Ghost in the Shell – A (mostly) Spoiler-Free Review

Ghost in the Shell is widely considered one of the most important franchises in the history of anime/manga. The 1995 feature-length movie, in particular, was wildly successful, and influenced a number of filmmakers in the science fiction genre. When Dreamworks Pictures decided to bring a live-action adaptation to the big screen, they had some big shoes to fill. Unfortunately, while the movie gets a lot of things right, the live-action film doesn’t live up to it’s predecessor’s reputation as a groundbreaking, instant-classic movie.

Unlike most of the films I review on this blog, Ghost in the Shell is a bit outside my wheelhouse. I am, at best, a casual anime/manga fan — I’ve seen the 1995 film and I’ve read a couple of the manga, but I’m by no means an expert on the franchise. As such, I didn’t walk into this movie as a super-fan, hoping to see well-known characters and plots brought to life. Rather, I went in with somewhat fresh eyes, wanting a movie that captured the tone and feel of the original while telling a compelling story. And while the movie did an excellent job at reproducing the atmosphere of a Japanese anime, the story itself didn’t quite click for me. Too much of the movie felt dated and derivative (which is unfortunate, as we’ll see later), and that just detracted too much from the movie for my liking.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie for what it was. It wasn’t bad, or boring, or confusing, or any of the things that make me hate a movie. I’m glad I got to see it, and I don’t feel like I wasted my time or money (though, don’t bother with 3-D). If the movie hadn’t been called Ghost in the Shell, I think it would have fared much better without the reputation to live up to. I’d rate it a middle-of-the-road 6/10, worth seeing if you’re a fan of the genre, or just want to watch a sci-fi movie that’s a bit different from the typical blockbuster fare. If you want to know more, keep reading…

If you get the chance to see this movie, do it — its good, you’ll enjoy it. But don’t expect to be blown away, and especially don’t expect another revolution in the genre.

Ghost in the Shell is the latest entry into the legendary anime/manga franchise, and the first attempt to bring the source material to live action. The story is original, but based in large part on the first Ghost in the Shell animated movie. The biggest change is in the identity of the lead character, Motoko Kusanagi. In this version, Motoko is Major Mira Killian, who believes she was the victim of a terrorist attack, destroying her body so badly that she underwent an experimental procedure to transplant her mind (both her physical brain and her mental “ghost”) into a wholly artificial cybernetic body, or “shell”. As far as Mira knows, she’s the first such surgery to be successful.

While we’re on the subject, let me address the elephant in the room — the accusations of “Hollywood whitewashing”. Normally, I don’t put much stock in such complaints, but in this case I think there’s an argument to be made. Motoko’s character even within the movie was a teenaged Japanese girl, but the wholly artificial body they chose for her was a Caucasian one. This was a conscious choice both within the movie and by the filmmakers — and it wasn’t the only one in the movie. It’s hard to avoid the impression that it was a deliberate choice.

Fortunately, for the bulk of the movie, you can put the casting controversy to the side. The setting for the film is an unnamed city in future Japan, presumably the New Port City from the manga. By this point, Japan is a melting pot of race and ethniticies — indeed, almost every character has a different accent. Major Killian’s race doesn’t warrant a second glance within the world of the movie.

The visual experience of New Port City is impressive. When we see it from afar, the city is awash in bright colors, much like modern-day Tokyo or Times Square might look in the future. Gigantic building-size holographic ads fill every empty space. But once we hit the streets with Mira and the rest of Section 9, things are much different. It’s dark, it’s dirty, it’s full of trash and disease and slums. The movie does an excellent job of showing the glitzy facade, then transitioning us into the “real” New Port City.

Indeed, the visual effects department may be the MVPs of this movie. Besides perfectly capturing the atmosphere of a corrupt, consumerist future city, they were given the task of recreating the classic “shelling” sequence from the full-length anime movie. They did a great job of capturing the feel, while updating it with more modern-looking visuals. Mira’s shell has a skeleton, muscles, and skin, a fact that we see several times more as she is injured and repaired by Hanka Corp. The movie has a Pg-13 rating, so there’s obviously no overt nudity as there was in the source material, but Mira’s tactical suit is somewhat gratuitously skin-tight and skin-colored.

Johansson, as you might expect, does an excellent job as Mira. Her mannerisms are just slightly robotic in nature, reflecting the fact that her brain may be human, but so much of what’s human about her (including her past) has been stripped away. She’s a veteran of close combat scenes, and does her usual good job with the fights in this movie. She also does a good job portraying her character’s gradual but inevitable evolution as her past emerges, including a key scene late in the movie where she meets someone very important to her, though she doesn’t know it.

Indeed, as with the source material, the main plot of the movie frequently takes a back seat to the “real” story, which is Motoko struggling to decide what it is that defines her as human. Unlike the earlier Ghost in the Shell works, Mira is the only person in the world to have her brain transplanted into a cyborg suit, and it makes her somewhat of an outsider. Indeed, while everyone else around her gets cybernetic enhancements become more and more machine, Mira looks fully human, but only one part of her really is. Exactly how she, and potentially others like her, fit into society is something that many people in this movie have strong opinions on, and they don’t always agree with Mira.

The primary plot of the movie flows along nicely in unison with Motoko’s character development, each part exposing a bit more about her past and the hidden elements she’s up against. Here, the movie tosses in some callbacks to it’s source material, including a garbage collector that Section 9 thinks is a villain, but turns out to be much different than he seems. The action scenes were spaced out nicely, giving us a breather and Mira time to digest what she’s learned. At no point did anything seem forced into the movie, but the story also never really lagged. (The very last scene of the movie may be the rare exception here — the jump from the end of the previous scene to the beginning of the final one is a big one, and there’s a lot that was skipped over, but it’s not too bad.)

Ghost in the Shell is a perfectly acceptable futuristic science fiction movie. And when you decide to call yourself Ghost in the Shell, that’s ultimately not good enough.

In general, the movie was enjoyable, and on its own I think it would have made pretty good science fiction fare. Unfortunately, this movie took on the mantle of Ghost in the Shell, and here is falls a bit flat. The biggest problem with the movie is that it seems, in a word, “dated”. I’m not sure if the filmmakers were intentionally going for a retro feel, or were trying to remain true to the source material as much as possible, but it didn’t do them any favors. The depictions and descriptions of technology in the future definitely felt like something out of Neuromancer or Johnny Mneumonic. And the fight scenes definitely felt very derivative. It’s unfortunate, but also the reality of the movie industry, that this movie is going to be accused of being a Matrix clone. (The Wachowski brothers have openly admitted that The Matrix was largely their attempt to do live-action Ghost in the Shell.) When the first movie came out, these things would have been groundbreaking and original. These days, we’ve seen it all before.

The supporting cast of characters is also not nearly as impressive as the leads. The actors generally do a decent job, but many of their roles feel very limited or one-dimensional. Its notable that I don’t even remember the name of any of the Section 9 crew other than Mira and Batou. In a few cases they come off as almost a gimmick, such as the Section Chief that, for no reason that is ever explained, is the only character in the movie that speaks exclusively in Japanese. (Everyone else, regardless of their ethnicity, speaks fluent English but understands Japanese.)

In addition, while the movie overall was easy to follow, there are some elements in the movie that are a bit confusing, especially if you don’t know the source material very well. The exact function of Section 9 is never explained, and their jurisdiction and authority seems to change scene to scene. It’s also unclear exactly how Hanka Corporation is related to Section 9 (the movie initially gives the impression that they’re the same group.) These are not minor elements that can be glossed over — it’s a key element of the plot in more than one place, but if you don’t already “get” this setting, you just have to go with the flow and hope it makes sense later.

By themselves, these flaws wouldn’t be too bad. But when you put them together, you end up with a movie that doesn’t live up to the groundbreaking reputation of its namesake. Instead, you end up with a perfectly acceptable futuristic science fiction movie. And when you decide to call yourself Ghost in the Shell, that’s ultimately not good enough. If you get the chance to see this movie, do it — its good, you’ll enjoy it. But don’t expect to be blown away, and especially don’t expect another revolution in the genre.



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