GHOST IN THE SHELL – a review by JJ Heaton

Starring: Scarlett Johansson (Avengers: Age of Ultron), Pilou Asbæk (Lucy) Michael Pitt (Seven Psychopaths), Takeshi Kitano (Battle Royale), Chin Han (The Dark Knight), Juliette Binoche (Clouds of Sils Maria)

Director: Rupert Sanders (Snow White & The Huntsman)

Writers: Jamie Moss (Street Kings) and William Wheeler (Queen of Katwe) and Ehren Kruger (Transformers: Age of Extinction)

Runtime: 1 hour 47 minutes

Release Date: 30 March (UK), 31 March (US)

Western adaptations of manga and anime haven’t been as prolific as adaptations of video games, but they have a similar reputation for being subpar; just look at Speed Racer and Dragonball Evolution. Ghost in the Shell represents Hollywood’s biggest attempt at a manga adaptation in a while but doing so has only led to racial controversy. But going in I was less been focused about casting choices and more about the complex themes of the source material. Would a Western adaptation aimed at a large audience be able to capture these ideas about identity and humanity and turn it into something digestible but manageable? The short answer: no, they haven’t. Ghost in the Shell is yet another example of a foreign property being mishandled by Hollywood, resulting in a heavily diluted adaptation that is unlikely to please fans or newcomers.


This new Ghost in the Shell isn’t a strict adaptation of any particular iteration of the franchise, though it takes most of its cues from the 1995 Mamoru Oshii anime film alongside smaller elements from Innocence, Stand Alone Complex and Arise. However, most of what it adapts feels like aesthetic nods inside an otherwise original story, but when I say “original” I mean “not original at all”. The basic plot is pretty much a cyberpunk version of The Bourne Identity with elements of Blade Runner and Equilibrium thrown in, but with none of the depth of either those films or the source material. It takes only the most surface-level examination of the themes of the manga, simplifying philosophical concepts about whether humanity can survive in an artificial world and questions of what even makes us human down to “emotions good, no emotions bad”. Instead of anything of real substance, we get a generic techno-thriller with obvious twists and little to no moral ambiguity in a plot so formulaic that I figured out the whole story before even the prologue was over.

There are several moments where scenes from the Oshii film are recreated almost shot-for-shot but, as cool as it is to see these iconic moments brought to life in live-action, they aren’t integrated well into the new story they’ve created. It feels like they picked out these scenes because they look cool and then worked out the plot around them, with loads of interesting story world concepts brought up and then abandoned in the same scene just because they were in the original. This could all be forgiven if the film was at least entertaining, but it’s so glum and poorly paced that it fails at even that. Ghost in the Shell was never particularly fun to begin with, but it remained engaging because of its unique story and message. Instead, it feels like the filmmakers thought anything that makes you think would be too complicated for a general audience to understand and dumbed it down, but forgot to compensate for it with anything of interest.

The casting controversy of Scarlett Johansson as The Major has been a touchy subject since its announcement and, whilst I wish I could say that those concerns should be quelled, the film doesn’t exactly let you forget about that elephant in the room. Saying much more would be delving into spoilers, but essentially it feels like they wanted to justify the race change in-story out of respect and instead have only created more problems that are sure to piss off certain people; they would have been better off not addressing it at all. But getting beyond that, Johansson’s performance is passable. She does a good job of capturing the character’s robotic nature with her rigid movement and stone-faced demeanour, and there are a few good scenes focused on her trying to understand her humanity, but she doesn’t do much to elevate the material handed to her or make it her own; most actresses of any race could have delivered the same exact performance.

The supporting cast equally struggles to rise above the tepidness of their characters. Michael Pitt’s Kuze, who has been amalgamated with The Puppet Master from the 1995 film, shows some initial menace but his performance eventually devolves into what sounds like Max Headroom doing an impression of Microsoft Sam. He’s the closest thing this film has to the ambiguity of the original, but it’s all pretty much moot because the film’s real villain Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) is the most generic and obvious “evil businessman” character ever; he might as well have “bad guy” tattooed on his forehead. Juliette Binoche does a decent job as the motherly mentor to Major, but the film quickly drops any complexity her character could have had. Takeshi Kitano seems bored playing the chief of Section 9 (side note: he only ever speaks in Japanese, despite everyone else talking to him in English. Why?), and the rest of Major’s fellow officers have barely a character trait between them. The only actor who comes out with something resembling a personality is Pilou Asbæk as Batou, who manages to somewhat capture the gruff but lovable character from the original despite the film giving him very little to do.

If Ghost in the Shell does anything right, it absolutely captures the world of the manga; I’d say it’s the first live-action film to do so without looking silly. Everyone involved in designing the sets, costumes, props and visual effects all deserve a pat on the back because it all looks fantastic. The cinematography is gorgeous and captures an environment that feels gaudy and saturated and yet murky and lived-in, and though the score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe will never be as iconic as Kenji Kawai’s music for the Oshii film they do fit the movie incredibly well. It really does feel like all of the effort went into creating the visuals of the movie and, whilst the results are wonderful to behold, I wish the same amount of effort had gone into the meat of the film.

Ghost in the Shell may be better than most manga/anime adaptations, but that’s not saying much. The source material was the perfect balance of style and substance, but this new version completely throws the scales over to the former. It’s too generic for an intelligent audience to enjoy, too boring for newcomers to get involved, and too simplified to satisfy fans of the original; it pleases no one. It’s the first film of its kind to capture anime in live-action without looking ridiculous, so it at least proves that these adaptations aren’t impossible from a visual perspective, but it fails to understand the core of what made that source material so interesting.


Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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