Cyberpunk Sneak Preview! Ghost in the Shell

In the last couple of years, we’ve been getting a lot of live-action movies based on anime (which are in turn based on manga, but whatever). There’s a whole trilogy of Ruroni Kenshin movies, a couple of Attack on Titan flicks, Netflix is doing Death Note …

And I just saw a sneak preview of Ghost in the Shell. Lucky me? I watched the original animated movie back when anime still came on VHS, and I’m vaguely aware of the various TV shows spawned by the franchise, but I’m not familiar enough with it all to get really nerdy and nitpicky, which is probably a good thing.

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This movie, Ninja Scroll, and Akira were pretty much the only anime tapes allowed in the US until about 1997. 

Right off the bat, I’m well aware of the “whitewashing” controversy over casting Scarlett Johannson as The Major. Though to the film’s credit, it actually makes this a plot point: The Major is a human brain (the “ghost”) put into an android body (the “shell”). It makes sense that one could make said android body look like anything … so why wouldn’t you opt for the Johannson route? Unless you prefer blondes or something, but I digress.

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Ghost in the Shell is basically Robocop without the satire. Y’see, once The Major gets put in her robot body, she’s then recruited/drafted into “Section 9,” a special task force devoted to fighting “cyber crime.” Section 9 is run by The Chief, who inexplicably speaks in Japanese even though nobody else does. On the other hand, The Chief is also played by Beat Fucking Takeshi, so he gets a pass on that, I guess. Soon enough, Section 9 picks up the case of somebody murdering scientists from the megacorp that built The Major’s robot body. And, of course, The Major then discovers a bunch of dark secrets and wonders about what it means to be really human. Also she shoots a whole bunch of bad guys.

Those gunfights really are the best parts of the movie. Ghost in the Shell is unabashedly an action flick (albeit one with philosophical baggage). A lot of stuff is taken straight from the slam-bang action of the manga and anime, and tons of special effects work is put to good use. There’s even a spider-tank, which is one of the better mecha I’ve seen in a movie lately.

Things also get a little gratuitous, if in a PG-13 kinda way, in that The Major has chameleon-like skin that lets her turn invisible. So naturally she has to strip down to Barbie-Doll-Blank nakedness several times throughout the movie. Then again, I’m pretty sure a lot of that comes from Masamune Shirow himself, so … points for hewing close to the source material?

I caught Ghost in the Shell in 2D– and honestly, it’s one of the few flicks I can think f that I rather would have seen in 3D. The cyberpunk setting and occasional trippy ‘we’re in cyberspace!’ bits no doubt make for a really cool 3D experience. This said, the visuals don’t always land– for the most part, the movie just slaps a bunch of CGI holograms over aerial shots of Hong Kong, so you don’t get the real crazy mashup feel of other cyberpunk flicks like Blade Runner or even Johnny Mnemonic.

Really though, the complaints about the visuals are entirely minor, once you compare them to the script. More often than not, Ghost in the Shell‘s dialogue is awkward and clunky. There are some genuinely interesting ideas and character interactions buried in there, but most of it feels dumbed down and overexplained. On top of that, one of the movie’s villains does a heel-face turn towards the end … and nobody really brings up just how many people the dude killed and tortured, but hey.

All and all, Ghost in the Shell isn’t a bad flick … but it’s not going to blow you away, either. I guess it at least gets some credit for playing around with various ideas on memory and identity and transhumanism and stuff … though on the other hand, I think I might just have to check out the actual anime sometime in order to see those ideas explored in a halfway subtle manner.

Still, if you’re a die-hard Scarlett Johannson fan, or a die-hard cyberpunk fan, or both, Ghost in the Shell might be exactly the kind of movie you want to see. Even if you might wanna save a few bucks and catch a matinee showing.

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