Embroiled in controversy over its lead casting, Paramount Picture’s Ghost In The Shell has always held a trepidatious cloud over its head, cast by a hardcore audience already scorned by lacklustre studio adaptations. Unfaithfulness is arguably not where this retelling of Masamune Shirow’s manga faltered however, but rather, there was simply no ghost in this shell.
The film opens by introducing us to Mira Killian (Scarlet Johansson), the first full-body cyborg after a terrorist attack left only her brain intact. A year later, we find her atop a bright and hologram-infused skyline in the midst of a mission as Major, an operative of Section 9, the government’s counter-terrorism agency. After interrupting an attack on employees of Hanka Robotics, the same company responsible for Major’s cybernetic body, Section 9 learns of a cyberhacking threat calling himself Hideo Kuze (Michael Pitt), who may know something about Hanka Robotics and the Major.
While eyebrows were raised at the decision for Caucasian Scarlett Johansson to lead a film based on a Japanese property, I have to say that Ghost in the Shell has perhaps the strongest assembled cast of any live-action manga adaptation. Scarlet Johansson carefully treads the line between man and machine, with even her physical mannerisms in tune to what should be the film’s overarching question. Pilou Asbæk delivers a show-stealing performance of Major’s partner Batou, showing just how in tune he is with the classic character. Whether he’s a gun-toting badass or a simple guy worried about scaring the stray dogs he feeds, Batou feels the most human of the cast – cybernetic eyes notwithstanding. Contrasting with Johansson’s stoic Major, Juliet Binoche proves an excellent emotional foil as researcher and maternal-figure Dr. Ouelet.
Veteran actor “Beat” Takeshi Kitano demands the attention of every scene he appears in as Chief Aramaki, carrying an intimidating and authoritative aura at all times. However, he also feels the most out of place in this picture. Compared to the bright and futuristic styling of the world around him, Aramaki’s office and attire are notably more traditional and drab. When Aramaki speaks, his words feel like they have centuries of thought behind them, yet we are never given a deeper insight into the man and his motivations, which would have been especially important towards the climax. With all his dialogue spoken in Japanese, I wish the editors could have at least decided on a consistent location for his subtitles; sometimes they were at the left of the screen, then the right, then elsewhere.
That is the main weakness of Ghost in the Shell. Great care and attention was paid to the casting and design of these characters, yet their screen time leaves nothing to show for it. Ishikawa (Lasarus Ratuere) for example, looks almost identical to his anime counterpart and his one line makes reference to a penchant for drinking; a possible homage to the bottle seen in his office during the Stand Alone Complex ending credits. Similarly, Togusa (Chin Han) briefly makes his trademark misgivings towards cyber-enhancement clear, then isn’t given another opportunity to even speak again. I was left feeling that these characters were clearly supposed to be larger players in the story, which was cut down for whatever reason.
This feeling was retained throughout the story, which feels as though pieces were missing. This, combined with the lack of any real sense of threat, leaves us with a tonally sterile, perhaps even boring, climax.
Where Ghost in the Shell stumbles the most however, is in its story and treatment of the franchise’s philosophical core. The screenwriters must have thought the title too subtle, as the words “ghost” and “shell” are shoe-horned into multiple sentences, even when they wouldn’t be used in actual conversation. Ghost in the Shell makes the fatal mistake of misunderstanding the franchise’s intent, feeling the need to answer questions that should have been left to the audience to interpret.
While many, including myself, have pointed to Ghost in the Shell‘s core themes in defence of whitewashing allegations, this film’s attempt to provide answers ultimately only adds merit to the complaints. Through its Japanese-inspired set pieces, its cast and its narrative, this film feels so conflicted in how to treat its Japanese origins that I wish the adaptation had gone the whole hog and relocated to America – even if “Mira Killian” is a stupid name.
Ghost in the Shell could have been the easiest manga to adapt for Hollywood, but despite being a visual spectacle with fantastic performances from its actors, the total mishandling of its celebrated themes have left us with a mediocre action movie. To reiterate my earlier comment, there is no ghost in this shell.
Title: Ghost in the Shell
Production: Dreamworks Pictures et al
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Platform(s): 2D Theatrical, 3D Theatrical
Version Reviewed: 3D Theatrical
Released: Out Now!