“Ghost in the Shell” is a difficult film to review. If you’re looking for a complete experience then there’s every chance that you’ll be disappointed, not because it’s a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, but because it’s clearly lacking in significant areas. However, if you’re hoping for a popcorn-flick then there’s plenty to enjoy – the focus of the film is primarily on presentation and on that front it’s very successful, and Rupert Sanders did a decent job of adapting the source material (Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime of the same name) faithfully.
This is a visually striking film from the first sequence in which we witness the creation of our protagonist, Major (Scarlett Johansson). The world that it presents feels distinctly alien from the one that we live in today, with cyber-enhancement allowing people to change parts of themselves that they dislike on a whim, yet at the same time there’s enough familiarity to suggest that it could one day be our own. The world as depicted by this film definitely has its own personality, and although I would’ve liked to see more of the day-to-day workings of its society I enjoyed the momentary glimpses that I was afforded.
The idea that at some point in the future people could choose robotic limbs as nonchalantly as they choose their tattoos today is novel and actually quite compelling, because although the two might seem distinct (given the differing severity of the changes made to one’s body) that isn’t necessarily the case.
People choose tattoos for a number of reasons; sometimes they carry sentimental value, sometimes they’re associated with a certain lifestyle, and sometimes it’s purely aesthetic. The same could easily apply to more drastic changes, such as replacing a human arm with a robotic one, provided that such a change was accepted in society and also that the technology available was sophisticated enough to make the procedure viable. The example works even better when we think about how cyber-enhancement parallels with plastic surgery in the modern day because people voluntarily change their bodies all the time, whether it be for medical reasons or simply because they’re unhappy with the way that they look, so it makes sense that if certain enhancements were financially available in the future people would choose to make them.
“Ghost in the Shell” gives us a taste of what this world might look like and tries to use its tone to encourage us to question whether or not body modification could be truly beneficial, but personally I felt that more could’ve been done to explore the moral dilemma. It’s made clear in this movie that transplanting a human brain into a machine brings up questions of personal identity and playing god, but this is the most drastic type of enhancement presented in the film and as such the problems that come with it are plain for all to see.
“Ghost in the Shell” would’ve been far more thought-provoking if there had been a subplot involving someone who didn’t agree with enhancement as a whole and felt that we as a species had crossed a line – something which I mistakenly thought would happen when Batou (Pilou Asbæk) was forced to get cybernetic eyes – and this would’ve also given us time away from the main story arc which eventually became a little stale.
Ultimately, enhancement isn’t the focal point of the film despite the fact that it’s the most interesting aspect of the story, which is a shame even though I admit that it didn’t ruin the experience for me. This issue lies in the script which was unambitious and at times frustrating; in this film there are themes and ideas which are practically begging to be explored that never get off the ground, and the story lacks true conflict as characters accept their circumstances far too readily. This makes for a film which is easy to watch and places the focus squarely on the effects and the action, but in the process it detracts from any drama and thus creates a disconnect between the audience and the narrative.
This is a shame because across the board the performances are good, especially given the fact that the actors involved aren’t given much to work with. Scarlett Johansson has proved in the past that she can perform in action-heavy movies through her role as Black Widow in the MCU, so it was nice to see her carry a film like this one on her shoulders after her disappointing turn in “Lucy”. Johansson is definitely the star of this film, and although there are only a couple of scenes that require her to do substantial acting she carries herself with confidence and is believable in the role.
To conclude, I felt that “Ghost of the Shell” delivered as a throwaway action movie and I had a good time watching it, but it could’ve been improved had the writers been more ambitious. It looked fantastic in IMAX and I thought that the 3D was used really well, but at times the film was a little too reliant on CGI and special effects. I can imagine a version of this film which focuses intently on its themes, (such as the social ramifications of enhancing one’s body and losing your humanity in the process, the question of what constitutes personhood, and exploitation), but at the end of the day that film is wholly different to the one that we’ve got and in truth there’s no telling whether or not it would be an improvement. This is an action movie from start to finish; the production values are great, the effects are captivating, and it’s a fun film to sit back and watch, so although it’s far from perfect I can still say with confidence that I enjoyed the experience.