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Why do I live in a world where we have a film that stars Michael Wincott and he is not one of the major villains? Ghost in the Shell is one of the anime world’s most influential, and possibly even among its most important pieces of work. The Matrix, Dark City, Equilibrium, these are just three sci-fi films that took influence. So, it is to my shame I admit I haven’t seen it myself; this is most likely due to my indifference to anime in general. I love such examples as Cowboy Be-bop and the Studio Ghibli canon; but I also find myself hating stuff like Dragon Ball, Naruto and I wasn’t a fan of the classic Akira either. But still, the idea of an adaptation for the more general audience wasn’t an unwelcome one.
Ghost in the Shell follows a character simply called the Major. The Major is a human brain within a robotic everything else, and the top agent in an organisation that…actually the films doesn’t do a good job of explaining that; they beat up bad-guys and save innocents so I guess it’s legit. But when the Major is up against another cybernetic villain, she realises that her forgotten past is entwined with his, and when she starts remembering who and what she once was the line between good-guys and bad become more and more blurred.
Ghost in the Shell might have influenced sci-fi for the generations after its release, but it is also really easy to see what influenced it: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In this version at least, it’s the same philosophy and even the same designs and look of Blade Runner. So, I guess it’s a good thing that I love Blade Runner and the look of Blade Runner. If there is one thing that steals the show for this film it’s its visual design. This city is a metropolis. The buildings are huge, with the entire city mixing western and eastern architecture together and is just covered in advertising and neon. It’s the basic definition of cyberpunk, and I have to admit that I have a massive soft spot for cyberpunk (and also streampunk and dieselpunk). The designs, on buildings and characters are immaculate and every single aspect of it works. Every now and then there is a moment of botched CGI, but for the most part the effects are up to standard too.
Another aid to the visuals is the cinematography. I have a feeling that most of the best shots from the film are ripped from the anime, but they’re still impressive to look at. The action too is very well shot and edited, even at the film’s most chaotic I could still tell what was going on, and it was exciting and fun to watch. The film is also helped massively by Clint Mansell’s musical score. I am very tempted to buy the music separately it’s so good, but I’d expect nothing less from the man who gave us the score of Mass Effect 3.
Where the film sadly falters, though is in its characters and story. The film was directed by Rupert Sanders, who gave us the pretty awful Snow White and the Huntsman, and his skills as a story teller have not even slightly improved. This story is better told than Huntsman, but I feel that’s because of the anime he’s essentially just retelling. Also, from what I’ve heard he appears to have pulled the teeth out of the story with this one. For example; I heard that in the anime the Major fights naked (as that’s the only way her cloaking device will work), but being a robot she has no genitals or nipples, here it’s just a bodysuit. It makes sense to make that change, but I don’t know, it kind of makes the film feel less daring. There is another example that involves her past; without spoiling that’s changed here, so where in the anime we got themes of transgenderism, gender identity, gender equality and homosexuality; here we are given…well, nothing. It just feels like a waste of an opportunity for deep discussion.
The writing’s not great either, but considering that one of the three writers on this project gave us Scream 3 that wasn’t very shocking to me. And as for the acting, it was a mixed bag. The Major’s team and the main scientist were pretty good, but the other side characters, and especially the major villain (distinguishable by the fact that he wears a black suit) were awful, and I mean really bad. And then we have the Major, played by Scarlett Johansson, and yeah, let’s talk about that. I hate this topic, I really do but I feel that it needs to be mentioned. Anime is Japanize made, therefore most characters in anime are Japanize; but for the Major they cast a white, American woman, and everybody flipped. Or more to the point, everybody in America flipped, Japan actually seemed pleased with the choice. Personally, outside of the fact that Johansson in this film looks exactly like the anime character, I think that that she did a great job. This is far from her best performance, but it’s still good. And she is more than capable of carrying a film and doing her own stunts in action scenes. Maybe I’m blinded by the fact that she is one of my favourite actresses, but I still don’t see the fuss behind this one.
However, the film’s biggest flaw is of how little consequence it feels. Stuff happens, people die, shots are fired, the Major discovers more about herself, but nothing is achieved. When we hit the credits I really did just feel like we’d walked in a circle. This would be helped if the villain felt like a threat, but…well, you know the answer to that. He’s only going after the Major, and absolutely nothing else. And all other things just feel consequential. And without wishing to spoil, there is a battle that I thought was the build up to the climactic battle, that at the time impressed me…and then I found that it was the climactic battle. I actually turned to my partner and asked “Is that it? Where’s the rest of it?” I actually felt a little cheated by the unintentional anti-climax at the end.
In the end I can, and actually will recommend Ghost in the Shell for its visuals and music, but the characters are uninteresting and the story falls flat. If it’s any consolation, it’s easily the best anime adaptation yet. Although, take that with a pitch of salt because anime adaptations have had the same run as videogame adaptations. Still, just its existence proves the love and power the original has. That’s got to count for something.