Director: Rupert Sanders
Writers: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger (Screenplay)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano
Right guys, I have a confession to make. Until I accidentally stumbled across the trailer for the new live-action version a few months ago, Ghost in the Shell had never made it onto my radar.
Now, I know that there will be a fair few people berating me as they read that comment. Indeed, when I approached a couple of manga-loving friends to see what, if anything, they might be able to tell me about this Far Eastern franchise (my fellow critic, Mike, being one of them), I was quickly told to climb out from underneath the giant rock that is western cinema.
You see it was the sincere passion of the fans that first struck me about this series of films. In a similar vein to those that love Star Wars and Star Trek, the fans of Ghost in the Shell are absolutely die hard. They know every microscopic detail inside out and if you are brave enough to criticise their beloved films you better be prepared for one hell of a debate. However, now these fans were also united by something else – overwhelming fear. As is so often the case when a franchise is taken in a new direction, the fans were afraid of what this newest incarnation would do to the series’ legacy. In the words of my friend, “I bet they butcher the story, completely forget about the philosophy.”
I therefore had a big decision to make. Watch the original first and discover this cinematic masterpiece my friends loved so much or, alternatively, approach the new live-action version with an almost completely fresh set of eyes. In hindsight, I am pleased that I chose the latter. While my friends were left disappointed with the picture put on the screen, I was able to appreciate this re-invention of the franchise for exactly what it was – an interesting and entertaining, if somewhat flawed, Hollywood blockbuster.
Before I go on, I must of course acknowledge the giant elephant in the room – the film’s white-washing scandal. Given the #OscarsSoWhite furore that engulfed the Academy Awards back in 2016, such controversy was unsurprisingly going to dominate Ghost in the Shell’s pre-release. The aggressive marketing strategy taken by the film’s production companies only served to draw additional attention to this particular hot potato. However (and I appreciate that this will not be a sentiment agreed with by quite a few others), I genuinely believe that Scarlett Johansson’s casting was not only a bold decision, but in fact, an excellent one.
In the context of the film itself, it feels fitting that a non-Japanese actress has been cast as the main protagonist in a story that, largely, sticks to its Far Eastern origins. A human soul transplanted into a synthetic body, minus most of her formative memories, Johansson’s character Mira (also commonly referred to as ‘the Major’) finds herself wrestling with the disconnect she feels with a world that she does not really understand, and which does not understand her. Johansson’s ethnicity plays into this concept perfectly and, as many of you will have seen in 2013’s Under the Skin, she can herself portray this disconnect brilliantly; her features and facial expressions able to convey so much, by often doing so very little.
It is important to stress though that Johansson’s performance is not the only one worth turning up for. Michael Pitt excels as the ‘broken’ cyber-terrorist Kuze, managing to menace viewers while also getting them to empathise with his vulnerability, while Pilou Asbaek performs strongly as the battle-hardened, but warm hearted, Batou – Mira’s trusted second in command. Quite possibly my favourite character in the film though is Mira’s quiet, but fiercely loyal superior Daisuke Aramaki, who is perfectly depicted by Takeshi Kitano. Some of the best lines and most effective scenes go to Kitano, who expertly plays them to maximum effect (always in his native Japanese). Still, Kitano, like Pitt and Asbaek, is far too underused in my opinion.
Aside from the acting, special mention must go to the film’s visuals. Aesthetically, Ghost in the Shell is quite simply stunning. Think Blade Runner (1982) on steroids. The action sequences, in particular, benefit – although just walking around and driving along with the characters is captivating also. Certainly, this is one of the incredibly rare occasions where I say paying the extra couple of quid for 3D is definitely worth it, capping off what is a most beautiful cinematic experience.
The film is pulled down though by its failure to fully develop all of its philosophical themes. The result is a sense of feeling entertained, but not fulfilled. Indeed, the loss of potential is quite antagonising and you can’t help but feel that the filmmakers have failed to leave themselves enough time to fully explore the complex world so brilliantly constructed by Masamune Shirow back in the late eighties and early nineties. I believe this is one of the few films that could do with being 15-30 minutes longer.
Nevertheless, Ghost in the Shell certainly deserves a watch and, for the those of you who have not seen the original, I challenge you not to feel entertained.
In one line: Stylish, entertaining, but by no means perfect – still more than worth a watch.