Ghost in the Shell (2017) A Review

The live action version of Ghost in the Shell was a movie I was critical of the moment I read the proposed casting. Now this isn’t because I subscribe to the notion of “whitewashing” to the point that it becomes a major issue to me (though I think I agree that its a problem, but that’s a post on its own), but rather because the casting of Scarlett Johansson indicated to me that the producers of the film weren’t taking its lineage seriously enough.

My thought processes were something like this…

If they can’t even adhere to an actor the sufficiently portrays what we’d expect from a character called Major Motoko Kusanagi then what chance to the deeper aspects of the manga have?

…and I’ve steadfastly stuck to this thought throughout the making of the film right up to the point I hit “play” on my Blu-ray player.

Now this isn’t to say I didn’t want to like the film, I really truly did because I WANT to like films, I want to spend a few hours enjoying them and the absolute last thing I want to do is waste those hours making myself annoyed or even angry by what I see.

As I said to a friend I discussed this with, I want to keep my anticipation for the film reasonable, to give myself a greater chance of liking it when I saw it.

This is exactly what I like to do.

So anyway… I hit “play”.

An hour and three quarters later as the credits rolled I wouldn’t have been able to answer you if you asked me my opinion on what I’d just watched. I’d have been able to say that I enjoyed the movie, but I’d have also added that this enjoyment had caveats. If you pressed me on these caveats however I’d have wrinkled my brow while saying I needed time to think on them.

My reaction to the film was actually quite complex. Even aspects of the film I disliked had elements that I applaud the film makers for, while there were things I liked that I would also say didn’t quite hit the mark.

Though I have to stress that this didn’t mean I didn’t like the film, in fact it doesn’t mean I don’t like it quite a lot.

Like I said, my reactions were complex.

This in itself suggests there’s more going on in the film that a lot of reviewers give it credit for.

To begin with we have the Major as played by Scarlett Johansson and personally I thought her performance ranged from adequate to pretty good; at times bordering on very good. Perhaps she was a little too subtle on the whole and the character needed to be played broader and with more force, but Johansson didn’t do a bad job with the Major, especially in the more sensitive scenes.

The film is designed as a kind of prequel to the world of Ghost in the Shell that we’ve come to know and love and this leaves the films makers with a lot of room to make adjustments. SO I suppose it could be said that here we see a Major before she grow into her role; before she acquires the confidence to be the woman she’ll eventually be.

Of course it could also be said that Johansson’s take on the character is just wrong; end of story and whichever of these explanations you prefer will really depend on how forgiving you are concerning the movie.

A lot of your enjoyment concerning this film will depend on your generosity in this respect, but I think this would have been the case regardless of who they chose for the role; Major Motoko Kusanagi has pretty big boots to fill, as does the world around her.

All things being equal liked the Major in this movie about as much as I liked the anime version from 1995, neither version entirely encapsulates the Major from the manga and both does a better job in different ways, and it could be said that this is perhaps true of the films themselves in a wider sense.

But that’s certainly a much longer discussion, and one for another time.

To get back to the live action Ghost in the Shell, the Major works better than I’d imagined and any of the relatively minor complaints I’d have had concerning her would not be connected to Johansson’s performance but rather in the way she was written.

Now would an Asian actress have been a better choice?

Personally I think yes, depending on the actress of course. This wouldn’t be necessarily to be more in line with the manga, the manga character isn’t particularly Asian in appearance she’s a synthetic human after all, nor would it be to avoid “whitewashing” (though it would have this affect and make the films appeal among certain circles greater, which wouldn’t be a bad thing).

No, my reasoning is that the Major IS Japanese, regardless of her appearance. She is steeped in the customs and mannerisms of a Japanese woman and as her culture is an important aspect of the Ghost in the Shell manga this would have to have a positive impact on the film as a whole.

Which is actually my original argument concerning Johansson’s involvement back when I first learned of her casting.

Watching the movie has not changed my opinion on this at all.

What I had not anticipated concerning this movie was just how entertaining the resulting film would be. No, it didn’t include any aspects of the manga to any significant degree, but then I never really thought the 1995 animation did either, so I don’t think that’s as much of an issue as I thought it might be.

Don’t get me wrong, it would have been far better if it had but condensing Masamune Shirow’s almost neurotic need to impart information into a two hour film would be a near impossible task for anyone, so we have to be realistic here.

So instead of even trying to do this the live action movie decided to make a prequel of sorts, something that bears a resemblance to a genesis movie from the superhero franchises we have seen of late.

And this works relatively well, its true that there’s a lot that doesn’t work, its true that there’s an awful lot I’d have done differently, but it does create a coherent story that entertains the viewer, and for an adaptation of something as densely written as Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell this is something to be pleased about, even if it’s only a very loose adaptation.

Within this positive there is a negative though, as I said this films like that; every silver lining has a cloud.

So even though I think the story is well told, its a story we have seen too many times before and so in the movies second half we begin to trudge down recognizable streets to a predictably tied-up-in-a-bow ending.

These predictable streets are nicely rendered, the action scenes are cool and the overall presentation is entertaining… but…

I think you get the idea.

I could go on, there are so many elements of this movie that are equal parts great and irritating, but I enjoyed the movie enough that I don’t want to sully it too much with my own nit-picking; even if I think it might be valid nit-picking.

I could also comment on the way the film deals with identity and humanity

I have more than a little sympathy for the script writers in taking on such a task. Translating such a phenomenal manga both from one medium to another as well as into a form that will translate between cultures is something not for the faint of heart. Perhaps they would have fared batter if they would have taken a lesson from the manga and not connect the Majors own internal problems with the mission she was on as directly as they did. Perhaps, and this I believe strongly, they would have produced something better by burying themselves deeper into the culture of Japan and allowing more of the manga’s nuances to permeate their ideas before they got to the screen.

I do think that the resulting film is a good one, flawed certainly, but still good enough to be a worthy addition to the Ghost in the Shell franchise. It’s not the best the manga has to offer by a long shot… There’s a far better film to be gotten out of that work… But all things considered..?

I’m glad they made it and I’m glad I watched it.

There’s a lot to talk about regarding this film, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ll revisit it, and my thoughts on it again in the future; and this in itself is very unusual for what could have been a stock action film.

It may not be much to say, but it’s more than I had expected.

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