Ghost In The Shell Review: Honestly Surprised How Much I Enjoyed It
Right up front, I’m not a Ghost in the Shell aficionado. I’ve known of its existence for a long while, the picture of her with sunglasses and a gun in her hand always being the first thing I think of when the title is mentioned. I never knew what it was really about until a few months back, when I watched the first season of Stand Alone Complex. I enjoyed it quite a bit and it gave me a sense of what the world was like in this vast universe of TV shows, films, and manga. This live action adaptation does a wonderful job of capturing some of that. I went into this film fully prepared to be done with it well before it finished. I left pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed myself.
I’m going to get into a bit of plot details. Spoilers be spoiln’ from here on out.
The beginning is by far the biggest issue. It spends an unnecessary amount of time on establishing things that we as the audience could have just witnessed. There’s boring text explaining that a large majority of humanity is now heavily augmented in one way or another. It felt like a Wikipedia article. We’re introduced to Mira Killian, aka The Major, played by Scarlett Johansson, as she is being built. Although her brain is human, the rest of her body was destroyed in a terrorist attack. Hanaka Robotics, the leading developer of augmentation, is putting her together to be used as a weapon, much to the dismay of Dr. Ouelet, one of the lead scientists on the project. They dance around saying “ghost” and “shell” several times, and it’s groan inducing. In fact, the sheer number of times those words are said is baffling. It’s out of place and distracting. The film cuts a year forward for some reason and my brother who was sitting next to me audibly and involuntarily said, “ugh.”
Once you’re past the opening, the film picks up tremendously. We get a great first fight scene, which is honestly how it should have started, introductions to other characters and members of the Section 9 team, and the main plot about The Major trying to figure out her clouded past. She was told she and her parents were killed by terrorists as they came to the country, her brain being the only part that survived. However, she is having strange hallucinations, waved off as glitches by Dr. Ouelet, showing what appears to be a burning Japanese structure.
Where the film excels is in the visual department. The city, the cars, the clothing, the tech. Everything pops. In one of the most interesting scenes, The Major does a “deep dive” into the mind of mostly destroyed geisha robot to try and find out information on the film’s primary antagonist, Kuze, played by Michael Pitt. She’s attacked by a virus, and the way it’s represented is stunningly unique.
Fight scenes also keep the visual feast going. Characters use cloaking devices to stealthy attack enemies and seeing them run through puddles of water with flashes of where they are, or have extended fight scenes in them, is a blast. Even The Major sliding across the ground and attacking soldiers is fun. Is it John Wick choreography? No. But the cyber aesthetic helps to make it appealing the entire time.
The characters are all distinctive, elevating the sometimes slow moving plot. Pitt is superb as the cyber terrorist Kuze. The costume design of a half man half robot mutant hybrid is a wonder to watch, and his voice clips and stutters like a rundown computer program. His conversations with The Major, revealing her cloaked past, are some of the best in the film. Johansson does a fine job as The Major. She has a bizarre forward-leaning walk that took me a minute to adjust to, but it was a character choice I came to be okay with. Being heavily augmented, she stays mostly monotone throughout the film, but has moments of humanity that come through during pivotal scenes.
The Major, her heavy hitting partner Batou, and Kuze have some good plot development for their characters, while the rest are either forgettable or essentially untouched. It’s only a shame due to the fact that the others from the source material are so good, but it makes sense for the film and the story it wanted to tell. Togusa, for example, is a member of Section 9 who is all human with no enhancements. You only know that because he offhandedly says it once near the beginning and it’s never touched on again. Several other characters from the anime and manga are there, but they seem to mostly be fan service as they barely have much screen time or purpose. Chief Daisuke Aramaki however, played by the venerable “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, was far and away the best part for me. Speaking entirely in his native Japanese, his look and demeanor are pitch perfect. He wields a revolver at one point and just looks cool as hell regardless of what he is doing. The casting here could not have been better.
The ending fight scene is the other letdown of the film. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just underwhelming and boring. You’d think something called a “Spider Tank” would be pretty badass, but it’s just a computer generated hulking machine that shoots some stuff and misses a lot. Coupled with some unsavory CGI of The Major jumping around, the scene derails a bit of the goodwill the story has built up. I was honestly worried it was going to fold under the pressure, but after that scene the film wraps itself up quickly and doesn’t linger. The Major does rip off the top of the tank, and with it her arm, so that was pretty neat.
Ghost in the Shell has a lot going for it. There are some deeper themes about what life would be like as a human with only your brain left inside of a robotic casing and the issues involved when experimenting with that goes wrong. The world building is phenomenal and the action is solid, if not a little forgettable. Despite a shaky opening scene and a somewhat disappointing ending fight, everything in the middle is a well made science fiction action film. If you’re at all interested, it’s worth the viewing. Making a pun about ghosts and/or shells would probably go here, but I’m not fucking doing that.