I, like MANY other geeks and geekettes in the early to mid 1990’s, stumbled across this ‘new’ (for North America) imported form of animated media called ‘Manga’…or if you want to be all obtuse about it…Japanimation…and fell in love. I started off my manga education with an introduction to the absolute classic ‘Akira’, from 1988. I never did get the chance to see that one in the theatres in it’s limited but important North American theatrical run, but I caught up with it on VHS around 1992. After that I, and my buddies, were always searching out different and cool titles coming in from Japan and Korea. There was some good ones, for sure, but the next animated milestone came in 1995, with the release of ‘Ghost in the Shell’. This one was another leap forward, with it’s adult approach to the material, it’s integration of early CG with the (still) beautiful traditional cell animation, it’s slick balance of art and action, and deeper questions bubbling under the surface. The original animated film is still a gorgeous piece of science fiction. I’m still not entirely sold on the ‘Lucasfied’ 2.0 version that was greatly tinkered with for the Blu Ray release, and not necessarily for the better. Still, either version is a feast for the eyes and ears. Being that these days Hollywood can’t seem to leave ANYTHING alone (due to what can only be referred to as ‘creative bankruptcy), they’ve been wanting to try their greedy lil hands at adapting Asian fiction into something profitable for a long while, but have had very little success. ‘Ghost in the Shell’, along with ‘Akira’, have been two of the top contenders for this treatment and while ‘Akira’ has been bogged down in ‘development hell’ forever (thank god!)…’Ghost in the Shell’ actually came together. Even though I’m not the huge Manga nerd I used to be, this one has always had a place in my heart, given the impact it had the first time I saw it, and I’ve been watching this one’s development with weary, but interested eyes. And here it is!
‘Ghost in the Shell’ takes place in near-future Hong Kong, a city sprawl festooned with massive, garish holograms and cyber-augmented citizens. One of these people is a special police operative known as ‘Major’ (Scarlett Johansson); a one-of-a-kind cyborg, into which a human brain has been surgically implanted into a state-of-the-art robot body, or ‘shell’. She works for an elite government agency called ‘Section 9’ and in the course of an investigation into a group of robots that went crazy during a sting operation, puts herself in the cross-hairs of a shadowy hacker named ‘Kuze’ (Michael Pitt). All the while that she and her team work to close in on this so-called terrorist, ‘Major’ begins questioning her own state-of-being when strange flash-backs begin intruding on her life and fragmented pieces of memory begin returning.
I went into this not really knowing what to expect. I’d seen a handful of reviews that all had differing opinions about how well or how poorly this one did, so therefore I was curious to see how I’d feel about it once the credits rolled. And how do I feel, now that I’ve seen it?…somewhat indifferent, actually. This was a good try…I’ll give director Rupert Sanders and his crew that. For the remainder of this review, I’m just going to walk you through the list of points I scribbled down right after I got home.
-Very pretty. Colourful. But some production design felt cramped. Too much detail in the city scenes. *Holograms, etc.
So what I meant by this was many of the shots of the city that this story takes place in were loaded with unnecessary details that crowded up the shots, in my opinion. Holograms do seem like a plausible thing to one day see in the streets…but these goddamn things are EVERYWHERE here, and I felt that they were a distraction from the actual architecture of the city. I love detail, I really do…but I also appreciate restraint, when properly applied. There was definitely a pleasing colour scheme at work though.
-Not much emotional resonance. This one basically just boils down to the characters feeling very one-dimensional. I suppose it can be argued that it’s the robot elements that have drained people of personality in this world, but I call bullshit on that. They’re just paper-thin characters there to mostly look cool and spout philosophical technobabble.
-Characters are hollow. Possibly more than the Manga versions. This falls into the same camp as the previous point. It can also be argued that they were just staying true to the source material, as some of the voice ‘acting’ in the animated version is hilariously stilted and robotic.
-Manga ending better. Ambiguous. Creepy. This may be just jumping ahead and *SPOILERS* for anyone not having see the animated version, but there was something eerie about the image of the ‘Major’ / ‘Puppet-Master’ now in the guise of a ‘shell’ shaped like a little girl, looking out onto the sprawl of the city that is now hers to explore as this new entity. Just plain more interesting than the rather bland ending (in comparison) that we get in the live-action version.
-Some choppy editing. Could’ve flowed better. This is pretty self-explanatory. While some of it worked nicely, there was a certain ‘chop’ to the overall pace and flow of the 1 hour and 47 minute run-time.
–The ‘Major Meets Mom’ scene was dumb and felt shoe-horned. You’ll know what I mean when you see it. This sequence is so clumsily handled and wedged into the narrative that I found it jarring.
-ScarJo ok…but not unique. Many other actresses could’ve taken the role and added to it. I think she was miscast. We all know she can kick-ass, a la ‘The Avengers’, but her look didn’t add up for me. And no, this isn’t the slightly justified ‘white-washing’ bullshit talking, just my own impression of what the ‘Major’ should/could look like and how ScarJo didn’t really cut it…for me.
-Michael Pitt cool, but under-developed. I’ve grown to appreciate Pitt as an actor since binging the fantastic HBO series ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and I liked how they presented his character, ‘Kuze’. Problem is, they don’t do a whole lot with him. There seemed to be potential there that was squandered.
-Missing / deleted scenes could be felt. Her capture etc. This falls back into whole ‘choppy pacing’ thing again. There’s a scene where, during a raid with her team-mates from ‘Section 9’, ‘Major’ somehow gets her ass captured and strung up…and her team is no where to be seen! She was just with them searching through this underground hideout and suddenly she’s in the enemies clutches. It made no sense and made me to chuckle to myself.
-Interesting way around the ‘white washing’. So there was this big controversy about a white actress being cast in a role that would be tailor-made for an Asian actress (despite many Asians not giving a shit), but in the movie, they do kind of address it in a manner that works in the context of this version of the story…which has definitely been altered from the original.
-Music is solid. One of the things that really makes the 1995 animated version stand out is the kick-ass score by Kenji Kawai and I’m happy to say that composer Clint Mansell came in and crafted his own sweet music to help guide the story along, clearly using Kawai’s music as inspiration. I was reminded of Daft Punks slick score for ‘Tron Legacy’ or the equally good one by M83 for ‘Oblivion’, with a cool retro synth vibe carrying it along.
-Michael Wincott cameo, wasted opportunity. I’ve loved Wincott ever since I saw him as the villainous ‘Top Dollar’ in the classic 1994 version of ‘The Crow’ and I’ve liked his gravelly-voiced presence in everything I’ve seen him in. He’s in this for about 5 minutes and it just seemed like a wasted chance to inject some added ‘cool’ into the movie.
-Many contemplative qualities from the Manga missing. That is a huge difference between the two versions. The animated original took it’s time and gave us long, beautiful montages of the world the characters inhabit and let us ponder what they were thinking, especially the ‘Major’. There isn’t much of that in the live-action.
-City felt crowded. In the Manga, it actually felt under-populated and I think that lent to some of the contemplative atmosphere, as it reflected how empty the ‘Major’ felt inside as well.
-3D. Good in places, but strangely flat in others. Could’ve been better. Exactly what that just said.
-Did like the fight scenes, all had their own unique flavor to them, despite some choppy editing.
-The tank fight at the end lacked the grandeur of the Manga. The ‘boss fight’ in the animated version had moments of pause between crazy bouts of machine gun fire and physics-defying acrobatics. There was no real build-up and tangible perception of threat in the live-action. It also ended too quickly.
-Lack of ‘art’ sequences. Better in Manga. I touched on this one already, but it’s a noticeable difference between the two versions. There are some genuinely beautiful and haunting sequences in the 1995 version, but here things felt a little rushed and more intent on action instead of beauty.
-‘Major’ character in Manga better. Is more at ease with herself, despite existential questions. ScarJo more like Robocop, ei seach for self. A chunk of ‘Major’s story is the search for her true identity, as she finds out more and more about how she became what she now is. So it’s very much a ‘Robocop investigating the death of Alex Murphy’-type of situation and her character is bleak and gloomy, as a result. In the Manga, ‘Major’ is more accepting of her life (since she chose it and wasn’t forced into it) and even maintains a certain levity about it, which was far more endearing than what we got live-action.
And there you have it. My scribbles about ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (2017).
All in all, I think that they genuinely tried to do justice to the source material and in many respects, I think they succeeded AND added to it. On the other hand, overall, it’s simply not as good as it had the potential to be. There are some slick visuals and cool sci-fi ideas and moments, interspersed with some fun action scenes, but I don’t think that it has much lasting power, where an audiences Movie Memory lies. It doesn’t stick or leave too much of an impression. I enjoyed watching it, but it just didn’t put the hook in me. It doesn’t embarrass the 1995 version and can stand as it’s own ‘thing’…but it’s not going to emerge as some science fiction classic in the vein of something like ‘Blade Runner’, for example. It’s ultimately disposable and will probably play really well on Netflix as a result. I can effortlessly recommend it…on THAT level.