Review: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Director: Rupert Sanders
Writers: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger
Producers: Avi Arad, Ari Arad, Steven Paul, Michael Costigan
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt
Distributor: Paramount Pictures

It’s very fair to say that live-action American adaptations of anime properties have had a very sketchy track record. The 1990s Fist of the North Star, the two films of The Guyver, and yes, even Dragonball Evolution and Speed Racer, these are all films that have a very poor reception, mostly due to an over-bloated emphasis on visual effects, Hollywood executive meddling, a poor understanding of the source material, or all three factors at once. Over 20 years of poor filmmaking has lowered the bar to insurmountable lows, and so, on the fourth trip down this film retrospective, we come to the simply-titled Ghost in the Shell, the live-action American adaptation nearly 10 years in the making. I am going into this as professionally objective as I can be, and I am leaving my fan card at the door for this one. The only thing I could possibly ask from this movie is that it is serviceable, palatable, and faithful to at least one degree. But alas… we can’t always get what we want.

If you’re at all familiar with how the world of Ghost in the Shell works, leave those familiar feelings at the door, because there won’t be much in the way of existentialist philosophy or international political warfare to be found in this flick. Instead, we have ourselves a good old-fashioned sci-fi action thriller, with Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), having been rescued from near-death by the Hanka Corporation and her brain, or “Ghost,” being installed into an artificial and cyberized body, or “Shell,” working within Public Security Section 9 to take down a mysterious and nefarious hacker simply named Kuze (Michael Pitt), who has been doing… uh… bad things that aren’t completely established to the audience. But he’s a hacker, which means he’s a terrorist, oooooh, super evil boogeyman alert! You wish I was kidding about that. But, along the way, Mira is having some questions about who she is and why she can’t remember her clouded past, and she will stop at nothing to uncover… THE TRUTH. But what does Hanka know, and why are they keeping the truth such a secret? It’s all up to Mira, the one-in-a-hundred cyber soldier, to find out why her GHOST… is in this SHELL. And that’s the basis of the entire film, I laid out the entire plot right here for you. I even made it sound extra trite, because that’s what this film does. I’ve seen a lot of Ghost in the Shell, and this is NOT Ghost in the Shell. Sure, it’s CALLED Ghost in the Shell, but if you call generic store-brand Frosted Flakes as “Frosted Flakes,” it’s still not the same thing as the original, and that’s what this film feels like – generic two-dollar cereal. It has all the likenesses somewhat there, but the taste is just not the same.

In a time period where the popcorn action flick has been rendered obsolete by the money making machine that is Marvel Studios, seeing a movie like this, formatted and laid out like a dystopian sci-fi action thriller, certainly is a welcomed sight for this viewer’s eyes. The only problem is, when you add the name Ghost in the Shell to it, you’re probably going to expect a little bit more to it than just lifting scenes and shots from both the original film and Innocence. However, I am one to give credit where credit is due, so I’ll lay out some positives that this film got right. It’s not much, but a little is better than zero. First off, the people behind this movie clearly did their research on the franchise, with a great visual aesthetic to the film itself. The colors, the landscapes, the homages to the source material (of which there are plenty to be found), and even a solid visual showing of the culture of both Hong Kong and Japan they all show honest effort being made with how the film is presented. (Kind of, but we’ll get to THAT later.) Secondly, Beat Takeshi as Aramaki is as perfect a casting choice as you could find, in this movie; his performance is nuanced, subdued, and very Japanese, and it all works out to, in my personal viewpoint, the best performance of the entire film. And third, the musical score, courtesy of Clint Mansell, fits right in with the larger GITS universe, combining a Hollywood-esque action score with some Kenji Kawai-esque touches here and there, to make things a bit more lively and suitable.

Then there are the negatives. And yes, I’ll address the big white elephant in the room, don’t worry.

While the visuals may look good, if only a bit too Blade Runner-esque, the action sequences are more along the lines of “eh, it’s okay, I guess.” Crafting fight scenes and action sequences that were originally animated, and bringing it into live action, is a tad bit tricky, but they don’t seem to work all that well in this film. The thing is, from start to finish, nothing about this film really screams out “Ghost in the Shell,” save for the aforementioned homages and the characters being brought into play. It just feels like a bland and, honestly, mediocre action film. So I decided to look at the filmographies of the director and writers, and you’ll never guess what the only other movie Rupert Sanders directed was: Snow White and the Huntsman. That’s all. As for the writers? Jamie Moss only worked on Spectral and Street Kings, and the upcoming Hunter Killer; Ehren Kruger was a writer on the last three Transformers movies; and William Wheeler? Well, he wrote the screenplay for Queen of Katwe and is a producer for Ray Donovan, so at least one of the three writers here has a good track record. Unfortunately, the story that this trio brought to the film is, as I mentioned, bland and mediocre, as it changes the focus of Ghost in the Shell to that of a standard-fare action thriller. You know how it goes, our hero has to uncover the deeper mystery and defeat the villains so that everyone can go about their daily lives, and big business is bad and must be defeated because they’re the true enemy. Trite and stock, seen it before, and having this franchise’s name attached to it makes it that much worse.

So how does the supporting cast fare? For the most part, like they’re just reading their lines to get the project over with. I’ll admit, Pilou Asbæk’s Batou grew on me as the film went on, but after hearing Richard Epcar play the character for so long, it’s a bit hard for me to hear anyone else play the role of Batou. Well, apart from Chris Sabat, but still. The bulk of Section 9 only really shows up for blink-and-you-miss-it cameos, like Ishikawa (played by Lasarus Ratuere) and Saito (Yutaka Izumihara), or they’re just wholly uninvolved with the plot at large, like Togusa, played by Chin Han. He’s just there for a few scenes, and that’s all. Unfortunate. Then things get weird, with Kuze, played by Michael Pitt; I’m not exaggerating when I say that in one scene, Kuze speaks like he just learned how to talk by watching an episode of Xavier: Renegade Angel.

And as for ScarJo? Apart from her performance shifting from wooden to bland monotone, scene by scene, I’ll just say that her casting as “The Major” brought on way more harm than good, in terms of the story. Because of that, though, I can’t really continue onward without diving into spoiler territory. But you know what? Paramount ain’t paying me jack to give this movie blind praise, so if you don’t want to read any spoilers, just skip down to the bottom of the page, past the last image. Otherwise, let’s dive in and get our hands dirty and lay out the three core problems this film has. Trust me, they’re doozies.

1. Over-reliance on referencing the source material

As I said, the people making this film clearly did their research with the franchise, and they proved it by adding in some homages, like the geisha gynoid’s face being opened (from Innocence), the boat scene between the Major and Batou (original film), and even making some weird cross-blend with adding the motives of the Puppetmaster into Kuze (the villain from Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG), and even adding smaller things, like Gabriel, the basset hound from Innocence, and even the final shot of the Major prying open an assault tank, directly from the first film. Both big and small elements are presented in this film, and while I appreciate the sincerity of such a notion, these elements are going to fall completely flat on a casual audience that has never seen any installment of the franchise before. And given that this is Hollywood, that’s going to be about 90% of this film’s audience, right off the bat. Yeah, it’s cool to see an homage to the garbage truck scene from the original film, but to anyone who has never seen the 1995 film, how would they know why this is supposed to be a significant part of the plot at hand? But it’s not just that there’s an over-reliance on referencing the source material, it’s that these homages and callbacks and references carry zero weight to them, with the story this movie is trying to tell. These scenes hold very little, if not zero, significance on the film’s narrative flow; the boat scene? Nothing with the Major pondering her existence, it’s just there as a callback. The scene with the geisha gynoid? Kuze’s controlling it because reasons, and the Major shot it down, NOT Batou. They’re just here in the film because, to borrow a Nostalgia Critic gag, FIRST MOVIE! And SECOND MOVIE! You can’t have your cake and eat it, too, when it comes to referencing the source; it’s a very hard line to cross, but this film doesn’t hit the mark with it.

2. Too many plot holes

Apart from the whole ScarJo thing, this film is far too broken than it should be. Going back to the garbage truck scene, this scene is where Kuze hacks into the two men driving the truck, and when they come out, they’re toting machine guns and opening fire. How did they get those and why did they get those? Secondly, toward the third act, where the Major has gone off to meet the mother of, shall I say, Motoko, it’s all laid out that she ran away from home and her mother was alerted of her suicide by officials. Awfully convenient, given what is revealed later on, but also, how did they know who to call? How did they find the right person? Little things like this bother me, you see. Third, we all know that Section 9 operates under a branch of national government, but when did they also operate under the Hanka Corporation? Pulled out of nowhere, only brought up about once or twice, but it’s all moot by the end. And most importantly, the whole thing about “Mira Killian” being crafted as the one successful human-cyborg transplantation is a giant contradiction to the entirety of, you know, GHOST IN THE SHELL. Do I even need to explain? It’s laid out to where Mira is “THE ONE” that survived Hanka’s experimentation, whereas 97 others lost their lives while trying to accomplish the same thing. Not only is that ridiculously stupid, but 97 other people were killed and were deemed obsolete? Uh, why?

And one last thing, mostly because it’s a personal gripe – the head of the Hanka Corporation, Cutter – and yes, his name is CUTTER – stated, at the very start of the movie, that Mira will be the perfect soldier to fight terrorism. That’s not Ghost in the Shell, that’s frigging ROBOCOP. I don’t need RoboCop in this, I HAVE RoboCop. I don’t need to see ED-209 and OCP and Red Forman saying “Bitches, leave!” in Ghost in the Shell, that’s what I have RoboCop for.

3. Scarlett Johannson

I’m sorry to say it, but Scarlett Johannson being in this movie is the biggest problem of them all.

And no, it’s not just because she’s white. Although it doesn’t help.

I don’t believe in the notion of roles being limited to certain races. And for this movie, specifically, it’s not a matter of me wanting someone specifically Japanese playing the role; it’s not a matter of skin, it’s a matter of performance quality. I’m cool with Batou being played by Pilou Asbæk, a Dane, because the guy playing him is pretty good in the role. I’m cool with Ishikawa being played by Lasarus Ratuere, a Fijian-Australian, because the guy playing him is pretty good in the role. I’m not cool with the Major being played by Scarlett Johannson, a (white) American, because the woman playing her is NOT good in the role. She’s monotone, she barely emotes, she can’t save a faulty script, and she can’t carry this movie on her own star power; and because of all of those elements, everything about the role, her performance, and the movie at large, all suffer. But that’s not the worst thing about her being in the lead role, get ready for it.

Here’s the crux of the entire movie, which completely derails everything it had going for it: near the end of the third act, we are shown a vision of Mira’s memories, where a younger girl is being abducted with a younger boy by people from Hanka. This girl is, of course, Motoko Kusanagi, and the end result of the abduction was that her brain, or “Ghost,” was infused into a new Shell. That all sounds fairly simple, right? It’s lifted straight from 2nd GIG, with the boy in the memory being Kuze, or rather, as Hideo, a childhood friend of Motoko from long ago, only they weren’t abducted by a big bad business conglomerate in the anime, they were involved in a plane crash and had their Ghosts infused into cyberized bodies to continue living. But in this film, Motoko Kusanagi was abducted, put into experimentation by a big conglomerate, had her brain put into a new Shell, and it’s all complete with a brand new identity; and yes, before you ask, the younger Motoko was visibly Japanese. As is her mother, also a Japanese woman.

ScarJo? And by proxy, Mira Killian? White as white can be. And the Major now being a white woman puts the entire movie into a corner, having to write around this and try to salvage this. Not only is this sequence a big slap in the face to fans of the franchise, such as I, this entire plot point sequence is just incredibly, incredibly stupid. And it dumbs down the rest of the movie along with it; no longer is Ghost in the Shell about asking questions about personal identity and the core of humanity, it’s now about wanting to take down the evil robotics company that abducted our hero as a young woman. Of those two differing sides, as far as the former goes, the basis of the Major’s existentialist pondering in the original movie centers around the question of what she is, not who she is. Something like this should not be this hard to get right, but like we all learned from Jurassic Park, nature finds a way. And as far as the latter goes, this entire plot point is stupid, it’s nonsensical, it has zero to do with Ghost in the Shell, and it all completely derails the entire film, taking it from bland and mediocre to stupidly mediocre.

All in all, this is a film that certainly tries to please everyone, by combining new elements for new audiences with past elements that diehard fans will see and appreciate, but when you try to please everyone, you please no one. And this film is certainly not pleasing, in any way. As an action flick, on its own, it’s uninteresting and not engaging in the slightest. As an adaptation, it falls well short of the standard that this franchise has built for itself. However, in spite of all of that, I feel confident in saying that this is the best American film adaptation of an anime property ever made, so far. Granted, the bar has been sunk so low over the years that it’s a by-default victory, but it still counts. Sure, this film could have been a LOT worse, but even still, as it stands, this film is a broken mess and not worth seeing on the big screen. Nearly a decade in production, and it all amounted to a Long Island Iced Tea of empty references and Hollywood-style storytelling. Anything but delightful.

Final Verdict: So utterly skippable, it’s not even funny.

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