great of detail without giving away major spoilers.  But, there is an exploration into her character that surprised me.  This movie in general I think gives a much better connection and sense of pathos to the character of Major.  They even address the issue of her race in that act.  “Ghost in the Shell” has always had themes having to do with self-identity, (whether that has to do with gender or any other part of one’s self).  I think with the address of her race adds another layer of discussion and thought behind that.  I would go even further and say it makes Major’s backstory even more tragic.  I’m seeing this aspect of the film be heavily criticized but I have to disagree with the criticism; I find it to be bold (I’m speaking broadly to avoid some spoilers).

Around Johansson is a large multi-cultural cast that really should have more screen time but make the best of when they are there.  Pilou Asbæk really excels as Major’s closest ally, Batou.  Takeshi Kitano is terrific in this movie as is Chin Han (who I thought was really underserved in this movie.  Michael Pitt is good but very underutilized. Danusia Samal and Juliette Binoche are also very good.  Peter Ferdinando however is a weakness of the movie as the villain.

The villain is beyond weak.  This is a cardboard villain if I’ve ever seen one.  His motivation?  Money…I guess? It’s really frustrating to see a movie that dabbles into a deep philosophical place to have their main villain be relegated to something so simple.  I think this villain problem represents something much bigger about the movie.

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“Ghost in the Shell” attempts to be smart.  It’s creates a vibrant and striking world.  It’s has thought provoking themes and askes big questions about our own humanity.  It even delves a bit into modern gender issues of consent that I think are on the nose but no less impactful.  Yet, the movie isn’t interested in really diving into or answering any of the big questions.  This becomes very apparent in the third act of the movie.  The motivation in Michael Pitt’s character is too simplistic for its own good.  The resolution comes too easily to our main characters.  The action doesn’t have enough challenge.  It makes for an unexciting climax leaving me with a somewhat a letdown experience.  There is a lot of buildup to these final moments and they are hollow.   The first act of the movie is a little clunky but introduces the plot elements it needs.  The third act just doesn’t seem to want to do anything with them.

The world that director Rupert Sanders builds is beautiful and immerse.  The whole film in fact is absolutely gorgeous.  If this movie was rated based on visual appeal, this would be as close to a ten out of ten that there ever would be.  But the beauty is once again, surface.  There doesn’t seem like there is too much of a desire for Sanders to dive deep inside the Cyberpunk world.  I do think the original film didn’t dive in as much I wanted it too either but that also was fighting with an 83-minute runtime (granted it also had sequels to help smooth it out as well).  I think both this film is clearer in the rules of the world whereas I think the original is a little convoluted at times.  But still not deep in the world building.

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“Ghost in the Shell” is an enjoyable experience.  The movie has some good action, good acting, beautiful visual effects and some really touching scenes in the second act.  But while the movie wants to ask big questions it doesn’t answer enough of them or even really give much of an attempt.  Everything appears to be at a surface level.  The 100-minute runtime is too short for a film of this subject matter to really carry the plot through to its full potential.  The movie did not reach my expectations but I did come away having had a good time at the theater. “Ghost in the Shell” is solid movie that could have been more special but none the less worth the watch.

Final Score

6/10

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