FILM REVIEW: A few glitches keep "Ghost in the Shell" from equalling its source material
This new Ghost in the Shell - an adaptation of both the manga, 1995 animated film, and the anime series of the same name - is visually reverential, but lacks its source material's intelligence and depth. And yet, this is not quite a case of Hollywood boiling down complex themes and ideas to fit into a “Just gimme something I can hit, man!” paradigm, either. It splits the difference between dumb and smart, as if everyone involved hedged their bets.
It's beyond frustrating because there are hints – whole scenes, even – of the existential dread that informs the 1995 masterpiece; it's there when a geisha -- one of the few Japanese cultural remnants left in this homogenised, globalised Tokyo -- springs its face open to reveal a nightmarish visage of featureless metal; it's there during the early scenes when Scarlett Johansson's Major, the first successful hybrid of machine and human, and deployed as weapon by the intelligence agency Section 9 to capture cyber-terrorists, is unable to articulate the loneliness that haunts her every waking moment; she's unable to articulate it in any way that a non-human hybrid could empathise with, anyway. “You are the first of what will be the future,” her doctor excitedly tells her. “You have no idea how alone that makes me feel,” she tonelessly replies. If she were capable of sobbing, I suspect she would.
Major's brief encounter with a prostitute further dramatises her angst and child-like existential curiosity, with nary an ounce of exposition or overwrought philosophising. A scene which to this film's credit is wholly original. Incidentally, Johansson is well cast as the superheroic Major. She's superheroic because she has a penchant for brooding on rooftops while coolly surveying the endless urban hellscape, her stylish trenchcoat billowing like Batman's cape. Plus she can punch a motherfucker real hard and has the requisite tragic past. But I digress -- not only does she look uncannily like her cartoon counterpart, she manages to convey a wounded alienness that she also radiated in Under the Skin and Her. Consider Ghost in the Shell the capstone of a trilogy of Johansson films, where her ethereal charisma is simultaneously enchanting and distancing. Some brilliant stuff is going on, here. Truly.
But then you have plot points which are baffling in their stupidity. For instance, they try to address the white-washing controversy -- it is, in fact, a big plot point. But they address it with such tone-deafness, such shocking inelegance, that you can't help but wonder what these jokers were smoking. Its problems extend beyond plot mechanics and startling racism, though; sometimes Ghost in the Shell implicitly trusts you to understand its high-minded themes, sometimes it spells them out with the finesse of...something not very finesse-full. I guess that's because they're counting on the dummies and the thinkers showing up.
The lack of certainty in what their doing stultifies a film that, if you saw any random five minutes of, you'd swear was from the mind of a visionary. As it stands, it's from the mind of Rupert Sanders, the director of the attractive but emotionally monochromatic Snow White and the Huntsman. This film is not quite as dead inside as Snow White, but it's plagued by the same bugs and glitches that, during its worst scenes, threaten to horrifically burst through its hypnotic, if cold, surface. Emphasis on the cold, by the way: The only character here who exudes genuine warmth is Major's colleague/only friend, Batou (Pilou Asbaek) - he likes dogs, he cares about Major's well-being, and he likes to go fishing. Even if they don't come much tougher than him, you feel bad that this personable guy lives in such a lonely city.
Ghost in the Shell has only been in cinemas for like a day and it's already a cliché to say that this film is visually stunning and gorgeous. But, well, shit, this film is visually stunning and gorgeous. Ghost in the Shell mixes ordinary urban decay and hi-tech neon gloss to create a future Tokyo that is both otherworldly and believable. There's an unspoken understanding that the citizens and characters who populate this city are resigned, resigned because they're either overworked or depressed, to their fate of dehumanisation and eventual destruction -- which is the cynical thesis of the cyberpunk genre. To praise Ghost in the Shell's visuals is not merely to convey its tasteful prettiness; its aesthetic enhances the film's themes and moody atmosphere, so even when Ghost in the Shell is getting slow and stupid, it's ambiently compelling.
When the script, the visuals, and the score by Clint Mansell & Lorne Balfe are working in tandem, it's downright riveting and certainly like nothing else in theatres right now. But look up the city montage from the original Ghost in the Shell. Maybe it is a cartoon from 1995, but that is a world I can actually smell. Could be that it's unfair of me to compare the two. But then, this thing does bear the name, so...*shrugs*.