Ghost in the Shell (2017) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images
Running Time: 107 min.
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Carmen Pitt, Chin Han, Peter Ferdinando
Director: Rupert Sanders
Screenplay: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger
Review published April 9, 2017
2017's Ghost in the Shell is Hollywood's umpteenth attempt to remake a property with a cult fan base (more for the legendary 1995 anime film that spun off a sequel and TV series than just for the well-respected 1989 manga), and try to broaden its scope to capture as wide an audience as possible to, hopefully, earn a tidy profit. As is the custom, the decisions that are made to increase blockbuster appeal go right against the grain of what that original fan-base holds dear, which means a lot of negative social media commentary for the year-plus ramp-up to the film's release.
With this one, those involved in the process were never able to convince the public who are aware of the property that they would honor the original work, with the most glaring skepticism coming from the casting of Scarlett Johansson (Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book) in the lead role, leading to cries of "whitewashing" characters in order to open the film to new markets and new audiences the world over. Indeed, the international casting throughout the cast is a clear indication of the thinking involved, but when the original work is distinctly a Japanese product, and given the distinct lack of Asian actors in lead roles in big-budget Hollywood films, the backlash against Ghost in the Shell runs been rampant.
It's not necessarily a bad idea to try to nearly 30-year-old property up to modern times. Much has happened since the 1989, when most people weren't even aware of the internet, or even 1995, when AOL on slow-as-molasses dial-up modems was the main game in town. Surely, in this age when the majority carry a cell phone around everywhere they go, and who have a Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram account, the amount of people who are tapped into technology as part of their identity has increased a hundred-fold or more, which means that what was once a niche philosophical idea has now become something readily identifiable as the norm for nearly all corners of the globe.
The directorial duties for the live-action Ghost in the Shell goes to Rupert Sanders, whose sole feature-length work comes from the marginally appealing Snow White and the Huntsman. As with that film, Sanders does a fair job in drawing out much of the stunning visual components of the story, though any attempts at imbuing his characters with the semblance of characterization necessary to become emotionally invested fall flat.
The film starts with Johansson as Major, a law-enforcement agent whose human brain, after a terrible accident that nearly killed her, has been put into a body that's entirely synthetic -- she's essentially a robot with a human mind, and the first of her kind. She works for Section 9, a task force currently trying to take down a powerful hacker named Kuze (Pitt, Criminal) who has been using the technology that most humans have been modifying their own bodies and minds with, and controlling them to do his terrorist bidding. As Major gets closer to identifying the hacker, the more she learns of his targets of assassination, which happens to be Hanka Robotics, the very corporation that made her 'shell', or her artificial body.
Ghost in the Shell adheres loosely to the original 1995 anime in its basic story, though it deviates in trying to also include a corporation as the potential enemy, as well as to give more of a personal back story to the Major, and also the hacker who has been terrorizing the cybernetics corporation. Unlike the 1995 effort, in which you are thrust into its peculiar world with little explanation, there's quite a bit of exposition throughout the 2017 release to try to keep all viewers in the know as to what's happening at all steps of the story.
Performances aren't outstanding, but they are workable for a film mostly built upon its visuals, with Johansson doing a respectable job trying to portray an entity struggling between her human side in her mind and 'ghost' (i.e., her soul), and the unfeeling, synthetic casing it resides in. This means she mostly deadens her emotions and walks around in a very pronounced gait that suggests that many of her motorized actions are programmed by design. The aesthetics of the film are impressive, but it's the lack of ability to generate suspense within the action, as well as a genuine build-up for its mystery that leads to stunning revelations, that neuters Ghost in the Shell into becoming just an eye-candy work that can't sustain itself on its own characters or their story at hand.
As I've often said, it takes a visionary director to bring a visionary work to life, such as what Stanley Kubrick did for 2001: A Space Odyssey or Ridley Scott did for Blade Runner, which is the film property that the original anime most resembles in its conceptual design and philosophies regarding artificial intelligence. 2017's Ghost in the Shell keeps the Blade Runner aesthetic in mind, especially in its cityscapes full of busy, holographic advertisements in the sky, and cramped, bustling pedestrian spaces beneath them, though it also incorporates many thematic elements of The Matrix, a film widely regarded as being influenced by Ghost in the Shell in its own conceptual design and philosophies.
Whereas the original works of Ghost in the Shell portend a rising amount of technology used to identify us as individuals, this update seems to be of the idea that the merging of technology with humanity is inherently a bad thing to happen. Ironic that this message is coming from a big-budget movie that rides so much on its CG components in nearly every frame to connect with us. As with the story in the film, so goes the film, as the reimagining of Ghost in the Shell as a commercial property shows us the harm that can be done when corporate interests take effect, as well as how overreliance on technology suffocates the humanity within.
©2017 Vince Leo