Live-Action adaptation's lacks its own unique soul, borrows overbearingly.
It's hard not going into a movie like this with tempered expectations. Ghost in the Shell is an integral Japanese media franchise. It's rich with subtext and complex storylines woven into a cyberpunk narrative: what does it mean to be human, and what does that mean for a cyborg? For the American film, Ghost in the Shell stumbles over the heart of its story, to the point where it feels like it's simultaneously pulling itself in different directions, and it quickly comes apart at the seams.
I'm a huge fan of the Ghost in the Shell franchise. The 1995 film resonates with me in a way that few films have, and even more so twenty years later. I'm rereading the manga, and have tried to go back to Stand Alone Complex. I'm going to note that I'm actually a fan of Scarlett Johansson, and overlooking the controversy behind the casting of this film, I think stylistically she's the perfect actress for this story (for this review, let's pretend Johansson is Japanese). However, the film lacks thematic direction, and it shows in her and much of the cast's performance and the cinematic presentation.
Visually, Ghost in the Shell is beautiful—and that's a problem. This version of the universe interprets the fictional city of Niihama as a utopia, whereas the other entries in the media franchise portray a heteropia: a gritty, disparaged postmodern Blade Runner-like slum that has lush pockets of rich, technical paradise. The city is pristine and lacks despair despite being a congested metropolis. Alternatively, this is also a problem for the characters, particularly Kusanagi, and this is where the dissonance begins.
In the adaptation, Johansson appears stiff and robotic in her delivery, and it isn't her fault. This incarnation of Kusanagi lacks personality. In the 1995 film, she broods. She's curious and informed while managing a connection with her soul despite being mostly synthetic. She contemplates her existence and her past, and considers deeply what her place and responsibilities are. She commits to missions, often taking risky initiative. She gets things done and gets frequent repairs along the way. Pursuit of identity and defining the ecology she belongs in is the pivotal implicit device moving underneath the plot. In the adaptation, Major simply doesn't know what it means to be human, and she's not given any intimate, cinematic moments to explore it. She remains linear for the entirety of the film, and its conclusion is neat—unfortunately.
One of the more remarkable and compelling scenes of the film is an interaction Major has with a human who feigns as a cyborg. Unfortunately, Major isn't left any other chances to get to know herself through others, something that would accentuate her isolation and make it more desperate. She's wrapped in the explicit action and the exposition, and the dearth of isolation suffocates the film's potentially unique voice. Major is already a complex character, but instead, she's being forced to search for her past when her present—and her future—are traditionally much more compelling.
Ghost in the Shell doesn't introduce anything new visually or emotionally to the franchise. It doesn't commit to any compelling thesis with its heavy, foreboding subject matter. Instead, it ponderously relies on sleek design and frequent motif reference to the 1995 film that fences off audiences both new and old. It's a remake that doesn't want to be a remake nor does it want to be its own thing, ultimately revealing its absent control and identity. A discernible lack of courage and diminished emotional impact makes Ghost in the Shell a glossy but forgettable exploit and an average at best action flick.
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