Cinematic Releases: The Making of a Cyborg: Ghost in the Shell (2017) - Reviewed

Ghost in the Shell is a prolific franchise in Japanese pop culture—there’s a manga, several anime series and OVAs, and now an American live action adaptation. Essentially with this newest iteration, the "ghost" or spirit of the series has been transferred into a new shell--exactly like the cybernetic main protagonist Major.

The film takes place in an unspecified future Japan where computers and robotic augments have been assimilated into the general populace. The setting felt more like a globalized Japan that incorporates some Western elements than a strictly traditional version. Major (Scarlett Johansson) is a cyborg police officer who is unique in that her body is completely mechanical with her brain being the last vestige of her humanity. There have been terrorist attacks perpetrated on Hanka Robotics, the leading corporation responsible for artificial intelligence and cybernetic enhancements. Since Major is a combination of both technology and humanity she is tasked to fight these hackers straight on with her distinctive skills and abilities.

One of the strong points of Ghost in the Shell in general is the deep philosophical narratives and heady concepts. Major struggles with self-identity and disassociation which can make her come off as unemotional and monotone. Johansson does a good job portraying Major's stoic persona though the writing for this interpretation of her character doesn't quite reach the depths of previous versions. The action side of things fare much better as Johansson is quite proficient at portraying a bad ass, though these scenes are few and far between. Her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk) a disaffected cop with a secret love for stray dogs, is fleshed out a little better, but we never get to really see his motivations or aspirations. Though I love me some "Beat" Takeshi, he is extremely underutilized as Chief Daisuke Aramaki. I suspect he was cast to give the film a feeling of "authenticity" and it's strange that he is the only character in the whole movie that speaks entirely in Japanese.

Even with the shortcomings in the story, this film is worth watching just for the fantastic visuals. The futuristic city is absolutely teeming with colorful holograms and neon lights which combine to make an assault on the senses. While a majority of the effects are CGI, there are some practical effects as well, specifically with the robot geisha that factor into the beginning of the film. Watching them transform and expose the circuitry underneath was a joy to behold. I find it ironic that The Matrix (1999) took notes from the animated Ghost in the Shell and now the live action Ghost in the Shell has incorporated some elements from The Matrix aesthetics-wise—it has come full circle. The fight choreography is stylish and there are scenes taken directly from the 1995 anime that fans of the series will be stoked to see. As much as I enjoyed seeing these nods, it relies too heavily on elements of nostalgia instead of forging its own path. I also think it looks a tad bit too clean and pretty and would have loved to see some grimier and grittier cyberpunk locales.

The biggest disappointment for me was the musical score for this film. I was excited to learn that Clint Mansell was scoring this film as I love much of his previous work, but the music here is just bland. It’s a mostly electronic score but it doesn’t have an identifiable theme to latch on to. I caught a few audio cues from Kenji Kawai’s far superior score for the original and it just made me wish I was listening to that instead. Mansell’s score isn’t bad, it just lacks personality.

While much has been made over the casting of Johansson as Major they do address her ethnicity via the narrative of the story. It makes sense within the thematic framework of the series because Ghost in the Shell is all about whether your self-identity is tied to your physical appearance and whether the concept of a soul, or in this case ghost, is real. The way it’s incorporated is clever and I implore people to watch the film before writing off the casting entirely. It’s apparent the writers for this film tried the best they could to adapt the source material as there are elements from the manga, the 1995 version and the anime series. Overall, as far as American anime adaptations go this is definitely one of the better ones. While it doesn’t have that same magic as the original it does make an admirable effort to keep the true spirit of the source material.

--Michelle Kisner