“Ghost In The Shell” Makes A Strong Case For Anime Adaptations In Intelligent, Visually Stunning Sci-Fi Thriller
In the age of cyber enhancement, what do we define as human?
Mamoru Oshii’s legendary 1995 anime film (and to a lesser extent Masamune Shirow’s original manga), “Ghost in the Shell” heavily pondered this question. Now, Hollywood looks to bring not only this existential theme, but also the iconic visuals that adorned the 1995 classic.
First, let’s address the elephant in the room: the casting of caucasian Scarlett Johansson in a role originally meant to be of Asian descent. While this is yet another example of “whitewashing” in major blockbusters, there are several factors, including the approval of Oshii and Johansson’s uncanny likeness to the character, make this a more complicated situation than most.
For that reason, this review will refrain from judging the film from any standpoint than that of a film-goer, and as a film-goer, “Ghost in the Shell” is a truly engaging science-fiction thriller that works on many levels.
In an age of overwhelming technological enhancement, Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is one-of-a-kind: fully synthetic with the exception of her brain, she heads up the Japanese government task force Section 9. After being sent on the trail of cyborg hacker Kuze (Michael Pitt), she starts to experience glitches.
While these glitches at first appear harmless, she slowly begins to realize they’re a key to a past she’s lost, a past that will make her question her allegiance and the very nature of her reality.
The world of “Ghost in the Shell” is brimming with personality.
A gorgeous wide shot in the first act establishes a haven rife with holograms, skyscrapers, and countless other technological wonders. Director, Rupert Sanders, and cinematographer, Jess Hall, have created an immersive environment that rivals that of “Blade Runner”.
There’s just so much to look at that the phrase “eye candy” feels like massively underselling it. The visual style is a pitch-perfect recreation of the anime that jolts into overdrive during its action sequences.
A quiet battle in shallow water involving a camo suit feels absolutely enthralling, while a climactic struggle with a tank will leave a few jaws dropped. There’s a perfect mix of realism and escapism here that brings the complicated visual language of anime to the screen with confident ease.
These sequences go against the grain of recent big-budget action films, emphasizing smaller moments and the grace of The Major’s tactics over explosive moments, and the film is all the better for it, not to mention the moody score by Clint Mansell that goes perfectly with each and every scene to create some great iconography.
Surprisingly, the performances are essential to solidifying the immersion.
Scarlett Johansson shows exactly what makes her such a movie star with a layered, very physical performance. In both appearance and performance, it’s hard to ignore the fact that she bears a striking resemblance to the Major character from Mamoru Oshii’s classic, which is a huge
Her take on the Major is at once inhuman and human, an interesting dichotomy that helps anchor the movie. She’s the audience surrogate, taking us with her on this wild journey, and there’s no one better to lead.
Michael Pitt’s Kuze works well here too, with a quiet menace that gives way to a great emotional arc. The secondary villain of the film, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), fares significantly less well, erring close to the big business villain we’ve seen far too many times in the film.
On the other hand, the supporting cast really brings it. Pilou Asbaek kicks insurmountable amounts of ass as bottle cap-eyed Batou, bringing a snarky wit to the table that matches his anime/manga counterpart to a T. That doesn’t even begin to compare to Takeshi Kitano’s Aramaki, who might as well have just leaped off the page.
Kitano easily gets the coolest moment in the film, and it made me want a lot more of him. By that trade, I could’ve used more of some characters, like Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Ouelet or Chin Han’s Togusa, but overall the cast in this film does their job quite well.
So, how does the actual story that this immersive universe exists in hold up?
Pretty well, with a caveat. The script does a phenomenal job of setting up a neo-noir tale full of intrigue that taking us deep into the heart of the mysteries of this tech-driven world.
However, the themes are little different than the original. The theme of humanity vs. technology is still prevalent, though nowhere near as much.
Instead, this is a film about identity, and it’s perfectly understandable that would put fans of the original’s more cerebral plot off. Yet it’s handled in such a delicate, smart manner that I found it to be thoroughly engaging.
Mira Killian’s quest for who she still feels provocative, and we go to some very philosophical places, especially with a late-in-the-game twist that addresses the whitewashing controversy head-on.
The conclusion to the film, sadly, feels a bit lifeless, nixing the original’s iconic conclusion for something a little more audience-friendly. Despite this, the narrative overall stands incredibly sharp, finding a nice balance between the ideas of the original and the new questions of identity.
“Ghost in the Shell” could’ve gone very wrong. Instead, it stands as a shockingly great sci-fi film in its own right.
While it does suffer from dumbing down the source material, “Ghost in the Shell” proves that there could be potential in future anime adaptations. This is one exciting universe I wouldn’t mind plugging into again.