Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Directed by: Rupert Sanders
Written by: Ehren Kruger, Jamie Moss, Masamune Shirow, William Wheeler
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Pilou Asbæk, Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano
IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 107 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In the near future, most humans are augmented with cybernetics, enhancing various traits like vision, strength, and intelligence. Hanka Robotics establishes a secret project to develop a mechanical body, or “shell”, that can integrate a human brain rather than an AI. Mira Killian, the sole survivor of a cyberterrorist attack, is chosen as the test subject after her body is destroyed beyond repair. Over the objections of her designer, Dr. Ouelet, Mira is trained as a counter-terrorism operative. A year later, Mira has attained the rank of Major in the anti-terrorist bureau Section 9, working alongside operatives Batou and Togusa under Chief Daisuke Aramaki. However, she’s having “glitches,” visual and auditory hallucinations, with increasing regularity. When She destroys a rogue mechanical geisha, she finds that the geisha was hacked by an unknown entity, known only as Kuze, and decides to track Kuze down….
In a way it’s surprising that there hasn’t already been a Ghost in the Shell live action [well, more CGI than live action but you know what I mean] movie considering the various animated films, TV series and even games that Masemune Shirow’s 1989 manga and Mamoru Ishii’s iconic anime movie spawned. It’s not as if there haven’t been films based on manga or anime before, though efforts like The Guyver and Fist Of The North Star hardly made a splash and the one major Hollywood release we’ve had, Dragonball Evolution, is widely regarded as being terrible though actually it was a box office success despite the opposite seeming more likely. With Battle Angel: Alita just having wrapped and Death Note in post production, and no doubt inspired by the advance of CGI not to mention its near total dominance, it’s obviously considered by many that the time is right to embark on a wave of adapting anime for the big screen. It could certainly bring some freshness to Hollywood’s increasingly repetitious, even bland current blockbuster formula. However, Ghost In The Shell is certainly not the film to begin doing it. While one is tempted to wish for a non-superhero or franchise movie to do well at the box office, I’ve concluded that Ghost In The Shell’s poor opening is a good thing, because it really isn’t very good at all.
It’s almost a perfect example of the way Hollywood can take something of great originality and intelligence, and dumb it down, squeezing much of the quality out and ending up with a thoroughly generic product. If you haven’t seen the 1995 Ghost In The Shell, I suppose it wouldn’t seem too bad, a reasonable if thoroughly unremarkable science fiction actioner, though in places still seeming to be made up of bit parts from other films from Ex Machina to Total Recall to Robocop to of course The Matrix whose creators happily admitted plundering the original Ghost In The Shell. If you have seen it though then I really wouldn’t bother going to the cinema to see this version because it removes nearly all of the philosophy and drastically mutes the priginal’s asking of questions that get more and more important as technology progresses [I perhaps mistakenly watched the original again the other day, and rather than seeming a bit dated now it actually appears to be even more accurate and scary about the way things are going] such as: is something created outside of a womb without a soul? Do souls even exist? What is it that keeps us human? It partly replaces this with more action, but none of it is really memorable [you’d thought that they’d make a bit of an effort to come up with some new thrill sequences considering most of the really interesting elements are minimised]. The thing is just disappointingly bland as it tells a variation of the 1995 film’s storyline, stopping along the way to give us some mediocre recreations of some of its best moments, along with a few bits and pieces from the sequels, notably the chief villain being borrowed from Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex.
One thing that does come off quite well in places is the look of the piece with the visual aspect of the anime being quite well replicated, though because it’s not animated this future metropolis just seems like yet another Blade Runner imitation with its colourful but decaying and depressing nature. One fairly original touch is the enormous hologram advertisements everywhere, which are actually quite scary in a way because I wouldn’t be surprised if you eventually end up with thing of thing every time you log in – or should I say plug in. The film begins with quite an arresting montage of the creation of the Major [aka Mira] and then progresses to a variation on the opening of the anime with the Major snooping on some industrial espionage, engaging in some gunplay and finding out some information by being able to access the vast electronic network that connects the world [much like the present then] with her cybernetic body or “shell”. Some robot geishas look good and there’s the rather startling image of one climbing a wall like a spider, but I couldn’t get out of my head the stupidity of having Takeshi Kitano’s boss character Daisuke Aramaki speak in Japanese while everyone else speaks English. It’s dumb even if you appreciate that with all the whitewashing everywhere [which doesn’t offend me, but does make me feel uneasy considering that the whole story’s Japanese origins still pervade it everywhere] they obviously felt they had to have a Japanese character, and it is great to see Kitano on the screen again, his great personality still coming through.
The Major and her fellow operative Batou set off to catch this digital entity known as Kuze, and trace him to a yakuza nightclub, where they are lured into a trap. The resulting explosion destroys Batou’s eyes, and leaves Mira’s body severely damaged, though she’s soon up and running again. Meanwhile Kuze begins to murder Section 9 members and Mira starts to suspect that she may have lied to about her origins. Frankly a child would probably be able to work out where the story is headed which means that none of the supposed twists work, and despite an attempt at an emotional dimension towards the end [which contains another half-assed attempt to deflect the white washing claims] it’s hard to actually care very much. It only took me about an hour to begin having the depressing thought that what I was watching could be yet another tiresome attempt at a superhero origin story, and the final scene really is groan inducing and about as far away from the spirit of the anime as one can get. I didn’t expect this film to conclude in the anime‘s startling fashion, but I expected a bit more than what I actually got.
It always makes me chuckle when big Hollywood pictures attack corporate dominance, especially in this film which feels strangled by corporate control, though this aspect is scarily familiar what with the way Google and others probably control our lives more than any heads of state. The theme of identity is still present and correct, but most of the really thought provoking stuff exists just slightly in the background, and all the sides of the story that the original material let out to be imagined by the viewer are gone as this version focuses more on mediocre gun battles and Scarlett Johansson doing watered down versions of her usual running, jumping and kicking arse act. Her role can unmistakably be linked to her turns in Lucy, Her, Under The Skin and the Marvel pictures, but she comes across as being a little tired here and not quite sure of how to play certain scenes. Meanwhile director Rupert Sanders, who I thought didn’t do a bad job on Snow White And The Huntsman, handles the material with total professionalism and a total lack of personality, though at least he doesn’t make the mistake so many modern filmmakers do of letting the action scenes get too chaotic or hard to make out. The endless CGI is generally decent, though it had to be considering 99% of shots probably have some digital enhancement [I bet George Lucas and Rick McCallum love this movie]. Even if the screenplay had been better, one has to conclude that Ghost In The Shell is just something that works best in animation no matter how much digital imagery you throw at the viewer.
The decision to turn Ghost In The Shell into a ‘PG-13’ rated film just doesn’t work as it continually feels restricted, some moments actually coming across as almost ludicrous as a result. One thing I did like is the serious approach, the desire to give the story some of the trendy smarminess being restricted, and the score by Clint Mansell and Lorna Balfe, if mostly uninteresting, has some good moments, though surely we’ve had enough of retro-sounding synth stuff by now and the musical highlight is hearing the theme from the original during the end credits. In general, this Ghost In The Shell is never offensively bad but is still largely sunk by what seems like one poor decision after another, great material severely weakened by a wrongheaded desire to transform it into something that is almost indistinguishable from countless other genre efforts, and which has consequently ended up as little more than a ghost or shell of its former self.