Review: Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell comes to us with a fair amount of baggage.  There are those who love the original 1995 anime and preceding manga series and are appalled by the whitewashing of the American version. Then there are those who know little about Ghost In the Shell and are coming in with no expectations.

Needless to say, the former like the film a lot less. So let’s start by addressing the caucasian elephant in the room. Hollywood whitewashing is indeed a sad thing, because the phenomenon rarely goes in the other direction. Seldom do we see ethnic minorities play traditional white characters in Hollywood films. So here we are again, this time a live-action adaptation of a manga story with the lead character being played by everyone’s favourite Japanese actress, Scarlett Johansson. In fact, despite being set in a large Japanese city, all the main characters are anglo-saxon.

In Japan the casting of Johansson has been a non-issue because this is seen as simply an American adaptation of a Japanese story. Ironically, or maybe it isn’t, the film deals with having your identity taken away from you. It’s all very meta.

In a nutshell, this is the story: It’s some time in the future and the lines between man and machine have become blurry. Humans are able to get cybotic enhancements, and now, a human brain has been put inside a cyborg’s body. And not just any body, but Scarjo’s body.

She’s been given the name Major, and has been created by an intelligence agency to fight crime. In particular, to infiltrate a terrorist network spearheaded by Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt).

The scientist who has put her together is Dr Ouelet (Juliette Binoche in a rare Hollywood studio film). She tends to Major’s little glitches, physical and psychological, and clearly feels very protective over her creation.

In a small concession to the aforementioned whitewashing, Major is a part of a multicultural team that allows for the casting of iconic director and actor Beat Takeshi Kitano, Danish actor Pilou Asbæk, and a couple of black actors in very minor roles.

The fictitious Japanese city that serves as a backdrop carries a striking resemblance to Blade Runner, with it’s neon displays now in 3D hologram form.

The visuals are quite captivating, and there’s a great deal of detail to the digital effects. Major has the ability to ‘deep dive’, to submerge herself into someone else’s mind, which gives the compositors free reign to come up with some very cool visuals.

As mentioned, the film largely deals with identity, with Major struggling to make sense of her place in the world. She has no memory of her history as a human and feels a sense of isolation at being a unique hybrid of man and machine.

We also witness an element of society which is resistant to technology and questions the ethics in which it’s being employed by the authorities.

On it’s own terms, this Ghost in the Shell is a smart and complex thrill ride with a great visual aesthetic. Johansson, no surprises, fits the mould as an action hero, but when it comes to conveying the conflict of her compromised identity, she doesn’t register as strongly as Pitt in a much smaller role. Elsewhere, World Cinema heavyweights Binoche and Asbæk bring an unexpected warmth to their characters.

Devotees to the original may not be pleased, but Ghost in the Shell should satisfy those coming in with fresh eyes.


Ghost in the Shell is currently in general release

Richard Leathem @dickiegee