Film Review: ‘Ghost in the Shell’

Ghost in the Shell Trailer
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Led by a resolute Scarlett Johansson, Rupert Sanders' pulse-quickening, formally stunning live-action take on the manga classic both honors and streamlines its source.

In “Ghost in the Shell,” the mind and soul of a brilliant original being are extracted, preserved, and rehoused in a sleek, expensively built, technologically advanced new body, enhancing her original abilities at some cost to her identity. That’s the premise, of course, of the cult manga created by Masamune Shirow in 1989, but it’s also an apt enough description of what has happened with director Rupert Sanders’ fast, flashy, frequently ravishing live-action transmutation.

Spectacularly honoring the spirit and aesthetic of Mamoru Oshii’s beloved animated adaptations without resorting wholly to slavish cosplay, this is smart, hard-lacquered entertainment that may just trump the original films for galloping storytelling momentum and sheer, coruscating visual excitement — even if a measure of their eerie, melancholic spirit hasn’t quite carried over to the immaculate new carapace. Box office returns should be muscular, minting what could be one of the more enticing franchises in a multiplex landscape riddled with robotic do-overs.

“We cling to memories as if they define us, but they don’t. What we do is what defines us.” This line, from a script efficient enough to belie its multi-handed development, is repeated in the film as a guiding mantra for Major Mira Killian, the hybrid human-android cyberterrorism fighter here incarnated as a suitably otherworldly Scarlett Johansson. But the line seems a wily nod by the writers to the fan pushback that an American remake of the Japanese source material was inevitably going to receive when first announced, even before the controversy generated by Johansson’s casting in a role perceived by many as Asian-specific. (In a significant departure from the source, the issue of the character’s cultural appropriation is given a tacit script workaround here that is both rather clever and unlikely to quell debate.)

Sanders, stepping up his game considerably from 2012’s gorgeous but inert “Snow White and the Huntsman,” throws in a few painstaking replicas of shots and images from the 1995 animated version of “Ghost in the Shell” to appease the devoted, but is largely content to let this telling move to its own rhythm — a driving, furious one that brings the complex proceedings in at a snappy 107 minutes. (That may be half an hour longer than the animated original, yet it somehow feels the more restless film.)

From a fleeting shot of clattering, spider-like cyborg fingers to an extended garbage-truck chase, stray images and set pieces from the animated films cleanly compress Shirow’s version of events and structure them, arguably, more along Western lines. This is a world world that, for all its recognizable visual cues, is very much its own iridescent creation, thanks to dazzling design work from Jan Roelfs and costume duo Kurt and Bart. There’s a pleasingly multinational slant to it, too, with an ensemble that runs the gamut from Johansson to Juliette Binoche, and from Danish rising star Pilou Asbaek to veteran Japanese actor-auteur “Beat” Takeshi Kitano — whose own directorial taste for lavishly choreographed carnage gets a respectful wink or two here.

As in the earlier films, the setting is “New Port City,” a kind of composite Asian megalopolis evoking, by turns, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and “Blade Runner’s” Los Angeles, in a so-close-and-yet-so-far future. Major is a highly valued squad commander in elite government counterterrorism unit Section 9, enabled by state-of-the-art robotics corporation Hanka, which is responsible for Major’s own formidable cyborg transformation.

Her creation is detailed here in a series of exquisite introductory images, with skin fused and forged in dripping baths of blood red and milk white (beautiful nightmare fuel reminiscent of Johansson’s more lo-fi deconstruction in “Under the Skin.”) Overseeing the process is genius surgeon Ouélet (a warm, wistful Binoche, bringing more pathos to the role than the script strictly demands), who monitors Major’s activity with something like a mother’s concern. Less sympathetically invested in her wellbeing is Hanka CEO Cutter (Peter Ferdinando): “I don’t think of her as a machine,” he barks. “She’s a weapon, and the future of my company.”

That future, however, is looking a little cloudy at the film’s outset. Mysterious, highly skilled hacker Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt) is on the warpath against Hanka and its scientists, ghost-hacking other cyber-enhanced bodies in a ruthless attempt to sabotage its line of artificial intelligence. Working principally alongside hulking but tender-hearted team member Batou (a winning Asbaek), Major’s simple mission to track him down gets trickier as her own internal technology begins to falter and glitch; through this fragmentation come hints of an unrecognized personal history.

To reveal more would be to enter spoiler terrain even for well-versed “Ghost”-watchers. Suffice it to say that writers Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger have collectively distinguished the new film from its predecessors with a fleshier focus on backstory that yields surprising emotional rewards amid the onslaught of eye candy. Raven-bobbed and brandishing a still-waters stare, Johansson, who also starred in Luc Besson’s 2014 “Lucy,” by now has form in bringing humanity to not-quite-human characters. As the casting discussion rages on, it’s hard to deny that her Major fuses her most internalized and most ass-kicking modes of performance to ideal effect.

Still, it’s as spectacle that “Ghost in the Shell” operates principally and most effectively, as one glittering digital marvel succeeds another, beginning with the most stunningly demented shootout of the lot: rogue robot geisha violently intercepting a corporate conference, disrupted in turn by Major’s team, culminating in a splatterfest of bullets and porcelain. Working from sternly jokeless material, Sanders and his crew save the wit for such formal flourishes. Roelfs’ production design, matching sprawling dystopian squalor to fluorescent, holographic flights of fancy, abounds in playful details within details; Kurt and Bart’s wardrobe of synthetic-chic kimonos and tectonic-plate bodysuits ensure not even a morgue body sheet goes without some subtle fabulousness.

Cinematographer Jess Hall and an army of cartwheeling VFX artists render this universe in the glossiest, glassiest strokes possible. Perhaps the only ones holding back are composers Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe, whose stylish, techno-ominous score is mostly content to skulk in the background, only daring to reference Kenji Kawai’s unshakeable theme for the 1995 film over the closing credits. It’s perhaps the one area where this otherwise exhilarating re-imagination could have dared to plunder its source a little more greedily.

Film Review: 'Ghost in the Shell'

Reviewed at Empire Leicester Square, London, March 27, 2017. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 107 MIN.

Production

A Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment presentation of an Arad Prods./Steven Paul production in association with Shanghai Film Group, Huahua Media. Producers: Avi Arad, Ari Arad, Steven Paul, Michael Costigan. Executive producers: Jeffrey Silver, Tetsu Fujimara, Yoshinobu Noma, Mitsuhisa Ishikawa. Co-producers: Holly Bario, Jane Evans, Maki Terashima-Furuta.

Crew

Director: Rupert Sanders. Screenplay: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger, based on the comic by Shirow Masamune. Camera (color, Alexa 65), Jess Hall. Editors: Neil Smith, Billy Rich. Music: Lorne Balfe, Clint Mansell.

With

Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, Michael Carmen Pitt, Juliette Binoche, Chin Han, Danusia Samal, Peter Ferdinando, Kaori Momoi, Anamaria Marinca, Daniel Henshall, Lasarus Ratuere, Yutaka Izumihara.

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  1. Mike says:

    You call yourself a film critic? Rethink your vocation because you sir are delusional.

    To claim that this Hollywood bastardisation of an all-time anime classic was in any way superior to the original is just plain ridiculous and demonstrates not only a lack of taste but frankly; a lack of intelligence.

  2. Ramon says:

    Guy Lodge,

    Much like this movie, you apparently have as much heart as a cinder block and as much intellect as a head of lettuce.

    This movie doesn’t contain enough of it’s source to register on a kitchen scale and is an affront to the art of adaptation.

  3. River says:

    I found the movie disappointing. When I first found Ghost in the Shell, I fell in love. The intimate yet macro-level consequences the characters faced drew me in and would not let me go. I would not let go.

    This movie has taken many of the best visually arresting sequences from the films and episodes. I highly recommend seeing the source material for better context and story setting. Visuals alone don’t hold the hearts (and ghosts) of viewers.

    What we saw here was a mash up of stories and ideas that loosely linked a story for the 2017 movie. Again, devour the past 20 years of thought provoking material.

    I love Johansson, and I believe she did a decent job here. I cannot fault her for taking an Asian character. For such an actress, this performance was a bit weak, but I don’t think any of us could have done better. So, please step away from the whitewashing comments.

    I see fans all over these comment sections saying the same thing I feel. I wonder if the Ghost I’ve fallen in love with is dead.

  4. kierannotabi says:

    What film did Guy watch exactly? Because it’s OBVIOUSLY not the same I did. The new ghost in the shell manages to strip the source content of all symbolism, meaning and as a result soul.

    The script writing and acting is as poor as the original though for significantly different reasons and the world, while visually interesting at times seems wholly fantastical unlike the gritty introspective realism of both the original and the content it was adapted from. This is not to mention the regularly jarring straight-from 2000s CGI and texturing used to bring many of the city scapes to life.

    Finally, while many of the most memorable visual moments are lifted from the original film and obviously recreated with painstaking and loving attention to detail, each and every one of these scenes fails to carry with it the symbolism and idealistic content that made them originally memorable.

    Ghost is the shell is a vapid husk of a film whose blunders are more numerous than its successes and who’s individuality is based entirely on its visual spectacle, which more often than not fails to impress. Even as an original I.P. this film would be poor. As something with decades of ideas to plunder and with some of the most interesting concepts within the realm of cinema available to it to explore, it’s a truely execrable piece of cinema.

  5. Nic says:

    It’s a movieplex type of movie… It’s a cool movie to watch… Unpretentious in the sense that… ” we aim at people who want to see a beautiful woman in a visually arresting cyber-punk story that is simple to watch with some cool-ish thoughts”. At this moment of my life…I found it much more approachable than the anime. For that one… You need to be 19 and… return to 1995. I loved it then….but… I am not 19 anymore.
    For an intense cinematic authored movie…. Dude… I don’t go to a movieplex

  6. Brian Foster says:

    “Trumps the original films” I know you’re gonna get hammered for that one.

    It was a solid movie; neither great nor terrible.

    • Richard Harris says:

      Hammered? Only by those who misrepresent the quote: This might “trump the original.. for galloping storytelling momentum and sheer, coruscating visual excitement.” – WHICH IT ABSOLUTELY DOES!

      • Nina says:

        That’s a very “marketing” way to write it; makes me think of “Mad Men”. Basically, in plain English, it was visually appealing and the pace of the movie was easy to keep up with which yes that is something to be noted but all in all, it didn’t add to the whole value of the movie which like most wrote, it took deep dive into the ocean and has yet no sign of being recovered anytime soon.

  7. Ha says:

    Trumps the original films? What kinda garbage review

  8. smalliot says:

    I enjoyed her movies before she opened her mouth, no longer bother now, her and many others that ‘feel’ superior should revisit the source of their wealth.

  9. Devin Mitchell says:

    What movie were you watching, this film was a terrible adaptation.

  10. Sadly, I’ll never get back the moment I’ve wasted reading this self indulgent tripe.

    • Steve says:

      agreed, a deeply narcissistic review, just showing-off the reviewers vocabulary rather than give an actual review. poor

  11. François says:

    Wow, either journalistic integrity is gone, or Guy Lodge is the worst film critic ever to draw breath…

    • Richard Harris says:

      What are you talking about? Counter arguments? Counter opinion even? Who TF are you?

      • Steve says:

        Richard, this review is a jumbled clutter of nonsense. We’re here to read about the film, not bask in the glory of the reviewers immense intellect, which is dull. Don’t be so defensive, it looks insecure.

  12. jason ross says:

    Not going to read this as your reviews are now spoiler laden!!

  13. James says:

    Beautifully written review. I teach English in Brazil and will use this as a class text, well done.

  14. Ben says:

    All of those years of adulation of Hans Zimmer and his minions have paid off with a lot of scores that are indistinguishable from so many others. It is pathetic. moreso because at least some of these composers are capable of doing much better work.

  15. Rupert Bruce says:

    Lavish use of the English language. A thoroughly enjoyable feast of a review.

  16. Frank Corradini says:

    This article was extremely well written with one word building on the next engaging and overwhelmingly precise in its representation of the flow and essence of this movie. One of the best pieces of written material I have seen in a long time.

  17. Paully says:

    The local Super IMAX theater has a new gimmick.. Sellout most of the shows on Friday and Saturday to Corporate clients who pay over face value ($22.50) for their employees.. It started with the Noon show of Rogue 1 last year..

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