Review: Ghost in the Shell

I suppose the first thing to say here is that I actually haven’t seen 1995’s Ghost in the Shell. I do make an effort to engage with original source material before watching film adaptations; alas, I could not find a physical copy, nor could I find a way to legally view it online from Australia.

So I went in blind. This can have positive and negative consequence, the positive being that I can’t critique the film too harshly with regard to its adherence to the original film, and the negative being that I might have no idea what’s happening, as was my girlfriend’s experience with last year’s Warcraft. Fortunately, Ghost in the Shell was very easy to follow.

The story is of Major Mira Killian (the “miracle” pun was cute until other characters decided to treat the audience like idiots and point it out to us), a cyborg comprised entirely of technological components but for her human brain. Another cyborg, very similar in composition to her, begins attacking her creators in revenge for some heinous act. It doesn’t take a machine to guess where the plot goes from here. Also, it’s very annoying that the writers feel we need to be told multiple times that “ghost” means “soul”. Those of us who didn’t understand that when we walked in got it the first time you told us, thanks.

The film came under a lot of fire for whitewashing. Most of the time, I’m okay with characters having their ethnicity changed, as long as it makes sense within the context of the story. For example, I mentioned in my Power Rangers review that three of the five rangers were of different ethnicities than in the series, and it didn’t bother me at all. I was also fine with Tom Cruise appearing in Edge of Tomorrow, which was based on a Japanese novel. I was even okay with Tilda Swinton’s performance in Doctor Strange. Ghost in the Shell, though, bothered me. A lot.

The film is set in a Japanese metropolis, and nearly every minor character is Asian, but every main character is white (both antagonists, both main protagonists, and Major’s primary creator) except for one Japanese character: Aramaki, who is Major’s direct superior. What’s worse is that every person speaks English, except for Aramaki, who speaks Japanese – even when they’re all speaking to each other, and even when they’re all employing telepathic communication, rather than verbal. It’s extremely strange. More Asian characters were desperately required, because as it is the film felt as if it were using ethnicity as a marker for the audience to know which characters were important and which ones weren’t, and it was extremely uncomfortable. I’m honestly not sure why the filmmakers didn’t just go ahead and set the movie in New York (the aforementioned Edge of Tomorrow went this route and simply imported the entire story). The only reason not to do so is that they viewed it necessary to retain the story’s Japanese setting, so which is it? Either the Japanese origins of the movie are important, or they aren’t. You can’t half-respect them.

The most painful moment in the entire film is when Major discovers what she looked like before her brain was supplanted into her machine body. She was, of course, Asian, and this revelation had half of my audience laughing hysterically and the other half sitting in stunned silence. Actress Kaori Momoi appears in only two scenes, including this one, and on a positive note, her performance was one of the film’s brightest highlights.

Other highlights include Scarlett Johansson’s performance (whatever your stance is on her casting, you can’t fault her acting), and the film’s wonderful musical score and beautiful cinematography. As mentioned, I haven’t seen the original, so I have no idea how much of the music and how many of the shots were taken from that, but this movie looks and sounds awesome. I should mention that I saw it in 3D (not by choice), and I feel as though I would’ve enjoyed the visuals even more if I’d just gone the 2D route. There are some fantastic sequences, too. There’s an ankle-deep-water-fighting scene that was shown in the trailers which was great, and Aramaki gets two great scenes with his revolver, one of which was probably the best scene in the film.

I took issue with some of the editing, continuity-wise. A few bullet-holes in one shot where there weren’t any in the shot prior, that sort of thing. I’m also not sure how two civilians managed to get their hands on assault weapons with less than five minutes’ notice, let alone cloaking technology. Not sure why characters’ lips sometimes move while communicating telepathically and sometimes don’t, and I’m not sure why Major sees her memories in the third-person.

I actually got quite the RoboCop vibe. She’s a cyborg in law-enforcement with repressed memories who slowly tries to claw back her humanity. RoboCop was much better, though.

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Alex Falzon

Alexander Falzon is a film critic, screenwriter and short story author. An RMIT graduate, Alexander enjoys watching and discussing film, and mixes an excellent martini. You can hit him up on Twitter @alexanderfalzon and read more of his reviews at alexfalzon.com.

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