Review: Ghost in the Shell (2017) (2D)

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People are hating on this movie for the wrong reasons.

In the distant future, when cybernetics are advancing to the point that humanity is becoming a fleeting concept, The Major is one of the best agents of a cyber-crime investigative unit known as Section Nine. But she questions her origins, and how she has no memories of her past. As a terrorist is systematically killing scientists at an advanced robotics company, her answers may be uncovered…

Ghost in the Shell is the American live action remake of Japanese anime of the same name released in 1995, which in turn was an adaptation of the Ghost in the Shell manga. As a result, this production has been under fierce scrutiny with the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead protagonist.
Addressing this, and the wild and baseless accusations people are throwing around online, is quite simple. While yes, an Asian actress would have been ideal, this is one of the times that a new interpretation does not require such ire. Major Motoko Kusanagi of the 1995 film did not identify herself as human, or even a specific gender, let alone a race. Section Nine is an international unit, Motoko’s partner in the anime, Batou, is American. Even the 1995 film’s director, Mamoru Oshii, sees no problem in Johansson’s casting.
In fact, the film actually addresses her casting in a logical way as a plot device. In fact it makes the most obvious argument for her casting.

No, the real problems with this year’s Ghost in the Shell are more about screenplay and script.

The 1995 film is a dizzying, opaque trip into the cerebral nature of existence, of self and even of creation. If you expect an American production to hit anything close to the original’s depth or existential thinking you are gravely misjudging it.
Director Rupert Sanders (who’s only previous work was 2012’s Snow White & The Huntsman) is a great for crafting visuals, but in terms of weaving a complex or subtle story… not so much. While his film isn’t a direct remake, which is a blessing, it not only borrows from the 1995 film, but from its 2005 sequel Innocence and from its television show Stand Alone Complex.
With so much happening, at least to someone who knows the sources, it felt like scenes were inconsistent and incongruous with each other. Familiar scenes are practically shoehorned into the plot, perhaps I only notice this because I know them, but there is certainly no build up to them. Such as the interrogation of the trash driver and the revelation that follows… feels very sudden and almost immaterial as the plot rushes along.

The film operates like an origin story for the character of The Major, and even her colleague Batou – we see him acquire his synthetic eyes. For the most part the characters are close to their original interpretations, especially Aramaki and even Togusa, Saito and Ishikawa (for all the five seconds those three have on screen). Visually the film is very unique, channeling much of the cyberpunk imagery you’d expect with competency, the weaving of CG elements and practical effects is almost seamless, and more than occasionally takes direct frames of the 1995 film and its sequel as inspiration.

But the film cries out for at least an extra twenty minutes added to its one hundred minute runtime, which is an unsettling thing to say since the 1995 film is twenty minutes shorter and tells a concise story with plenty to chew on. But this film needs build up for its action that simply isn’t there. Ghost in the Shell thrives on hard bursts of adrenaline breaking up slow atmospheric build ups.
Mixed up in this amateurish take on Ghost in the Shell is a weak script. Very early on, too early, is dialogue literally explaining the title of the franchise. It is cringeworthy. While the 1995 film dropped the terms shell and ghost, it was intermittent and used in a philosophic manner. Here they just ramble on: “Ghost = soul”, “Shell = body”.
The Major too, as if borrowing more from video game Deus Ex, is a victim in this story, often at the mercy of superiors or out of her depth. This ties with the idea of an origin story, the beginning of a confident heroine, but some fans will see it as a betrayal.

I don’t know what audience this film is made for. By rights it shouldn’t even exist. Your general audiences will not have heard of the original, or even the television shows, and casting Johansson was only going to rile up the fans of the franchise. Plus cyberpunk isn’t as popular as it once was. Johansson, paradoxically, is the only draw.
The idea of starting the franchise over is noble, but this isn’t the way to do it.

Ultimately the remake of Ghost in the Shell isn’t the disaster I feared it was going to be, as a fan of the franchise. It is quite nice to see the characters and the world in a new light, even if they don’t talk the same way. But it’s also what I expected; a clunky but visually interesting cyberpunk action movie with nods to the source material. Had it been less inclined on references, and given more time to meditate and build on our characters’ emotions – or lack thereof – it could have been far more memorable.

If you like your science fiction action films, you should check it out. For fans of the franchise, you’ve already made up your minds!

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Additional marshmallows: Wow, I didn’t even mention the 12A, PG-13 certificate.

Additional, additional marshmallows: The film didn’t assault my eardrums with the frankly dreadful dubstep remix of the Ghost in the Shell theme!

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