Back in 1989 a three volume manga series called Ghost in the Shell was released and told a story concerning a dystopian future where it becomes almost impossible to see where humanity ends and technology begins. This short manga series paved the way for an entire franchise to thrive and grow on. First, there was the mega hit anime film from 1995, which totally floored me the first time I watched it and only got better when I revisited it. There was also a very popular anime series titled Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, of which I have some experience with, but not as much as I’d like. There’s been a whole string of sequels and adaptations, and now Hollywood has thrown itself into the mix. Does it stand up with the original source material? Not quite, but it does work as engaging popcorn entertainment.
In the future, cybernetics have come so far that robotic upgrades to the human body has become something as normal as plastic surgery. The most extreme case of this blending of organic and artificial is Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), whose body is completely cybernetic but is controlled by a human brain. The Major, along with her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and boss Chief Aramaki (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano), defend Section 9 again all sorts of criminals, but specialize in cyber terrorism. After an attack on a business meeting run by the powerful Hanka Industries, the Major and the rest of the Section 9 bureau go on the hunt for a new, powerful cyber terrorist who appears to be targeting scientists that worked on a specific project for Hanka. As the clues begin to add up, the Major is forced to take a good, hard look at herself and begins to learn about her past and the lies that she’s been being fed to keep her complacent.
When I first saw this version of Ghost in the Shell, I left the theater super excited. I was ready to go back in and watch the movie again, but as time has gone on, that excitement has sort of waned. Don’t misunderstand me, though, I still really enjoyed this movie. The over the top hype has just died down a little bit. Let me get the best part of this movie out of the way first. This is a stunning film to look at. There’s so much going on in most of the shots of this movie that I found my eyes darting around the screen just to take in all of the little bits that make up the breathtaking whole. This is an achievement of what practical and CGI special effects are capable of. Along with the gorgeous city wide shots and the not so glamorous streets and alleys comes action sequences that are impossible to forget. Director Rupert Sanders and cinematographer Jess Hall have a very strong grip on how to make an action sequence seem to burst from the screen. The compositions, use of slow motion, and even the minor visual tricks make the action in Ghost in the Shell some of the best I’ve seen in quite some time.
So the special effects and action sequences are all way above average and stand out as something truly remarkable. Unfortunately, the same can’t quite be said about the story. The story isn’t bad, but it didn’t really grab me as hard as it should have. The plot about the cyber terrorist was engaging and his design is great, but there were parts that didn’t really do it for me. Part of the story is the Major investigating her past to find out what really happened to her. Those scenes don’t have the emotional or mysterious resonance as they probably should, because we already know something is amiss from the beginning just because of how certain characters are acting. I had a pretty good idea about what was going on, and it really didn’t break any new ground like the 1995 anime film did. Granted, the story in that film took a back seat to the grand philosophical discussions about technology and humanity, which made it clear that that’s what that movie was about. This one has a story that takes a back seat to the action, but it also doesn’t have the thematic strength of the 1995 film either.
Any fan of the Ghost in the Shell franchise will also have a good time picking out easter eggs sprinkled throughout the film, but they will also appreciate some scenes that have been meticulously recreated for this live action blockbuster. This isn’t really an objective part of my review, but it was kind of thrilling seeing some of the iconic moments from the franchise brought to life with a super large budget. It also helped that the actors were largely committed to their roles. Johansson does a great just as the Major, and does a great job at bringing a human side to the character while also feeling mechanical. She has truly established herself as an action star for this generation. Another stand out is “Beat” Takeshi Kitano as Chief Aramaki, but that’s really no surprise. It’s always a joy to see Kitano in anything.
Ghost in the Shell isn’t going to be the next Blade Runner or Matrix movie, but for me to sit here and tell you that it doesn’t provide a really entertaining couple of hours would be a down right lie. The story could have been beefed up to be actually mysterious and it could have raised more questions in the way the 1995 film did. In terms of its action and its role as being a big budget extravaganza, it succeeds more than it fails. I can see how people new to the franchise may be a little confused or uninterested in parts of it, but as a fan of the original anime film and what I’ve seen of Stand Alone Complex, I thought this was a damn good adaptation.
Final Grade: B+