21st Aug2017

‘Ghost in the Shell’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Chin Han, Danusia Samal, Lasarus Ratuere, Yutaka Izumihara, Tawanda Manyimo, Anamaria Marinca | Written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger | Directed by Rupert Sanders


Based on the famous Kodansha Comics manga series of the same name, written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow, Ghost in the Shell follows Major (Scarlett Johansson), a special ops, one-of-a-kind human-cyborg hybrid, who believes she was rescued from near death. The first of her kind, Major is a human mind inside an artificial body designed to fight the war against cyber-crime. While investigating a dangerous criminal, Major makes a shocking discovery – the corporation that created her lied about her past life in order to control her. Unsure what to believe, Major will stop at nothing to unravel the mystery of her true identity and exact revenge against the corporation she was built to serve.

OK, let’s get this out of the way first. I haven’t read the manga on which this is [loosely] based, or seen little more than extended clips from the anime. So I, unlike many others who have reviewed Ghost in the Shell before me, am not as attached to the source material and in turn, probably not as offended by any straying from the original tale. Not that it would matter – even knowing what I do about the original, very much beloved, anime this iteration of the long-running franchise seems pretty loyal to its source – at least visually. And that’s the thing, visually Ghost in the Shell is a stunning sci-fi tale that looks like its stepped out of the same Blade Runner universe that clearly inspired Shirow back in the day but as a story? Well it really does feel like a very small chapter in a much larger tale… A story which I’d like to see reach its conclusion – though I doubt we’ll see more of Scarlett Johansson as Major given the reception afforded this film!

The plot is your usual “turn out to be working for the bad guy” story that we’ve seen a million times before, usually in movies involving assassins, hitmen, et al. Here though there’s the added layer of techno-thriller thrown into the mix and a much larger tale of industrial espionage, “evil” corporations, and power-hungry businessmen. Hey, even in the future they’re still dealing with the same old issues! What happened to the utopia of The Jetsons eh? I jest of course. But Ghost in the Shell‘s vision of the future is a bleak one – but it always was. There’s a real feel that for all the advances in technology, for all the enhancements that can be made to human life, there’s still something missing from human existence. It’s an issue that briefly touched on here – in particular when Major finds an unenhanced human and later when she begins to question her own existence… It’s a subject that could have been expanded on massively to give the film a greater depth and a real emotional core, but it seems everyone involved in the film were more interested in creating stunning visuals than telling a deep, meaningful sci-fi tale. Again, if we ever see sequels to Ghost in the Shell then *maybe* we’ll get to the emotional resonance that Major’s story needs.

Going back to the visuals, there’s no doubting that the filmmakers spent a LOT of time studying the source material and a lot of money on recreating them! I often articulate my disdain for excessive CGI in movies but here the use of CG imagery only adds to the fantastical story. After all, how else could you have recreated some of the anime’s most stunning moments? But you have to wonder: where do you draw the line between live-action, animation and CGI? The reliance on CG here to not only enhance but to create scenes, really does walk a fine line between movie and animation, blurring the lines much more than ever before.

But of course this ISN’T an animated movie, Ghost in the Shell has a cast. A cast that includes a fantastic central performance from Scarlett Johannson as Major. OK, maybe there should be some controversy over the “white-washing” of the character but you have to give it to Johannson, she really makes the most of the role: she’s badass when she needs to be and vulnerable when the film warrants it. Her performance is note-perfect for the needs of the film and the character. If I had any qualms with any of Ghost in the Shell‘s cast, it’s that one of the most intense performers EVER, ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, is criminally underused (at least in my opinion). Yes the character gets a decent amount of screen time, and is central to a lot of the films story, but Kitano never really gets to shine. Kitano’s Aramaki, along with Michael Pitt’s Kuze, are the standouts from the rest of the cast, yet both don’t get the strong, commanding scenes the characters, and for that matter actors, needed.

Not the mess that other reviews – and the poor box office returns – would suggest, Ghost in the Shell is a decent, if slight, futuristic thriller that ticks all the Blade Runner-esque boxes sci-fi fans want. Don’t listen to the naysayers and give this one a go for yourself. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Ghost in the Shell is out now on Digital, DVD, Blu-ray and 4K.


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