Ghost in the Shell (2016) – Movie Review

When it comes to the original animated Ghost in the Shell, I think there three types of people: 1) People who have no clue what it is (I would say the vast majority of people). 2) People that love and cherish it because it had a profound impact on them. And 3) People like myself who have seen it a few times and appreciate the artwork and the themes of the movie but aren’t head over heels for it.  Making a live action adaptation of a foreign, animated movie like that is already a risky proposition.  You have to find a way to balance giving the movie broad international appeal without losing the America audience and make sure you don’t alter the source material so much that you alienate your established fan base.  Did the 2016 Ghost in the Shell live action movie find that balance? No.  No it did not.

Ghost in the Shell is set in a future where cybernetic enhancements are as common place as tattoos and piercing are in today’s society, if not more so.  At the beginning of the movie, we see a fully cybernetic body being created and a human brain being implanted in it.  This is Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johanssen) and she is the first of her kind – a human mind (her “ghost”) in a fully manufactured body (her “shell”). Flash forward to a year later and the Major is working as a member of an elite police force known as Section 9 and is working towards finding out who is killing people who worked for Hanka Robotics, the creator of the Major’s “shell” and the mystery of her own past.

I have to stay that this movie is serviceable at best and an affront to it’s source material at worst.  The live action movie takes a lot of the most memorable scenes from the anime and either gives them different context or gets to the scene from a totally different angle.  It felt like the writers made sure they got all the familiarity that they needed to to appease the hard core fans and get the money shots for the trailer but when it came to the actual story, they only kept the world in which Ghost in the Shell takes place, and that’s about it. And as for the story, it isn’t anywhere near as original or thought provoking as the animated movie. When the all the cards were on the table plot wise,  I felt like “Oh, ok.  That’s it?”.

Scarlett Johanssen does as good a job as she needs to for this role.  She obviously has the physicality of the role down and is fully capable of all that is required of her for the action scenes and stunt work.  I also really didn’t have a problem with how she played the Major, as she gives off a feeling of being disconnected from the world around her, like she’s here but she’s not really sure she’s here. However, there are a few times that I noticed her moving really weirdly.  Like when there would be a full body shot of her walking across a room or running, she just moved awkwardly, like she wanted to look like a robot would look walking or running. To me, that makes no sense, as the Major is supposed to be the single most advance piece of cybernetics tech in existence.  You’d think they’d get the walking down right at some point before moving on to combat programming? I have to believe that that was a directorial issue and not a choice by Johanssen because she is better than that.

Now I will say that this movie looks absolutely gorgeous and I’m not just talking about ScarJo in that skin tight suit (ok, maybe a little bit…). The world they’ve built is immersive and detailed. It feels lived in and tangible.  There are also several sequences that are almost frame for frame from the animated version and they look as beautiful as the original. If you’re going to give this movie credit anywhere, it should be with the set design, visual effects, and special effects.

And now for the unfortunate bit.  You can’t really talk about Ghost in the Shell without addressing the issues of whitewashing.  One could make the argument that with a property such as this, that it needed Hollywood star power to get people unfamiliar with the original film to come to the theater and see it and certainly casting someone from Hollywood’s A-List like Scarlett Johanssen will do that, but that’s an easy excuse and a slippery slope.  I have said before that I don’t mind changing a characters race or gender as long as it doesn’t fundamentally change the character and I stand by that.  For Ghost in the Shell though, I think that the role of the Major would have been better served had a woman of Asian descent been cast.  I don’t think casting Johanssen changed the character but I do think her casting does a disservice to the origins of the source material.

My final verdict for the Ghost in the Shell live action remake: another visually stunning sci-fi adventure with a flat story.  Rent it, don’t buy it.  Spend the money saved to order the original.

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