When I first watched Ghost in the Shell, I left the cinema with a weird feeling. I felt conflicted about many things, but exactly what they were I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It wasn’t until my second viewing last night that it hit me – Ghost in the Shell is not a good movie.
• Director: Rupert Sanders
• Exhibition: 2D
• Rating: 12A
• Run Time: 106 minutes
In a way I almost feel bad for it. Ever since the announcement of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role Ghost in the Shell has been the focus of a huge whitewashing debate in the west, with many people boycotting the movie for that reason alone. Which is just stupid when there are plenty of other, more valid reasons to not see the movie.
Taking place in a future where human beings are augmenting themselves with cybernetic implants, a young woman named Mira Killian, played by Scarlett Johansson, wakes up to find her brain has been transplanted into a completely robotic body, or shell, after she suffers a near fatal terrorist attack, making her the first of her kind. A robot with a human soul. Fast forward a year, Mira, now ranked Major in the anti-terrorist unit Section 9, is hunting a cyber-terrorist known as Kuze, played by Michael Pitt, who is targeting and killing researches working for Hanka Robotics, the organisation that created her.
As her investigation brings her closer to Kuze, Major finds herself struggling with her identity. With no memories of her former life, she begins to question who she is and where she comes from thanks to ‘glitches’ she is experiencing in the form of digital hallucinations that may hold the key to her true identity.
There was the opportunity for an interesting and captivating story here, but instead they decided to go with the ‘protagonist has amnesia’ angle, taking what could have, and indeed should have been a thought provoking sci-fi thriller on par with movies like Blade Runner, and instead making it as vanilla as its lead star.
One example of a missed opportunity comes with the underlying theme of consent. Throughout the movie whenever Major is going to undergo some sort of invasive procedure, whether it be memories erased or having her conscience inserted into a another machine, she has to give her verbal consent. This could have developed into a commentary on how much control we have over our own privacy in the digital age, but was instead reduced to a painfully cheesy one-liner at the end of the movie that made me cringe so hard I got a headache.
There are several plot points like this that feel like they’re going somewhere thought provoking, only to be reined in and dumbed down later on or else completely ignored, as if the writers were scared to go deep with ideas lest audiences struggle to understand them.
Simply put, the writing in Ghost in the Shell is not good. Not only is the story bland and cliché, the dialogue too is drab, awkward and full of unnecessary exposition. The movie treats the viewers like they’re idiots, constantly repeating itself just in case we didn’t understand the explanation the first seven times around, and it gets old quickly. The worst example of this is the repeated explanation of the movie’s title via character conversations. The explanation that a robot body is a shell and a soul is a ghost occurs so frequently that I’m convinced the writers were trying to win the world record for ‘how many times we can fit the name of the movie into the actual movie’.
Then there’s the elephant in the room. The giant elephant that someone decided to paint white, and sadly the movies explanation of said elephant is handled so badly that it’s impossible not to mention here. I can’t go into the details, as much as I want to, because of spoilers, but oh boy, a lot of people (myself included) are going to be annoyed at this. The worst part of it is the movie acts like it handled this issue really well, like when a toddler smears shit on a freshly painted wall, and looks at its parents with a huge smile on its face as if to say “look guys, I helped!” It really is a kick in the teeth for anyone who genuinely cares about the issue. But I digress.
Another area where Ghost in the Shell falls down is the performance of its cast. Scarlett Johansson is so wooden you’d be forgiven for thinking she was a marionette, not a robot super-agent, and everyone else just looks confused or bored, and her ‘walk with purpose’ is something to behold. Also I’m pretty sure Takeshi Kitano, who plays Section 9 Chief Daiskue Aramaki and is one of only two Japanese characters in a movie set in Japan, was actually asleep for half of his scenes.
Then there’s Peter Ferdinando as Cutter, the head of Hanka Robotics, and the most two dimensional and cliché villain to grace our screens in recent history. If he had a cape and curly moustache I wouldn’t have given it a second glance. Luckily, he only appears in about three scenes in the entire movie. It may have been more, but he’s so ultimately forgettable it’s hard to be sure. That’s not to say all performances are bad. Michael Pitt is absolutely fantastic as Kuze. He’s mysterious and dangerous, yet when his story is finally revealed it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for, and even route for him. He even manages to make the movie’s terrible dialogue sound moving, and even captivating. Kuze’s design is great too, looking like a patchwork of spare robot parts haphazardly connected together into a humanoid shape, and the distortion on his voice adds an extra layer, and really helps to sell his anguish.
Despite all of its bad points, Ghost in the Shell does manage to do some things spectacularly well. It is without a doubt one of the best-looking movies I’ve ever seen, and the design of the world is absolutely breath taking. Huge neon skyscrapers and building sized holograms dominate the cityscape, while the streets underneath, are full of life and ‘real’ people making the world feel truly alive. The cinematography is simply beautiful, and when it’s lovingly and accurately recreating set pieces from the animated movie it is an absolute pleasure to behold.
My issue with this, however, is the fact that these set pieces are joined together with a story vastly different to that of the anime, so the context is lost. It makes them feel unnecessary, and gives the movie a disjointed feeling because of it. It would have been better if they’d either gone for a full adaptation or something completely original instead of the confused narrative we ended up with.
I have to give a brief mention of the score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe too. It is absolutely mesmerising, and goes a long way to help bring the world to life. There’s a good movie in here somewhere, but sadly it seems that the main focus on director Rupert Sanders was the visuals instead of story.
Being an adaptation of an obscure anime and manga series from the 90’s (and yes, it was obscure, and in years since has only descended further into obscurity) Ghost in the Shell was always going to be a difficult story to adapt for mainstream audiences. With a story that focused so heavily on philosophy and the future of the human condition Hollywood did what Hollywood does and dumbed it down, stripping away most of the things that make Ghost in the Shell great.
It’s not a bad movie per se, it’s just not a particularly good one. It’s awash with missed opportunities and questionable decisions that leave it feeling hollow, and, ironically, lacking an identity of its own.