If I knew how to write the sound of a dial-up modem, I would make a slow connection joke here, but alas I don’t think it would translate as well in text as it does in an audio format. Oddly enough, this issue of translation may be one of the key factor’s that Ghost in the Shell falls short of its animated companion, however before that let’s do a quick dive into the elephant in the room that has been surrounding this movie from the start, just so we can get it out-of-the-way.
Whitewashing; To some, the epitome of evil, to others an annoying conversation they see online every time they open Twitter or Facebook. When it was announced the Scarlett Johansson was going to be playing Major Motoko Kusanagi, there was significant vocal backlash over a white actor playing what many considered to be a Japanese character. Couple this with other movies being called out, such as Dr. Strange for the Ancient one, and the ‘white guys in sand’ movie Gods of Egypt, it’s clear to see that there are some who take umbrage with not casting actors and actresses of their respective nationality in these roles. While I personally agree with these concerns, I cannot overlook the fact that the Major is a cyborg character, and cyborgs CAN be a mismatch of parts, or in this case ethnicity. The director of the original GitS, Mamoru Oshii, made a similar case as well saying “What issue could there possibly be with casting her? 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.” So while I personally would have liked to see an Japanese actress play the character, I believe this is one of the cases where a dialogue about the ethnicity of the character can be had.
With that out-of-the-way, let’s charge headlong into the movie itself. Right out of the gate, you are hit with a breathtaking view of the city it’s set in, which for the life of me I cannot remember what they called it. As we sail over the city, the cyberpunk aesthetics really show how foreign this world is and lays some of the ground work for the visual buffet we receive in this roughly two-hour movie. It also shows us the attention to detail that the film makers took when paying homage to its animated, and by proxy manga source material.
It is this homage however which might be the movie’s actual undoing. There is no doubt that showing love to your source material is a smart move, especially when it comes to properties from anime, video games and comic books, yet when your focus is primarily on showcasing said love over creating a true adaptation, you start to muddle your over all message and story. I think this is the trap that GitS fell into, as for each scene lifted directly from the animated movie, it misses the deeper meaning and context that these scenes are trying to address.
For example Chin Han’s Togusa is straight up human, no augments what so ever, yet his humanity in this movie is passed over so very quickly, essentially a joke to be played off of another character, Lasarus Ratuere’s Ishikawa, who is an enhancement junkie as he got a new modification so he could drink more. In the anime these theme’s are much more of a focal point to these characters, and give each team member a more flushed out personality. I will say however out of all of the characters in this movie, Batou, played by Pilou Asbæk, is handled with the most respect in comparison to their animated counterpart.
Putting focus on the Major for a moment, I want to talk about her as our vehicle or point of view throughout the movie. Her development, not only from a character within the movie, but as an analog to themes such as what individualism is in such an over saturated world of technology is, for the most part, done fairly well. She takes many of the traits from the anime and blends them into a decently believable character. However much like the lack of depth found within the movie plot and theme mentioned earlier, Mrs Johansson’s direction and depth are also very surface level. For every great nod to Motoko animated/manga origins we get over simplification of her surroundings or feelings which makes it seem like the movie doesn’t trust its audience enough to understand a more complex story or the more ambiguous character development from its source material.
This might be most apparent in the villain/not villain the film decides to use for the majority of its run time. Kuze is an amalgamation of different antagonists within the Ghost in the Shell universe. A hacker, a cyborg, a victim and a villain all rolled into one, and instead of focusing on one of these aspect’s individually, or straight up lifting a single villain from the movies/series GitS tries to, in an oddly funny way, create a new life out of remains of old ones. In hind sight, this may be actually a very clever nod to the premise of the movie, but it still doesn’t give the audience a character they can become invested in, especially when you take away that character’s agency and threat by hard cutting to the films other antagonist, the Hanka CEO Cutter. Confused yet? don’t worry there are many who are. As a shady CEO, Cutter has been trying to create a new breed of soldier that has all of the benefits befitting a cyborg who has human emotions, yet is completely obedient.
At the end of the day, Ghost in the Shell is a love letter to fans of the anime and manga. It’s stunning visuals bring you into a world that is full of wonder, but that wonder sit’s on such a flat surface it drains much of that vibrant colour, not only from said world, but from the characters who are inhabiting it, in favour of a safe story that doesn’t challenge you, the audience member, in any real intellectual way. This lack of intellectual honesty mean it suffers from what many video game movies have trouble with; Not fully embracing the source material in a proper way.
As with all of my reviews I am using a -10 to 0 score where a -10 is utter garbage and a 0 is as close to perfect as you can get.