Before starting the review proper, I have to say that I have seen the original anime version of Ghost in the Shell, but it was in 1995 when it was first released. I remember thinking at the time that the movie was “pretty good” but didn’t really have any large effect on me past that, and I haven’t seen it since. My memories of the film now pretty much cap out at it was Japanese, it was animated, it was pretty good, and there was a tank near the end. So, this review will not be a comparison to the original in any way and will just take this remake at its own merits.
Secondly, the controversy surrounding the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead, Major, in Ghost in the Shell is something I am largely aware of. In determining how and if I should address that controversy in the film I found that I have so much to say about it that it’s worth an article on its own. Look for that in this blog shortly, but for now I will just say I am aware of it, and I will speak about it eventually, but not in this review.
Ghost in the Shell begins by introducing us to Major, a cyborg with a fully robotic body and the brain, but only the brain, of a human being. We see her as she is initially being created, the doctors inserting the human brain into the robotic body which looks exactly like Scarlett Johannson, and as she blinks her eyes to signify that she is awake and aware, the doctors explain to her what she is. In this explanation they make absolutely sure to point out that the robotic body is a shell and that her mind is a ghost. So, she’s a ghost… in a shell. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think most of the movie going audience will understand the film’s title without that explanation, but the movie spells it out for us just in case, and not just that one time but several times throughout the course of the film.
Unfortunately, the film’s assumption that its audience is filled with idiots does not end there. Nearly every move every character makes is accompanied with an explanation of exactly what they are doing and why verbatim as if we couldn’t possibly understand any of the film’s subtext without explaining it all for us. This all makes for an aggravating and distracting experience where the dialogue in Ghost in the Shell is concerned, making me long for a film in which the characters didn’t speak at all and I could just enjoy the visuals on display.
Those visuals, I did enjoy immensely. The special effects and the creativity behind them in combination with the mood and setting they create are as fantastic as the dialogue is lousy. Every scene we’re shown in this dystopian cybernetic future gives us a fully fleshed out, well conceived universe where overpopulation and pollution are rampant, and where the rich and powerful use holographic advertisements in every single square inch of skyline and sidewalk in an attempt to fleece a desperate populace giving us a vision at once incredibly colorful and bleak, Many of you reading this have probably seen the trailer in which Major runs along the walls of a room filled with geishas and men in suits firing two pistols as she defies gravity. As spectacular as this scene is, I wouldn’t rank it among even the top few most visually astonishing scenes in the film. The special effects team, art direction team, and cinematographers all deserve serious kudos for their work here.
The performances are also well done especially considering the script they were given to work with. Scarlett Johannson is actually the weak link among the actors, as she doesn’t successfully convey the depths of confusion and anxiety that are so important to the ultimate development of Major’s character. She plays the entire thing from start to finish as an aloof bad ass with an occasional quizzical attitude when the tragedies inherent in her history are revealed. Pilou Asbaek as Major’s right hand man and possible love interest Batou, though, is excellent. He comes across as what Major should be: badass, funny, vulnerable, and introspective all at once. “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, one of Japan’s most popular actors, also gives a fantastic performance as Major’s boss Aramaki. Even though he has not a single line in English he still portrays a character that is at once boss and father figure, the leader who cares perhaps too much for those he leads, without ever turning it into a caricature and surprises us more than once throughout the film with his acting choices which very much break from the way a character of this nature would normally be played.
Final recommendation: Ghost in the Shell has serious script problems. The dialogue is the worst kind of spoon fed tripe and the plot could be so much more thematically but ultimately ignores what could the more profound elements of itself and devolves into a video game complete with final boss monster (that’s kind of unfair to video games as their plots are getting better and better as time goes on – this is a 1995 video game). However, it is a feast visually with a fully fleshed out world, beautiful camera work, and awe inspiring action. The sound, including the music, aside from the spoken words are also excellent, and the acting is pretty darn good. So, while the immensely flawed story and words make this a hard one for me to recommend overall, if you are the type who think nuance is overrated and you just want to see something cool, then this will do the trick. If you need character development, subtlety, and rich themes to explore, though, Ghost in the Shell is one to skip.