Review: Ghost in the Shell

Sometimes the highest compliment you can pay a movie that’s based off of legendary source material is to say that it makes a great trailer for the original work. That was my sentiment after watching Zack Snyder’s version of The Watchmen, which made me go back and read the graphic novel again. The same sense of tribute applies when seeing Rupert Sanders’ live-action Ghost in the Shell. It’s bold, bright, and stunning to behold, milking every last cent of their budget for visible oomph on the screen. It doesn’t quite replace the original anime, which few sci-fi or animated movies since have, but it does make for a thrilling ride in their future city on the edge of a cybernetic revolution.

After a deadly harbour incident, Major (Scarlett Johansson) has her living brain transferred to a new, fully-enhanced cybernetic body. Her duties with Section 9 of the police force begin promptly after, at the behest of The Hanka Corporation, who have provided the body and also facilitate the alleged first ever successful brain transfer. It seems a little quick to go straight from brain transfer to active service in an elite unit, and I do wish they had let her steep in that development phase a little longer. Even five to ten years spent growing in the assignment would add some credibility to her role as the leader of a notoriously rogue police outfit—and to her combat skills, which shouldn’t come innately with the body, but be the result of a training regimen and field experience.

If you haven’t guessed yet from the trailers, there is some question as to where Major really comes from. It’s not a deep enigma, though there is some satisfaction—more for Major than the audience—derived from ultimately cracking that mystery apart. Solving the problem of Major’s origin also adds some humanity to a notoriously cold character.

In the anime, Motoko, Batou, and the perpetually stone-faced Aramaki are all portrayed as devoid of any real human emotions. Major spends far more time questioning the metaphysical state of her existence, which is contained in a hidden structure called a ghost (or soul). Here, though, we see Major as slightly vulnerable—less sure that she can tackle anything and everything once her backstory begins to unravel. The only real glimpse we’ve previously been given of Batou’s humanity is an obsession with his pet basset hound. But now Batou laughs and cockily throws his weight around. He has sass and punch, which will offend some longtime fans, but which I took as a necessary change for a film adaptation. And though Aramaki, their boss, doesn’t evolve very far by the end, we do get a sense that he’s more than a bureaucrat. You can’t cast someone like “Beat” Takeshi Kitano and not give him a moment to flash his deadly reflexes.

Instantly, off an initial scene where Major storms what appears to be a yakuza attack in a high rise, the narrative of the movie throws us into the pursuit of an infamous hacker. In the anime, this was the Puppet Master, an A.I. seeking rights and asylum. In the live-action rendition we’re given glimpses of a similar figure named Kuze, who analogizes the puppet master role by being shown as connected to dozens of wires like marionette strings, each pulsing red with data.

Kuze is, unfortunately, never as ambiguous or ambitious as the Puppet Master. We learn a bit about his motivations through a few scenes pulled (yet slightly altered) directly from the anime, but the ultimate reveal comes about two-thirds of the way in, causing Major to second-guess the nature of her relationship with her gifted body, not to mention her murky past. Kuze might be one of my favourite characters of the film. He has a stuttering, electronic speech pattern, and though sometimes he’s not the strongest example of the movie’s superb visual effects, his design and locomotion balance him out.

It’s worth noting another important element of the film: setting. A great deal of time in the animated original is spent on fleshing out the scale and intricacies of the city—the weird sense of loneliness in such a populous place. In this case, we get a mix of that neon-hazed future (sometimes with a few too many panning shots of hologram-wrapped buildings), and we’re also given a small sample of the derelict, eroding side of their metropolis. Perhaps more time could have been spent on its alleyways and marketplaces, though that might have come at the expense of an already rushed plot. On this I can acknowledge the balancing act they had to maintain in order to keep visual fidelity high, appease fans of the anime, and also guide newcomers through.

Ultimately, the movie makes one small error when it tries to incorporate elements of the anime’s sequel: Innocence, and loses some focus on what made the original storyline work. We see characters and plot points that don’t completely jive, and are especially jarring if you’re familiar with the two animated movies–which carry vastly different tones and antagonists. We also don’t get enough information about the other members of Section 9, like fan-favourite Togusa, who have always played a vital role in the team.

All of that said, I strongly enjoyed this movie, but it might not be for you—be it because of the white-washing controversy, or disbelief with some of the plot. It’s hard for me to fairly judge this one because I have an overwhelming fondness for where it comes from, and they did just enough to appease my fears of this being another Hollywood botch-job. I’d even be fine with a sequel.

So, the opinion most people often flip to without fully reading a review is the score at the end. My rating is a simple yes or no question: Do I want to own a functioning prop replica of Batou’s low, wedge-shaped, 80’s inspired sports car? Yes, I absolutely do, especially if it has a matching baby blue interior. I’m not a huge car guy, but that vehicle could convert me. Also, I’ll probably try to catch this movie again, though not in 3D.

Featured image credit: io9 – Gizmodo

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