So, I’ve been reading some of the reviews. The fans of the original movie, and the snobby end of the film reviewing community are blasting it for various reasons. Others seem taken with it. I went this weekend with the wife to see the live action Ghost in the Shell.
I’m a big fan of the 1995 anime film and the subsequent Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. I’m a bigger fan of the series Stand Alone Complex, which hits many of the same beats on the nature of intelligence and humanity, gives the secondary characters more time, but has the time to build the world and political of Masamune Shirow’s future Japan. So I had high hopes, but low expectations — films like Ghost in the Shell rarely translate well for a general Western audience. And that was precisely who the filmmakers were targeting. This was an expensive movie; they need a wider reception than anime fans.
So…how was it?
The good: Johannsen manages to do an excellent job with the muted emotional expression the Major has in the anime. Pillou is superb as Batou (my favorite character of all the iterations…), and Beat Takeshi nails it as Aramaki. The practical effects — the Shirow-esque cars, the street sets, the use of an actual robotic skeleton and muscle model for the shell sequence — are all top notch, although I though the riot of CGI rendered holographic advertising was a touch much. The other good thing, the movie takes the cybernetics of this world right down into the Uncanny Valley. The cybernetics aren’t cool, they’re creepy — from being able to see how Batou’s new eyes are inserted into his eye cavities, to other bits and bobs, to the overly stylized geisha robots, everything is off.
The “meh”: The rest of th team doesn’t get enough time. This isn’t much different from the 1995, where Saito, Pazu, Boma, and Ishikawa only get a few moments, at best. The addition of another female officer for diversity-sake cut into the material that would usually go to Ishikawa. The bad guy is your standard-issue corporate bad guy, and the bad guy who is actually a victim of the Evil Corporation™ is underwhelming. We’ve seen this before. In the movie and show, the government and their machinations are the real villains.
The homages to the excellent action pieces from the 1995 film sometimes work, sometimes don’t. The street chase into the canal, where the Major kicks a guys ass while still camouflaged works here, as well; the geisha scene is riffing — much better — on the first episode of Stand Alone Complex; and the classic Major vs. tank scene is recreated but with a lot less verve. Overall, that balanced out for me as “meh.”
The bad: Togusa, the nearly all-human cop, is the entre for the viewer in almost every version of this universe, the guy you can kind of identify with. He gets nowhere near enough time on screen (but does use a Mateba, fans!) The change of Kusinagi’s background makes her more accessible for Western and general audiences, but loses some of the point of the character. The Major is so good at what she does because, in the other iterations, she’s been a cyborg since a childhood accident…she really is more machine, at times, than human. That was the crux of her identity crisis in the other iterations. The “fake background” subplot just doesn’t work as well.
Overall, the movie is a decent adaptation of a movie that is superior in many ways, but itself suffered from some of the cultural shortcuts in storytelling that Westerns don’t use. It’s less talky than the original, but that means the philosophical elements lack some of the impact. It is stylistically good, with a real tech-porn kind of setting, and aspects of it are truly excellent, but substance-wise it lacks some of the depth of the original (and a lot if you compare it to the mind-bending sequel Innocence.)
Is it worth it? If you’re a fan, yes. You will most likely enjoy it, but it might not topple the original in your affections. If you’re a fan of the SAC, you’ll like it less, I suspect. On my scale from “Never Watch It, Even If There Is Nothing Else On” to “Rent It” to “Full Price”, this is a solid matinee, and maybe a full price.