Review: Ghost in the Shell

Set in a future Hong Kong, Scarlett Johansson plays The Major, a mixture of human brain and synthetic/cybernetic body, who is a part of an elite anti-terrorist unit alongside the dependable Batou (Pilou Asbaek), and working for Amaraki (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano). Juliette Binoche plays the scientist who created The Major, Peter Ferdinando is the financier, whilst Michael Pitt plays a supposed terrorist known as Hideo Kuze, who when The Major meets him, tells her important information about who she is and the motives behind her creation.

I can’t say I recall the anime movie “Ghost in the Shell” enough to call myself an expert, but the TV spin-off “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” I rather enjoyed. So, while not a Manga reader nor an Anime aficionado, I’m certainly not ignorant of this world and the characters, either. This 2017 live-action iteration of the 1989 Manga (and the subsequent 1995 animated film) from director Rupert Sanders (the dull “Snow White and the Huntsman”) was a pleasant surprise to me, and a lot better than I had heard or was expecting. In fact, there’s really only one thing wrong with it and that one element (predictable for long-time readers of my reviews) is something that hardly anyone will likely agree with me on anyway: Scarlett Johansson. Yeah, I’m going there again. I’ve tolerated her in a couple of things, but it says a lot that for me her best performance to date has been a voice-only role in the wonderful “Her”. Cast here as the iconic Major she takes to the role of a cyber-enhanced human in full-on, stilted ‘I…am…a…ro…bot’ fashion like she’s performing a children’s pantomime or a presenter on bloody “Play School” or something. She’s supposed to be convincingly human, so it’s the most bizarre thing to watch an actual human (Johansson) play a synthetic human meant to be realistic, and play it so synthetically. I’m surprised she didn’t go the full Robbie and have her arms awkwardly flail about. I’m sorry, but the girl rarely convinces in any role for me. Either she’s awkward and stilted like in this film (or in any of her action roles where she’s a series of dopey ‘action hero’ poses put together) or I can see the work she’s doing too clearly (almost every other film). I’d like the film a lot more if Johansson were more subtle. She played an alien rather subtly in “Under the Skin”, and she used her natural voice for basically playing a computer user interface in “Her”, so it’s not like she’s incapable of it. She’s awful here, and if it’s a character choice, it was the wrong bloody one. Compare that to Michael Pitt (for some reason using his full name now, Michael Carmen Pitt) who also plays a similar role and yes sounds rather robotic too. However, that’s because he’s been given a Stephen Hawking-esque voice box deal, so that is indeed a character thing. No one would ever mistake Johansson’s Major for human the moment she opens her mouth, so it kind of spoils things. It’s a shame, because everything else works here and if Johansson’s performance had been up to snuff, the film would be even better than it already is.

A lot of people were up in arms about this film’s supposed white-washing and cultural appropriation in having a non-Asian play a character meant to be Asian. However, while I do have one issue with it that I’ll get to in a second, let me firstly just say that I didn’t particularly have a problem per se with a white person playing an Asian character. On “Stand Alone Complex” the character, whilst given a Japanese name, didn’t look remotely ‘Asian’, nor do most Anime/Manga characters if you ask me. And that non-Asian look in Manga and Anime seems to be a deliberate thing to me. Also, the film starts out with the Major having an anglicised name anyway, so for me the filmmakers took enough effort to work around it. Others will still take issue with the fact that they felt the need to do it at all, but I’ve seen much, much worse cases of this sort of thing. So what was the one issue I did take with it? The filmmakers have tried to make Johansson’s facial features look ‘Asian’, in much the same way the makers of “You Only Live Twice” gave Sean Connery a rather on-the-nose Asian ‘makeover’. It’s almost as unconvincing here as it was there, and since The Major wasn’t even born in Japan, why even bother? It’s pretty amusing/curious to note just how few Asian people there are in the film, set in a futuristic Hong Kong (though it’s interesting how many Japanese people are seen here in Hong Kong I guess).

As I said, the rest of the film works for me. There’s an interesting opener showing the creation process of the human/synthetic hybrids, that looks gorgeous too. This is such a pretty-looking film from beginning to end. The design of the futuristic cityscape is very in-keeping with what I know of “Ghost in the Shell”. It’s spectacular and the throbbing electronic music score by Clint Mansell (“Black Swan”) and Lorne Balfe (“Ironclad”, “Terminator: Genisys”) works, too. Meanwhile, Johansson might be a bust in the lead but everyone’s favourite scenery-chewing “Game of Thrones” wannabe pirate Pilou Asbaek is more than decent as The Major’s partner Batou (and eventually gets his iconic ‘eyes’). Juliette Binoche it has to be said, plays a character more interesting than the performance she gives. Iconic filmmaker/star ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano has been cast here merely to lend presence and authenticity to the piece, which he certainly does. He gets a couple of moments to show what a bad arse he is, but it’s a shame he doesn’t get more. It’s a small role, but Aussie actor Daniel Henshall gives one of his better post-“Snowtown” performances and his American accent sounded pretty perfect to me, too. The highly underrated and aforementioned Mr. Pitt gives an interesting performance, too. I do think it’s a bit of a shame that the talented Michael Wincott is given such short shrift here, he barely gets any time to create something of merit here. More unfortunate is that lead villain Peter Ferdinando is a bit bland and forgettable when Wincott could’ve easily slipped into the role and run off with the entire film.

A lot of people who aren’t so well-informed will likely call this film derivative. While yes this is technically a remake of the 1995 film and an adaptation of the original Manga that probably owes a bit to “Blade Runner”, “Ghost in the Shell” has been pilfered from for decades. So that’s why it may feel somewhat familiar and derivative. Although there are flaws in casting, this is not only gorgeous to look at, but quite interesting in terms of plot and character. A more accomplished lead actress and more effective villain might’ve made for an even stronger film. As is, it’s still a pleasant surprise and five times better than “Blade Runner” if you ask me. The Manga has been adapted by William Wheeler (“The Hoax”), Ehren Kruger (“Scream 3”, “The Brothers Grimm”, “Dracula 2000”), and Jamie Moss (the completely transparent “Street Kings”).

Rating: B-


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