TL;DR
  • Looks good – CGI is impressive, action scenes are slick and exciting
  • But no heart and little engagement with characters or story
  • Scarlett Johansson strong as Major, but can’t help feeling this part was made for an up-and-coming Asian actress

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Based on the original manga by Masamune Shirow in 1989, for some people this iteration of Ghost in the Shell was always going to be in competition against the previous incarnation – 1995’s version of Ghost in the Shell by Marmoru Oshii. For others, such as myself, we went in blind, knowing very little about this franchise other than it had quite a cult fan-following and that there was a little internet-accelerated outrage caused by the casting of Scarlett Johansson as opposed to a Japanese actress (an issue I can’t escape and will address later in this review).

Largely my most basic expectations were met, but sadly nothing more. I went into the screen preparing myself for a visual feast, full of exciting action and state-of-the-art CGI to delve the audience into a beautiful dystopian world. Presumably saved from an accident, the central character of Major is the first of her kind – a human brain inside a robotic, humanoid body. A cyber-enhanced super-soldier (like a futuristic, sci-fi Captain America) she is thrown into a mystery, hunting down a supposed terrorist out to destroy Hannka Robotics, the company that made her. Yet after each twist and turn the mystery becomes more personal as she struggles with her own identity and unknown past.

As with many expensive blockbusters, what attracts most viewers is the premise and the visuals of the film. This is what I expected and this is what I got; sadly that was all I got. On the surface, it is a beautiful film, fully incorporating the visuals of cyberpunk, the CGI and cinematography being used to stunning effect to fully draw us into this detailed, engaging futuristic world. Unsurprisingly, and fortunately, the CGI doesn’t just end there – it’s fully utilised to enhance the action as well. The fight choreography of each and every action scene is exciting, well-paced and precise, each acrobatic act of violence a guilty joy to behold. One issue, however, is that it seems at times there is almost too much going on. Fights alongside trusty bad-ass companion Batou are exhilarating and well choreographed, but at times it’s as if the editing is doing too much. True, editing in action scenes often requires a fast pace with lots of quick cuts to keep up with the pace and make us feel a part of it, yet the editing here often feels a little how I did with Quantum of Solace – it just doesn’t fit in with the character who is a trained professional, who doesn’t necessarily struggle, for whom fighting is merely a dance. Perhaps if the camera lingered on major’s acrobatic feats of violence a little longer, the action would be more sleek and impressive.

Now we get to the issue of casting in this film… Off the bat, I have to say right away that I’m a fan of Scarlett Johansson; from Charlotte in Lost in Translation to Black Widow in the Avengers movies, I think she’s excellent with an ability to play a range of different characters. Similar to her portrayal of Natasha Romanoff, Major is an exemplary, quiet assassin, troubled by her past (or lack of knowledge about her past). With a subtle performance, I do like Johansson in this role… but I’d have much preferred someone else cast. Mainly because firstly we have seen her do this type of role before, this is nothing knew for her; and secondly because this was a prime opportunity for Hollywood to address a huge issue they’re increasingly having to face – a lack of representation in film. Perhaps they may be trying to address representation of black actors (which is commendable, if a little late), but they also need to focus on representation of LGBT and Asian actors and characters – the latter being most relevant to this film. Despite arguments that Major is, in terms of physicality, a robot and therefore not necessarily confined to a race and a defending stance even from original’s director Oshii stating that art and politics should be separate, this casting has caused much controversy. Much as I’d like to agree with Oshii, I cannot; art and politics can rarely be separate since art’s very being is often a reflection on life and the world, of which politics is intrinsic. As much as a fan as I am of Johansson and as well as she may have played Major, it’s a disappointment that in a film which would inevitably have garnered a significant audience a young, unknown Asian actress wasn’t given the chance so many need to boost their career. If only Hollywood were daring enough to occasionally veer from the star system, perhaps they would write off so many of their criticisms. What’s more this film goes one step further by almost completely alienating Asians. The majority of the film’s cast is white, the second most being black. Asian actors and actresses are barely seen, the most notable one being a woman Major encounters who may be her mother. In a film that is based off a Japanese manga, set in Japan, there should really be more of a Japanese cast. Instead, most are white and American, with the main character going from a Japanese character, and then being “tamed and improved” by being turned white and American… there can be an unending debate about this particular issue. For me I am against the casting, but despite these personal opinions, I think Scarlett Johansson herself is excellent in this role – it is merely the fault of the executives and their casting, and this is one of the heavy downfalls of the film, a gross misjudgment on their part.

Another aspect key to a good film is its writing and story, which sadly in Ghost in the Shell is lackluster. A generic, predictable story that could have been so much more with the world with which they had to play. It moves at a comfortable enough pace to keep the audience interested, but there are very few surprises to make it stand out. As for the characters, they all seem fairly bland, with the exception of perhaps of Major and Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Ouelet. Oddly for a film that questions the very essence of humanity, there’s not much in here; a distinct lack of heart and connection to characters which ultimately is the biggest issue with the film.We should care so much more for the characters, so much more for the issues that are troubling Major, so much more about the relationships between them all – but perhaps some decided action should take precedence over these key aspects.

Overall, 2017’s reboot of Ghost in the Shell doesn’t live up to the hype or the enduring legacy of the Oshii’s original and the manga. A hollow shell without its ghost, it lacks a heart and soul for us to connect to as well as an Asian actress in the central role; however, the CGI is sleek and beautiful and the action invigorating.

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