Movie Review: Ghost in the Shell

In early 2015, when it became public knowledge that Scarlett Johansson would be starring in the live action adaptation of the 1989 Japanese manga classic, GHOST IN THE SHELL, fanboys and fangirls immediately hit the Internet to decry that Hollywood was back to its whitewashing ways. Perhaps it would have been nice to put a Japanese actress (someone like Ko Shibasaki?) front and center in this film but how marketable would it have been? For Hollywood, marketability is everything. To director Rupert Sanders (SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN) and the (multiple) screenwriters’ credit though, they created a fairly entertaining film that pays reasonable service to Shirow Masamune’s (士郎 正宗) source material and introduces the cyberpunk franchise to mainstream audiences.

Set in the near future in a megalopolis called “New Port City”, Hanka Robotics is a shadowy organisation that’s at the forefront of cyber-enhancement technology. As we learn in the first few minutes of the film, a young woman (Johansson, THE JUNGLE BOOK; HER; DON JON), was a refugee on a boat that was attacked by terrorists. Left for dead, she was rescued and brought to Hanka’s facilities. With her body beyond repair, her brain was inserted into the body of a robot, in a new procedure. Fully functional, she was then assigned to Section 9, an elite governmental unit tasked with counter-terrorism and, now known as “Major”, the young woman becomes the unit’s squad commander.

All is not well in this dystopian future though. A mysterious computer hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt, TV’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE) has been bumping off Hanka’s scientists in spectacular fashion, ghost-hacking other bodies to carry out his nefarious plan. After one of Kuze’s robots gets captured by Section 9, Major decides to dive down into its memory to find Kuze and terminate him. But Kuze is ready and the cat-and-mouse chase begins.

Not having read the manga series or watched the 1995 Japanimation classic of the same name (widely considered to be one of the greatest anime films of all time), I came into this film cold, with no preconceptions of what it should or shouldn’t be… and I was pleasantly surprised. GHOST IN THE SHELL is well done, popcorn entertainment. The special effects are excellent, beginning with Major’s brain transplant. Fans of TV’s WESTWORLD (and I’m one of them) may cry foul at the similarities of the two processes but this one includes synaptic fusion that is done very creatively. Equally spectacular is Major’s therm-optic camouflage bodysuit that makes her invisible to the naked eye. (With so many people getting some sort of cyber-enhancement technology, you would think that someone would have opted for anti-camouflage vision but that’s a whole other matter.)

If anything, the special effects overshadow the story, which is slightly on the thin side. One could argue, though, that this film is still about 30 minutes longer than its animated counterpart. The story follows the traditional good guys/bad guys format with lots of gunplay along the way but there are enough twists and turns to make it interesting. I’ll concede that a few problems resolve themselves a bit too easily.

Also to the director’s credit, the film stars a diverse cast of actors from around the world including French actress Juliette Binoche (CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA), who plays Major’s creator; Danish actor Pilou Asbæk (BEN-HUR; TV’s GAME OF THRONES), who plays Major’s sidekick, Batou; British actor Peter Ferdinando (STARRED UP), who plays Hanka’s CEO; and veteran Japanese comedian/director/actor/author/screenwriter, Takeshi Kitano (北野 武), who plays Daisuke Aramaki, the head of Section 9. The story also addresses why Major, who is Japanese, looks like, well, Scarlett Johansson. This was done well, though I doubt fanboys and fangirls will be satisfied. The story leaves no doubt that we will have GHOST IN THE SHELL sequels in the future so anyone who is not happy with Johansson as “Major” is going to have to suck it up.

Hong Kong audiences will find New Port City to be delightfully familiar as iconic buildings, highway flyovers and street signs can be seen throughout. In one scene, North Point and Admiralty have been superimposed upon each other. In another, Major pays a visit to a grave at Pokfulam Cemetery, except in the film it’s a Japanese cemetery.

While fans of the manga or the anime may be less than impressed with this new take, others (like me) will find plenty to enjoy. The film is available in 2D, 3D and IMAX 4D. I saw it in 3D and thought it was worth it. I’m not sure if shelling out the extra cash for IMAX 4D would be though.

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