Film in review: ‘Ghost in the Shell’

Wednesday, April 5th, 2017

Nathaniel Nelson / Winonan

“Ghost in the Shell” is the epitome of modern blockbuster filmmaking, and that’s not a compliment. Directed by Rupert Sanders, it’s a love letter to the visual excesses of the franchise machine, putting aesthetics before story and in turn spitting on its source material. It’s not wholly a bad film  — it’s a completely serviceable action film. But in comparison to the rest of the franchise, “Ghost in the Shell” is a massive disappointment. But hey, at least it’s pretty.

To sum up the “Ghost in the Shell” franchise, the series follows Major Motoko Kusanagi, a human soul (“ghost”) bonded to a fabricated body (“shell”) and her role in the cyber terrorism unit Section 9. Set in a cyberpunk future where Japan is the primary superpower and humans have a penchant for self-modification, the series deals with individual identity, the content of a human soul and the conflict between culture and technological advancement.

The original 1995 “Ghost in the Shell,” directed by Mamoru Oshii, is often hailed as one of the greatest sci-fi films. A masterpiece of sci-fi filmmaking and animation, “GitS” was the rare film that made broad, sweeping existential questions seem approachable and individualistic. Dealing with gender and sexual identity as well as a societal shift toward omnipresent technology, Oshii’s film was a watershed moment for anime and science fiction in general. It’s one of the finest pieces of pop art ever made, and required viewing for anyone into animation, science fiction or filmmaking in general. For me, it was one of the films that cemented my love of the medium.

This “Ghost in the Shell,” starring Scarlett Johansson as Major, is barely even a shadow of its contemporary. Instead of any of the questions on what it means to be human and the loss of individuality in a world filled with modification, it’s a glorified corporate revenge film. The story has more in common with the “Terminator” franchise than “GitS.” The original film’s antagonist was the Puppet Master, returns in this film with a new name “Kuze” and new motivations. The Puppet Master was a crucial aspect of the story, forcing Major to question her humanity and what she considers to be her identity. Here, the villain is nothing more than a Skynet-like CEO who wants to build the greatest weapon the world has ever seen. The only thing he does for Major’s development is gives her a force to fight against, and even that is shallow at best.

The casting of Scarlett Johansson as the Major was met with a large amount of backlash, called out for having whitewashed the historically Japanese character. Going into the film, I was fairly okay with the casting — after all, “GitS” has always been about personal identity, which is a universal idea. Yet, a revelation late into the film completely destroys that notion. They tried to explain the casting by showing that Major, now named Mira Killian, was once a Japanese woman named Motoko Kusanagi who was turned into a cyborg, and then had her memories replaced. It could’ve been a great plot point, commenting on white erasure and the meaning for racial identity to a cyborg. But instead, it is just another plot point that feels half-baked and problematic. Johansson herself is adequate in her role as Major, but she lacks the emotion or complexity of the character she’s playing. The rest of the cast is so-so, save for Takeshi “Beat” Kitano’s fantastic performance as Chief Daisuke Aramaki.

I have to give credit where credit is due. If there’s one thing the film does right, it’s absolutely the visuals. The production design is evocative and stylish, with some of the best mechanical designs this side of Syd Mead (“Blade Runner,” “Alien,” “Turn A Gundam”). Everything from the lighting to the costumes just breathes cyberpunk, which is honestly a massive accomplishment. Cyberpunk is rarely used, and even rarely used well. Production designer Jan Roelfs (“Gattaca”) and cinematographer Jess Hall (“Hot Fuzz”) are at their prime here, with every frame being just excruciatingly beautiful. Combined with Rupert Sanders’ exquisite framing and blocking, “Ghost in the Shell” is the closest thing to a live action anime cinema has ever seen.

And really, that’s what makes the film’s failure so frustrating. It gets everything right except for the most crucial aspect: the story. By trying to update and simplify the story for western audiences, or maybe make it more approachable, they lost what made the original revolutionary. This new “Ghost in the Shell” is, for lack of a better term, a ghost of its former self, albeit in a gorgeous and inventive shell. If you watched any of the seemingly endless parade of trailers and were intrigued, believe me — skip this film and go watch the original. You can’t improve perfection. 2.5/5

By Nathaniel Nelson

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