Hollywood usually has a difficult time adapting Japanese anime and manga. From the unbelievably terrible “Dragonball: Evolution” to the polarizing “Speed Racer,” these films are usually not well received critically or financially. On the other hand, many other adaptations, like “Akira,” have been stuck in production-limbo for decades.
Enter “Ghost in the Shell” — the American adaptation of the cybernetic manga and anime film that released on March 31. Despite controversy over “whitewashed” casting and other changes from the source material, this remake is not as much of a total train-wreck like its other anime and manga predecessors.
Taking place in a near-future version of Japan, the film follows Major, the world’s first fully manufactured body to have a soul, or “ghost,” inside it after a fatal accident killed her family. In the film she uses this “shell” to fight new kinds of cyber-terrorism, but there seems to be more going on behind the scenes.
As an adaptation of the original 1995 film, “Ghost in the Shell” is bad. It ditches the philosophical questions about what it means to be human in a society constantly connected to a virtual world in favor of more crowd-pleasing action and characters.
Yet, by its own merits, the film is a standard summer blockbuster with some interesting ideas that are not fully explored but are enough to make it stand-out. In fact, whenever the film tries to emulate or pay homage to the original, it feels awkwardly forced.
In contrast, the visuals, costume design and special effects are well done. The city is full of “Blade Runner”-esque holographic billboards, while Major’s robotic body mixed with her more human features are fascinating.
While the visuals are impressive, the same cannot be said for the action scenes. They’re either disappointing rehashes of classic scenes from the original, or simply boring. The use of slow-motion is somewhat effective, but it can’t quite mask the banality of it all.
The characters are also more developed than I was expecting. In the original film, the characters served as metaphors for the philosophy, but in this version they’re given a little more autonomy, even if it’s only skin-deep.
The film also fails at creating engaging character relationships as these interactions are either poorly written or not written at all. There’s one relationship near the end of the film that’s supposed to be the emotional crux of the third act, but it was hard to feel any empathy for such shallow characters.
This brings us to Scarlett Johansson as Major, and the wave of controversy following the decision to cast her for the role. Criticisms of whitewashing are certainly valid — she is a caucasian actress cast as a Japanese character — Johansson does a good job in her role.
In fact, the film confronted the topic of whitewashing in an intriguing manner — although outlining the details would spoil the third act — until the filmmakers half-heartedly drop the ball at the very end. It was disappointing to see the producers not fully commit to a commentary on race within society — the connections are obviously there — but what material they do leave the audience to work with is enough to at least spark discussion.
In short, “Ghost in the Shell” is a movie with surprisingly interesting ideas and visuals for a big-budget blockbuster, but doesn’t showcase the necessary efforts to take these aspects far enough to become memorable. This film will mostly be discussed for what it doesn’t do to address race and Asian culture, which has already garnered a significantly divided response.
Rating: For fans of the source material looking for a new spin, or blockbuster fans wanting something a little different.
Samuel Goodrich,Staff Writer