While waiting in line at the theater to get my ticket scanned, a young woman in front of me asked what I was seeing that night. “I’m here for Ghost in the Shell,” I answered. “Oh, is that a scary movie?” she asked. “No, it’s a sci-fi film based on a Japanese manga and anime,” I said as I instantly saw her face flush with apparent disinterest. Hoping to salvage a quickly withering conversation, I added, “It has Scarlett Johansson in it.” Her eyes lit up with sudden intensity as she exclaimed, “Wait! Isn’t that that racist movie that’s supposed to come out?” “Well there’s been some controversy but–” “Yeah, I hate that movie,” she declared, interrupting. “Well, um, what are you here to see?” I asked. “Boss Baby. It looks so cute!”
I can’t say that I was too surprised by her reaction. The media storm surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s casting in the film and its accusations of whitewashing (which, should be noted, have been debunked by the original anime auteur Mamoru Oshii) have definitely helped raise the public awareness of the property – for better or worse. Yet, before the internet outrage began, I was somewhat perplexed by how many people I knew that weren’t familiar with the anime series – especially given that it is often touted as a masterwork of the genre.
Growing up, I was admittedly never particularly invested in anime following a terrifying early encounter with Unico in the Island of Magic on the Disney Channel. A gentle tale about a courageous little unicorn, the commercials touted. Then this:
My younger brother, on the other hand, would go on to become a big fan of Japanese manga and anime – especially Dragon Ball. It seemed like every time I walked past the TV, this would be the image that would blaze up:
I swear that image must’ve been set on a loop designed solely to drive me insane. I once joked that if Dragon Ball were to ever cut its never-ending heroic battle cries and stills, the episodes would only last about 5 minutes. Needless to say, he was not amused. In later years, having become a fan of neo-noir science-fiction films such as Blade Runner (1982) and Dark City (1998), it was suggested that I should give the original Ghost in the Shell (1995) a shot. Despite my unfamiliarity, I had already heard of the series but had never given it a proper chance. Borrowing a friend’s copy, I became quite fascinated with its story, visual style, and mature elements. Almost overnight, my apprehension of anime dissipated.
That apprehension returned in a different form when I first heard that Hollywood was going to attempt a live-action iteration. Anime has not particularly had great success with Westernized live-action adaptations (oddly, the themes and styles inspired by anime have yielded more favorable outcomes such as in The Matrix or the aforementioned Dark City). 2017’s Ghost in the Shell deftly avoids the greater pitfalls of its predecessors providing a remarkably faithful and visually astonishing re-imagining of the acclaimed property.
Major Mira Killian (Johansson) is the first of her kind – a completely synthetic, cybernetic robot with a successful human brain transplant. Her mind and humanity intact, the Major becomes a living weapon with the superhuman power and strength of a robot but with the soul and determination of a human being (hence, the figurative “ghost” in the “shell”). With her right hand man Batou (Pilou Asbæk), she leads a task force to take down a dangerous new threat – a villain known as Kuze (Michael Pitt) whose mysterious past may hold far more unnerving answers than the Major may be prepared for.
The blur between artificial and organic life is the kind of topic that science fiction relishes. Can a human being retain their humanity if everything about them is artificial? Can their very essence, or soul, persist or get drowned out by a counterfeit form? These are the kinds of questions that 2017’s Ghost in the Shell not only asks but explores. In fact, for a film that’s advertised as a futuristic action flick to compete with a comic-book fixated audience, Ghost in the Shell instead focuses on the more fascinating roots of its story. The action here (though well crafted) is secondary, providing an unexpected breath of fresh air. Though it does falls prey to some overplayed tropes (many of which, in its defense, the original anime inspired), the film confidentially sets its own course and effectively utilizes many of the ideas it presents. On the other hand, that confidence may have its limits. I cannot honestly remember a film in recent memory that needed to display its title twice within the same opening credits! Did they think that we’d be too distracted by a semi-nude Scarlett Johansson to notice the title of the damn movie?
Setting aside the debate of her casting, Johansson excels in this film with an aim for substance and subtlety over what could have easily been a Black Widow reprise of her Marvel role. Her camaraderie with Pilou Asbæk is one of the highlights of the film, capably portraying a genuine sense of respect and playful friendship. A soul trapped in a machine striking up a (platonic) relationship with a man who has robotic eyes (the metaphorical window to the soul) is the ideal example of some of the clever ways the screenplay elaborates on its themes without hitting you over the head with them; notwithstanding, that’s not to say that it can’t be heavy-handed at times. One particular unforced revelation at the end of the second act is a pure monologue of exposition. The subject is intriguing but the delivery is blunt to a fault.
Ghost in the Shell‘s world is striking and well-rendered but not entirely unique in presentation with shades of Blade Runner and other such neo noir cinematic flourishes bleeding in – some as large as the gigantic holographic adverts that adorn its futuristic cityscape. Its overuse of slow-motion and some indecipherable edits can be frustrating but they are given quick reprieves with the novelty of the deeper mystery at play.
Overall, Ghost in the Shell is a flawed but respectable endeavor. Perhaps most disappointing is that it shies away from some of the more mature aspects of the original work, opting to play it safer and more narratively conclusive. This is a turn which many may not expect from a live-action adaptation of what is generally dismissed as a cartoon (despite the original’s R-rating). Controversy or not, the aim of any good science fiction movie is to stimulate conversation and while Ghost in the Shell may not be directly galvanizing the kind of debate it was aiming for, its questions are definitely worth exploring.