***** MILD SPOILERS AHEAD *****
In the world of Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell, a "ghost" refers to the soul that looms within every cybernetic being, something that prevents them from turning into nothing more than mindless thugs in a "shell". With that in mind, then Rupert Everett's live-action adaptation definitely prefers the "shell" of the source material than the far more interesting "ghost" parts.
The film has already drawn some pre-release "whitewashing" criticism when Scarlett Johansson was cast as the cyborg protagonist known as The Major, a character that is depicted in the source material as being Asian. While the film does address the controversy in its own way and Mamoru Oshii, director of the 1995 animated masterpiece, has no problem with Johansson's casting, it is a difficult not to notice how most of the Asian cast were a little shortchanged in terms of importance and screen time.
While a number of important supporting characters from the source material are played by Asian actors, such as Chin Han's role of the still-100% human Togusa, their significance in the film is heavily watered-down and nearly all the thematic weight carried by those characters is given to the principal Caucasian players.
Having said that though, the performances themselves were perfectly fine throughout the film. Continuing her recent run of alien characters who are detached from humanity in some way, Johansson manages to portray The Major as a badass who toes the line between self-awareness and robotic, and the supporting cast all do their job well, particularly "Beat" Takeshi Kitano's scene-stealing take as Chief Daisuke Aramaki.
But the casting only scratches the surface of Ghost in the Shell's real issues.
An argument can be made that a more diverse cast would've helped steady the ship a bit, but Ghost in the Shell's biggest problem is less of a whitewashing issue and more of a watering down issue.
It is difficult to critique Ghost in the Shell without comparing it to Ohsii's 1995 landmark film, but it is hard not to notice when the production team have evidently stripped away the source material's thought-provoking blend of human existentialism and philosophical discussions about the dangers of A.I, and replaced it with a Diet Coke version that's as sleek as it is shallow.
Ghost in the Shell starts off well with an opening sequence that pays homage to the 1995 anime film's iconic credit sequence, as well as the opening of HBO's own take on the cyborg genre, Westworld, but it loses focus when the source material's central theme of maintaining humanity in an increasingly artificial world is set aside for a number of by-the-numbers action scenes, and an origin story for The Major is shoehorned in alongside for the ride.
Plot-wise, Ghost in the Shell loosely follows the 1995 film's story of tracking down a mysterious hacker, Kuze (played brilliantly by Michael Pitt), but the similarities stop there. Whereas the anime film layered its questionable antagonist/s with understandable motives amidst a world where mysterious forces are pulling strings from the shadows, the live-action film strips almost all of that away in favour of employing "the corporations are evil" trope. Not only does this dim the film's thematic resonance, it also somewhat undermines the role of Kuze, whose motives basically boil down to revenge as opposed to the existential crisis of his 1995 animated counterpart.
When Ghost in the Shell does stop to reflect on humanity in way that doesn't involve Juliette Binoche giving exposition, this is where the film is at its strongest. Moments like Batou (Pilou Asbaek pulling off the dashing rogue quite well) feeding stray dogs, and The Major picking up a human prostitute simply for the purpose of figuring out her own humanity, help ground the film into something that's a bit more profound. Not all these work, such as the awkward scene towards the end where The Major meets a middle-aged woman and the all-too-convenient ending itself, but it does show that sometimes it's the little moments that go a long way in enriching a film.
It is evident that Ghost in the Shell attempts to bring something new to the well-trod action sci-fi genre in a post-Matrix, post-Westworld cinematic world. While the production design, colourful sequences, and 3D effects are among the best in recent memory, it does falls a touch short at times by not commiting fully to the head-spinning themes of the source material, instead opting for sleekly-directed action over some much-needed contemplation.
The live-action film's biggest strengths and weaknesses are perhaps best summarised by its recreation of the 1995 anime film's famous ocean diving scene. By sticking close to the themes of the source material, Ghost in the Shell is at its strongest, but its clumsiness and non-committal way of approaching the source material's thought-provoking aspects means that the ocean diving scene comes off as slightly awkward and a step short of profound.
As far as anime and manga adaptations go, Ghost in the Shell is certainly one of the finer and most visually stunning efforts to have come out of Hollywood. It's just a bit unfortunate that for a film that's about humanity, the end result can be a little robotic.
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