As a huge fan of the Ghost in the Shell Manga (Comics) and Anime (Animation) films and TV series, I was very interested to go and watch the new Hollywood Live-Action adaption, with Scarlett Johansson as the Major.
I'm a big fan of the Cyberpunk Genre and it has inspired much of my work, including my recent novel, The New Prometheus.
I've spoken about the White-Washing issues surrounding this film before elsewhere on this blog so I see no need to get into that too much here. Although it will inform this review.
OK, so let's get into the review, and obviously, SPOILERS from here on out.
So, what did I think?
Well, let's break this down into Pros and Cons.
What I liked about this film:
The visuals on this film are stunning. Rupert Sanders, the Director, clearly is a fan of the franchise, and we obviously wanted to do it justice, and at least visually, he has succeeded. This film oozes style from every frame. It's clear to me that the Director loves the source material, as there is a lot of fan service with scenes lifted directly from, mainly, the original 1995 Anime film, that have then been enhanced and embellished on. The Art direction and the music on the film were excellent. It just looks Awesome.
He's got the Cyberpunk vibe down perfectly, taking modern tech and pushing it forward to it's extreme.
What I didn't like:
Unfortunately, for me, the biggest weakness of the film was the plot. It was cliched and pedestrian with clunky dialogue and really dumbed down. It just didn't credit its audience with some intelligence.
This biggest issue was that they had a huge problem at the core of the film which they had to address and get around somehow, and the way they did it was... not great.
OK, so the original story, in all previous iterations of Ghost in the Shell is set in a future Japan with Motoko Kusinagi as the main character.
She's been a Cyborg from a young age and is fully aware of who she is.
Turning this story into a big budget Hollywood film was always going to be fraught with problems. To do the film right, it needed a huge budget. But, adapting an Anime like this is a risk for the studios, so, they needed something to negate that risk, otherwise the film simply wouldn't have been made. So they needed something to pull in the crowds. The main thing that can do that is a big name star in the lead role.
Unfortunately, there are no big name female Asian stars that can do that in Hollywood, which is why they cast Scarlett.
Rupert has already said that by casting her, it gave him a freedom that he would not have otherwise had. Scarlett gave the studios some confidence in the film.
She's a big name actress, she has geek cred with her role as the Black Widow and has some acting chops.
But, that also creates a problem. The Main character is Motoko Kusinagi, a Japanese woman with a Japanese name. Changing that name would mean that it's not the same character and would push it away from being Ghost in the Shell.
At the same time, naming the clearly white actress Motoko, would be jarring, and would require some explanation.
Luckily, the film has a central conceit that can negate this issue.
The main character is a Cyborg, a human brain in an otherwise robot body.
So the brain could come from anyone, of any race, and the shell can look like your big name actor.
That, in itself, is not a big issue, and handled right, could have been an interesting twist in the themes of Ghost in the Shell. But, it's handling was not great.
So they trotted out the overused and very cliched 'Amnesiac' story line. She can't remember who she is and it's the big bad corporation man who's behind it.
Amnesia has been used so many times now and frankly, it's been done way better elsewhere. This was a poor imitation really, at best.
But, it means they can keep the Asian origin of the main character and have the Major be played by Scarlett.
Personally, I think it could have been handled better.
I'm not against changing the story. The plot of Ghost has been changed before, several times. The 1995 Anime took a small part of the original manga, the Puppetmaster story, and scenes from the other plots in that book to create the film.
The TV series also did its own thing, and even explored her past, something not done before.
So changing it is not an issue.
In fact, I had an idea about what they could have done which might have been an interesting alternative to the path they took.
What if in the opening scene, the Major is a Japanese woman. She's on a mission for section 9 and gets very badly injured. She is a valuable member of Section 9, she's dying, and she has info on a terrorist that will die with her.
Section 9 has a contract for Cybernetics with Hanka Robotics. Aramaki asks them to save her using their new and experimental Full Body prosthesis procedure. But they only have one body ready for her, and no time to make another. So she is Cyberized. But wakes up in a white rather than Asian body. In Scarlett's body.
So, she remember's who she is. She can be shown to deal with her new look. She can muse on identity and race etc etc. It allows for Scarlett to be the Major and it keeps the investors happy while avoiding the cliched Amnesia storyline.
A couple of other points would be Scarlett's portrayal of her, which I found to be a little over the top.
Her overly masculine walk, her overly robotic movements, none of which looked right for someone who is meant to be a highly trained and skilled agent.
When we follow her into the scene of a killing of a Hanka Scientist, and Togusa turns into a room before her saying, follow me. Scarlett walks up the end of the corridor, seemingly almost to walk into the wall and looks lost for a moment as to where to go before turning abruptly to her left to follow her teammate. Just terrible.
Scarlett is a capable actress, and did some great stuff in the film too. She is actually good casting for this film, but I think something in the Direction of her acting was a little off.
Then, when she's finished beating up the garbage man in the water, and she can't stop punching him because she's so angry. Nope, that pulled me out of it too as it was a huge break from her otherwise cold and methodical character.
So, overall, what did I think?
It's alright. It's not great, but it's not terrible either. There's enough good stuff in there to save it from being an utter failure, but there's too much bad stuff that keeps it from being great.
It's an origin story, which is fine, I understand that, and I understand they needed to introduce this complex world to an audience that is ignorant of the story. But it could have been handled better and it could have treated the audience with respect and credited them with some intelligence.
I think the film might have been better with a bigger name director at the helm who could fight off the Hollywood Studio types who likely wanted to dumb down the story somewhat.
I went to see it with someone who had never seen any other Ghost in the Shell stuff, and she thought the same of it as I did.
I will almost certainly buy this on disc when it comes out, and I do hope it does well enough to spawn a sequel, and maybe we can get something with a little more depth for the follow up. But I won't be holding my breath.