Live-Action film adaptations of Popular Anime shows haven’t had the best history, as of late. From DragonBall: Evolution to The Last Airbender, directors seem to be having trouble with translating the sylized visuals and holding onto the characters and storytelling that made the properties beloved to begin with. Ghost in the Shell is the latest attempt, bringing to life the cyberpunk-esque figure Japan, where human augmentation runs rampant and the line between man and machine is blurred. Coincidentally enough, the film also is also guilty of blurring the line between a good and bad adaptation, as great visual and cinematography are let down by a generic script, sluggish pace, and unfortunate problems with racial sensitivity.
Starting with the good, atleast Ghost accurately captures the cyberpunk aesthetic the original anime became popular for, and is often quite beautiful. The visuals are consistently retro looking, yet brought to life through detailed CGI to create a city that feels lived in. Surprisingly, there’s a lot of practical effects, such as a Geshi-themed robot early on in the film, and the blend seamlessly with the aesthetic of the computer-generated effects. For the most part, the film succeeds in taking the elaborate visuals from its source and translating it into a real-world setting, without compromising the original vision.
Enhancing the film’s visuals are Ghost in the Shell‘s cinematography and score. From a directing standpoint, the film benefits from a surprising amount of restraint, holding back on creative camera tricks and relying on the flair of the visuals, then framing shots to best show them off. The original Anime’s opening credits are lovingly recreated, as well as several other iconic moments, all of which translate excellently to live action. Likewise, the Ambient score by composer Clint Mansel uses subtle electronic cues to deliver an atmospheric tone that’s present throughout the film. Reminiscent of film scores like Blade Runner And Moon, Mansel’s music works as both an extension of the film, as well as a standalone listening experience.
Sadly, that’s where the film’s praise ends, as everything under the surface holds the film’s better qualities back. Predictability stands as the film’s most glaring issue, as even newcomers are likely to have a hard time not predicting everything early on in the film. This mostly comes down to a script isssue, simplifying more complex elements in the original to its most basic forms, removing most of the tension and heart from the story. Likewise, most of the film’s action is framed in such a way that our protagonists are rarely in danger, displaying a level of skill and effiency that their enemies never give off, diminishing the challenges they face, and leaving most of the shootings ultimately unsatisfying.
The performances leave much to be desired as well. Most of the supporting cast is underused, with the majority of Major’s (Scarlett Johansson) team serving as background noise, only there to spout off exposition and empty one-liners. Japanese veteran actor Takeshi Takano is enjoyable to watch as Major’s commanding officer, but his role is a glorified cameo at best. Special mention should be made of Pilou Asbaek as Major’s partner Batou, who comes off as both genuine and charming throughout the film. As for Johansson as the Major and Michael Pitt’s main antagonist Khuze, they both do passable jobs, but are ultimately Undercut by the film’s issues with handling race and diversity.
See, being Japanese isn’t just a part of Ghost in the Shells’ developmental history, but its entire identity. The film’s setting, characters and style is Japanese for purposes that are entirely story driven, and to change people’s race would diminish the entire point of the property. But while the 2017 live-action film could have gotten away from this controversy had it just ignored this change, the story actually faces the controversy head on, telling us that the Major and Khuze were both Japanese originally, but their mechanical bodies were changed to be white, with the closest thing to an explanation being the villains saying they were “improved in every way.” It’s a blatant and frankly disrespectful move that halts the film dead in its tracks, and is likely to give pause to the hardcore and prospective fans alike. As if in a bizarre way to try and cover this up, the film surrounds Major with a racially diverse cast, but this comes off as more of a distraction, likely to leave audiences wondering why so many African, British and white people are wandering around futuristic Japan. It’s not enough to call the film racist, but these moves show a clear lack of respect for the source material, and stand only to show how far a studio will go go try and make a film appear socially relevant, without putting any actual effort in.
It’s unfortunate that what effort is on display in Ghost in the shell is lost amidst the script and racial issues. Should the visual effects team, composer and cinematographer team up again on another project, it’ll probably end up as something not to miss. For now, however, this 2017 adaptation lacks the heart of its original, and only delivers beautiful, yet hollow visual flair, destined to be easily missed and forgotten shortly after.
Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 5 Racial Sensitivity Classes Missed out of 10