So I saw Ghost in the shell last week and although it’s not without some challenges it really is not a movie that deserves to bomb.
For better or worse the 2017 live action movie is a faithful adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s groundbreaking manga which was then turned into an, even more, genre-defining Anime movie.
So what went wrong? I’m not even going to get into the whole whitewashing accusations that the professionally outraged have leveled at the production, the budget over-expenditure on what was considered niche intellectual property,
I’m going to look at the adaptation into live action and what worked and what didn’t.
Visually they nailed it, it could be (and many scenes were) taken frame by frame or cell by cell from the manga and anime, the city felt as authentic as anything else portrayed in futuristic classics like Blade Runner.
The adaptation was almost slavishly recreated from the source material. Check out this short side by side of both the Anime and the movies.
A lot of the effects were done practically when they could have very easily been done using CGI, so another point in its favor.
The casting was on point, “Beat” Takashi Kitano as Section 9 Chief Aramaki was a standout, channeling some of his earlier hard-boiled roles, it also popped Danish actor Pilou Asbæk onto my radar putting in a fantastic supporting character as Batou, a gruff but entertaining counterpoint to Scarlett Johansson’s rather disconnected Major.
There was a real effort to capture the iconic look and feel of the characters which weren’t exactly outlandish, but Ghost In The Shell has always been an ensemble and although centered on the Major, Section 9 was a team.
So with all these positives what was the problem?
Ghost In The Shell deals with some quite weighty existential issues in the Manga and Anime, although there is more action in the Manga, the Anime cruised on at an almost glacial zen pace, that drew you further into the world and the mindset of the characters. The movie, thankfully, didn’t overdo the action but it somehow seemed to plod at times when it should have felt like you were being propelled to an interesting conclusion.
Movies, being movies are a slightly different beast. We, as audiences, crave the main characters to be a form of avatar for ourselves when viewing them. Do you ever wonder why so many mainstream movies deal with main characters that have lost their memories, or are fish out of water, so everything could be explained to them? It’s so the film and writers have a conduit in which to let the viewer experience their story from that perspective. Even when the main character is morally dubious there are always some characteristics we can latch onto. Leonardo DiCaprio in Wolf Of Wall Street playing Jordan Belfort as a fine example, he’s not a nice guy, you really shouldn’t like him but his personality and character have some attractive qualities and humor to draw us in and we wonder how we would act in his position. For someone coming to Ghost In The Shell without the benefit of already being a fan and having the hundreds of hours of Anime and Volumes of Manga, they could be left a little cold from the uncanny valley of Johanssen’s performance, although this is how she was portrayed in the Anime.
With the character of Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost In The Shell, she isn’t even part human part machine she’s all machine with a synthetic brain and the consciousness and memories of a living person. As you can imagine there is a lot of room for explanation of the questions of “what it is to be human” and “what would a Turing Test think if it could”.
In comparison to last years breakaway success Ex Machina dealing with similar issues of synthetic self-identity, we had a main character who was the “everyman” whose emotional responses to synthetic life (even if they were programmed responses) ultimately made him override his own knowledge that he was being manipulated into falling in love with a machine. Whereas in Ghost In The Shell we have the copy of a human mind in the body of a machine who is pondering where their instincts and memories are programmed or their own. It’s the extension of the if you replace the handle and the head of the hammer enough times when does it stop being the same hammer.
While watching the movie adaptation although I was enjoying the world it was putting on the screen, the characters issues with feeling disconnected in a world where everything is internet connected, mirrored my own disconnection from Scarlett Johansson’s the Major as a character. I did think it could have used a bit more focus of her team working with the Major together as a team. It would have humanized her performance if you could see her trying to fit in and it not quite working it serves to endear the character to the viewer because we want to see them succeed.
I suspect Johannsson’s performance may have come off too deadpan for reviewers and audiences, but the box office returns have shown that despite its advertising blitz with Superbowl ads Ghost In The Shell has failed to pull enough to cinemas to actually watch it, apart from the built-in fanbase. which is a shame for a creation that was as lovingly crafted as one of its practical effect cyborgs.
Ghost In The Shell is destined to become a cult classic, much like the critically praised but financially unprofitable Dredd, sadly it sends a message to Hollywood to keep banging out profitable but artistically devoid sequels and reboots instead of trying something new.
I hope it does manage to find success and appreciation in the years to come.