Film Review: Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell Film Review

A couple of nights ago, my wife and I watched the 1995 Ghost in the Shell original anime for the first time in something like 15 years. I wanted to refamiliarize myself with the source material before buying my ticket, moreso because of the two years of controversy that began back when the casting was announced and (gasp!) Scarlett Johansson was announced in the lead. Needless to say, I entered the cinema tonight with grave concerns. If you care about the original anime, then you probably share most if not all of those same concerns. The internet certainly had all of our collective concerns and countless more.

So let me happily report that the filmmakers seem to have anticipated nearly all of our concerns and have delivered something which frankly blew me away. A lot of care has been taken to balance the source material with the demands of financing and producing a hundred million dollar summer blockbuster, including the need to headline that film with a Hollywood star.

I can envision two scenarios where you might be disappointed with the film: First, you’ve convinced yourself that there’s no way that the live-action Ghost in the Shell will never live up to your purist expectations and nothing will change your mind. (In which case, your time is probably better spent sulking and typing out an angry, misinformed diatribe on Reddit). And second, after watching the original, you were only interested in this version because it would give you the chance to see Scarlett Johansson without her clothes on. (In which case, you’re probably better off watching something else at home, rather than taking your weird celebrity fetish out into public.)

But for the rest of us, the movie is pretty fantastic and we’ll likely end up heading back to the cinema to give them more money just to soak up the details that we missed the first time through. For those of you that are interested in the film, but aren’t familiar with the source material, here is another point of comparison: I think the movie was far better than The Matrix, and darn near close to the original Bladerunner. It’s an incredibly thoughtful and smart piece of science fiction.

Now before you go, you should know that Ghost in the Shell isn’t a straight-up remake of the original anime, but it draws heavily from the imagery and ideas of the original. If you’ve seen the trailer, then there are a lot of things that likely felt very familiar. However, once you’re in the film itself, you figure out quickly that all of these moments have been recontextualized inside a completely different narrative. It creates an odd feeling of simultaneously knowing what’s coming next (Here comes the spider tank fight!) and having the suspense and tension of not knowing how everything is going to play out (Major’s name is what?!). But Ghost in the Shell gets the big themes dead right, and that’s what’s most important.

It’s really a shame that the online discussion of the film has centered entirely on the supposed ‘whitewashing’ of Major’s character, because frankly, Ghost in the Shell is one of the most genuinely diverse Hollywood blockbusters that I think I’ve ever seen, but it never comes off feeling like a desk-jockey lawyer with a concern for liberal PC backlash was casting through an ethnicity checklist to make sure there was enough representation to make the film marketable in international markets. Rather, Ghost in the Shell presents a world where cybernetic implants have eliminated racial barriers.

The characters speak naturally with each other in their mother-tongue languages (Be prepared for subtitles), while dealing with the more important ideas of the nature of consciousness and the ‘human soul’ in a world where robots are quickly gaining sentience. Without giving too much away, some late reveals even give a satisfying answer for Ms. Johansson’s casting, and not in an offhand bit of dialogue shoehorned in to placate the internet trolls. It’s a substantial piece of the overall plot. The point is, I think if you’re open to giving the director and characters just a bit of trust, you’ll feel like they’ve earned it by the end.

Ghost in the Shell is screening in English twice daily at the Major Platinum Cineplex at Vientiane Center on Khouvieng Road.