Ghost in the Shell and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Rupert Sanders
Honestly? I’ve been looking forward to this movie for months! Now that’s not to say I thought it would be GOOD as the trailers didn’t seem to have much going for them, but there’s always hope that a property this primed for a big budgeted thrust into the mainstream will bring something interesting to the cinematic landscape, and even if that fails it will at least create a renewed interest in the original franchise and possibly some interest in making more movies like it. I’m not the only one hoping for another live Action Dragon Ball, right? As bad as Evolution is, it’s at least ENTERTAININGLY horrible! So does this manage to subvert expectations and ACTUALLY be a solid entry in the Ghost in the Shell franchise, or was this project doomed from the start? Let’s find out!!
In the near future where this movie takes place, we’ve successfully been able to recreate Deus Ex as the human population is becoming increasingly more mechanized through robotic augmentations and cybernetic implants. However, now that every Average Joe can have a bazooka grafted onto their arm, Future Tokyo (at least I think that’s where this is set) has created a new Government Security Force known simply as Section 9 which deals with terrorist threats raised by Bionic Bad Guys! One such Bad Guy is Kuze (Michael Pitt) who’s been offing several robotic scientists who work for the Hanka Robotics corporations, and it’s up to The Major (Scarlett Johansson) along with her team of Section 9 bad asses to stop him! At least that seems to be the idea, but as the investigation goes on, The Major starts to question if she’s been told everything or if secrets are being kept from her. You see, she’s basically just a brain in a metal casing which means she’s the most augmented-est person in the whole world, but that might not be ENTIRELY the truth. Can The Major uncover the truth behind these mysterious killings and the motivations of the terrorist behind them? What will she find once she digs a bit deeper into her past!? Most importantly… how did they manage to make this feel so uninspired!?
This movie is… odd. Now if you want a simple yay or nay when it comes to the quality and watchability of it, then it’s firmly on the BAD side of that question as this movie is DEEPLY flawed on pretty much every level; not just from the obvious whitewashing, but in terms of scripting, framing, production, and editing as well. It’s a film with a terrible case of identity crisis as what it ends up picking and choosing from the original film (and a bit from Stand Alone Complex) are in complete opposition to what the movie is trying to accomplish which is wildly different from the original film. And the thing is, something like this WOULD end up appealing to me quite a bit as I tend to like overly ambitious genre films even if the end product ends up being an ungodly mess (*cough* Sucker Punch *cough*) or if the end result is NOT and everything incorrectly thinks that it is (*cough* Jupiter Ascending *cough*). For this movie though, I can’t seem to find a reason to give it that kind of leeway despite how it does hit on a lot of notes that I look for in films like it. Some of it is the whitewashing which is EXTREMELY noticeable and awkwardly handled, but at the end of the day, I’ve just seen this kind of story done so much better and with much less baggage from the word go.
Since we’re back in Remake Mode already, let’s look at this the same way we did Beauty and the Beast. How does it stack up to what it’s a remake of, and what does it do differently to distinguish itself from the original? Now this movie isn’t a shot for shot remake like Beauty and the Beast was which makes things a bit less clear cut, but we’ll start with how this movie tries to mimic the animated one from 1995 with a splash of Stand Alone Complex for good measure. To throw my bona fides on the table, I have seen the original film, and while I had seen bits and pieces of Stand Alone Complex when it was on Adult Swim (the one episode that stood out for me was naturally the one where they recreated the ending of Full Metal Jacket), I only watched the first episode recently as a way to refresh myself on the series. Now a lot of my problems with how THIS Ghost in the Shell ties itself to the others are mostly due to how they work in this new narrative, but on a basic film making level (ignoring the context outside of individually recreated scenes), there’s no contest. These live action recreated scenes are woefully disappointing when compared to their counterparts in the original film which is a shame considering how much money they sunk into the damn thing that they couldn’t even get THAT right. In particular, the action set piece with the garbage men has been dumbed down, shortened, and is devoid of any of the impact that it had in the original film. What turned out to be a well-paced and beautifully animated sequence in that one is utterly neutered so they can speed things along and just check it off the list of things they NEED To do in order for this to be a Ghost in the Shell Movie. We get stuff like that throughout the movie whether it’s the opening action scene which is far less interesting this time around, the boat scene which comes in WAY too late and doesn’t have nearly as good dialogue; it all feels like an obligation rather than a natural part of THIS story that they wish to tell. Now it’s not like I’m the biggest fan of that original movie, and I can point out a few places where they do improve off of the original. In particular, there’s a part in the big battle at the end of the animated movie that made absolutely no sense to me, and while they still do it in here it’s got at least the TINIEST bit of justification that I was somewhat appreciative of. Unfortunately, these VERY minor improvements are so few and far between that even someone who isn’t enamored with original can still look at this and see the lack of tact involved with trying to cram these moments in here.
Now that one example I gave above of where the movie IMPROVES on the original in a small way is a nice transition to how this movie tries to separate itself from the source material. The reason that one moment works better here is because the Major has a tangible motivation to do so, which works because the big difference here is that the story is entirely focused on her and what all the pseudo-science means for her specifically rather than the larger scope of ideas that the original film tried to evoke. In fact, this shift in focus makes the movie less of a remake of Ghost in the Shell than it is a remake of RoboCop; down to there being an EVIL corporation that made them and did so through some shady means. Now if you wanted to do a big budgeted Hollywood remake of the original movie, this is probably the direction you’d want to take it in and honestly is something that interests me more than the original film. Hell, that was pretty much the point of Stand Alone Complex, right? Maybe not so much the UNCOVERING THE TRUTH ABOUT WHO I AM story (at least from what I can remember), but so much of that was about comradery, teamwork, and character moments; something that was somewhat lacking in the original film. The problem is… god damn did they need a better script. There’s no way around it; the story and overall pacing, from top to bottom, is a mess. Now as I said, I don’t have a full working knowledge of the Ghost in the Shell catalog, so I couldn’t tell you if any of the stuff in this movie regarding The Major’s origins and the villain relate in any way to Stand Alone Complex, Second Gig, Arise, or whatever else I’m missing. If this specific story IS from one of those however, either we have a SHIT adaptation or that story wasn’t all that good to begin with. Like I said, it’s very derivative of RoboCop, but it fails to work on any of the levels that Paul Verhoeven’s satirical masterpiece does and it instead comes off as WAY too serious for what is ultimately a ridiculous and shallow story. The EVIL corporation that makes most of these robots and cybernetic enhancements is cartoonish in how far it will go to cover up their misdeeds, but its treated with straight faced sincerity like we haven’t seen this EXACT type of bad guy a million times before. The bad guy in this (not the corporation but the killer on the loose) is ACTUALLY pretty interesting in terms of narrative and their design (I LOVE the voice modulation that they’re given), but the story doesn’t know what to do with them once the BIG SECRET is revealed. I won’t spoil it, but at about the half way point, it’s like the movie EXPECTS us to forget everything THE FREAKING BAD GUY has done up to this point just so we can move the plot along and transition to the final act of the film.
Probably the worst of it is the final reveal of where The Major came from which conveniently leads us right into the White Washing issue that’s been plaguing this film since it was announced. The film TRIES (I think) to give a sort of justification for why The Major was created to be white in this… but you kind of have to connect the dots yourself and it’s ultimately in service of a resolution that doesn’t even come close to justifying it, nor does the final resolution for her true identity make the TINIEST bit of sense… unless of course this was a dark satire like RoboCop which we’ve already established that this ISN’T. Now look, I’m ECSTATIC that they managed to get BEAT MOTHER FUCKING TAKESHI to be in this, and most of the cast outside of our leads are people of color and mostly Asian. That said, it’s the same problem as Doctor Strange; namely that DESPITE trying to fill out its cast with as much diversity as possible, it’s still a story framed around some VERY white people who didn’t need to be white in this movie. Let’s just assume that there’s NO WAY they could have hired Jamie Chung, Maggie Q, Bingbing Fan, Tao Okamoto, Tian Jing, or even JeeJa Yanin among many MANY other Asian actresses to play The Major. Is there any reason Batou (played by Pilou Asbæk) had to be white? What about the main doctor (Juliette Binoche) who built The Major? The bad guy Kuze? HOW ABOUT THE HEAD OF A JAPANESE ROBOTICS COMPANY (Peter Ferdinando)!? THAT guy couldn’t be Japanese!? Look, there are plenty of things that went wrong in this movie, but something like this would have been an easy fix and should have been caught way back when this was still being developed. Just add it to the pile along with all the other inexplicable mistakes and oversights that plague every aspect of this. I’m not even sure WHAT it’s trying to even say outside of the plot itself. Whatever message about humanity being edged out as technology advances or if life can be so easily defined in the age of Artificial Intelligence gets only the barest of lip service when what this ultimately tries to be is a mediocre cop movie that had WAY too much money thrown at it.
Now if we just want to talk about the nuts and bolts of the production, it’s a total crapshoot like everything else in here. The effects look fine for the most part, but aren’t rained in with any real sense of discipline or focus. Almost every frame of this damn thing is cluttered with CGI garbage in an attempt to flesh out the world, but it all amounts to nothing. The holograms are omnipresent throughout the damn thing, yet they don’t MEAN anything. I mean, I GUESS they’re supposed to be advertisements, but I couldn’t tell you what any of them were actually selling! Costumes and sets as well look pretty bad throughout, and there’s a noticeable lack of scope to anything that we see on screen. Everything just feels too damn contained, including the climax which looks like it would fit in a high school gymnasium, and it never feels like we’re ACTUALLY a part of this bigger world. Some of the action is fine and I guess they did a decent job and Scarlett Johansson’s inviso-suit thingy, but there’s a real inconsistency with the cinematography and visual designs.
By the time the credits rolled on this damn thing, I just wasn’t sure what to think. There’s a part of me that REALLY wants to like it the same way I do Jupiter Ascending, but there’s just not enough fun to be had here to justify all the odd and downright amateurish decisions that were made. Add on top of that how much backlash it’s already gotten for its poor casting choices and the fact that we’ve got plenty of other options when it comes to this franchise, and we’re stuck with less a misunderstood oddity than an overproduced disappointment that’s not really worth the effort. Sure, it might be worth checking out at some point, if for nothing else than to see how a property like this can be morphed and changed by going through the Hollywood system, but you’re better off spending your money getting that Stand Alone Complex blu ray set.