There will be a few spoilers here, dealing with the changes made in this adaptation.
Released digitally July 24th and hitting physical release August 7th, Ghost in the Shell is the American remake of the seminal 1995 anime; starring Scarlett Johansson as the Major, a cybernetically (see, Shell) enhanced police officer who strives to uncover the secrets of her lost past. Directed by Rupert Sanders (of Snow White and the Huntsman fame) and written by Jamie Moss (who possesses some smaller writing stints on X-Men First Class and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with his only large writing credit previous to Ghost in the Shell being the Netflix movie “Spectral”) the film boasts incredible art direction, and the promise of renewed interest in the franchise itself.
Does it deliver then? In short, not entirely. Though there is definite promise and praise to allocate, it pains me to say, I was left feeling a little cold after viewing, and it’s for this reason alone – Everything about this film was right, the director was right, the cast was right, the effects teams were right, even the soundtrack, which evokes a more contemporary take on the cyberpunk motif, was absolutely correct and necessary. The only element I could argue was a bit wonky from the offset was the writing (I’ll get to that later though). But in execution, it’s in the editing suite is where I feel like this film was hampered.
There are a few things that I can be incredibly positive about, the films setting. The evident work that has gone into this bubblegum Bladerunner is a joy to stare at. The city is masterfully rendered with both CG and Practical effects working together to create a very ‘lived in’ city, but one that’s also full of life . Its mix of Asian and American sensibilities really make it a memorable place, and somehow grounding it in reality. It’s a sight to behold and It really feels like a 1980’s anime metropolis come to life; Neon lights, animated billboards and holograms are juxtaposed with underbelly of the city, it’s all grungy, messy, and above all, classically cyberpunk stuff. Aesthetically matching something closer to Tetsuo: Iron Man, it’s here where the villain of the piece makes his nest. It’s in the clash of these two faces of the city, where much of the film revels, in the in-between, where the Major’s investigation takes place.
The soundtrack works in tandem with the lovingly crafted production to really sell the whole package. The electronic hum of the city is worked into the score to create a omniscient element to the city, and It really, in many ways, is the little red ribbon on top of the present.
Johansson, portrays the Major incredibly well, adding just enough nuance to her performance to convey that air of bubbling intensity under a general detachment from reality. It’s suitable enough for her story arc, and holds up against similar characters in Ghost in the Shell’s ilk, i.e. Deckard. Their stoicity is as much an element of this genre as a shootout is to a western. The rest of the cast deliver too, and for the most part, the casting in this movie was spot on (whitewashing criticisms aside, as they don’t really hold much weight against this film which features an multi ethnic cast all playing interesting and nuanced characters).
So why do I feel that this movie doesn’t entirely deliver? Here’s my problem then, why go to the expense of rendering this city. Building this world, making it convincing, spending countless hours on hair, makeup, set design, CGI, costume design, reference to source material, even framing your shots in a compelling way, if you’re going to make your cuts incredibly fast? Why am I not allowed to drink in the atmosphere that it is so evidently implied by the pre-existing fabrication work? The entire film moves at such a pace as to not let the viewer ‘breathe the film’. Fast cuts are synonymous with modern movie making, especially in the action genre, but for a property like Ghost in the Shell, something more ponderous and sombre is required. Editing should not be as infuriatingly bombastic as it is here, which wastes all of the good work put into the film.
Then there’s the writing aspect. In a film, based on a property that deals with pretty hefty themes, why was it felt that a love story was needed? It works against the melancholia present in the original anime and really goes a long way in making it seem overly generic, when the key selling point with a property such as this is surely how different it is to mainstream sci-fi?
I’m certainly in two minds about the overall package, whilst I have nothing but high praise – and I really do commend the wonderfully strong art direction here – as there’s plenty in this movie to like, perhaps even love. But some of that is marred by a lack of faith in the film goer’s patience, perhaps a lack of confidence in the power of a long shot to sell the emotion of a scene, or to reinforce the emptiness a character feels amidst the humdrum of city life. Ghost in the Shell was clearly made by people who care about the franchise, but I’m left feeling that for every perfect stride this movie makes, there are a few missteps along the way.
Joe Crouch is a crusty mollusc with delusions of grandeur and pretensions of artistic endeavour. His tea is served between two and four. He tweets, infrequently @Grost and Instagrams his food @Sourcrouch.