Oh boy, this was a controversial one. There are just some movies that have their reputations tarnished because of some poor decisions, and one such film was Ghost in the Shell. Now I won’t pretend that I am completely in-tune with the iconic manga or anime series, but I do have a fair idea of what made it so great, and it was only a matter of time until the long talons of Hollywood grasped this property and made it their own. I honestly expected this film to happen at some point, and my only wish was that they don’t completely ruin it and make it so undeniably Hollywood, and that they will keep it at least somewhat faithful.
I honestly still don’t know, after watching this film, how I feel about it. It is such a classic example of a film have an equal amount of flaws as it does good qualities, and honestly, throughout this film I couldn’t really decide if this was a good film or a bad film. One thing I can say though is that they certainly made sure to make it as faithful as they possibly could (well, except for one thing they could’ve done, but we’ll get to that later). Ghost in the Shell is just a strange film, but not necessarily in a good way, but not really in a bad way either. It is just a bit of an anomaly, and I am really not sure what to think about it.
Ghost in the Shell is about Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), an individual that nearly died, and had her brain (her “ghost”) transplanted into the synthetic cyborg robot body (the “shell”), and she is recruited to be part of Section 9, a counter-terrorist agency that fights against those who wish to disrupt the peaceful existence of their city. When a certain terrorist going by the name Kuze starts to cause havoc, Killian finds that she has a special connection to him, and she goes after him, but soon discovers that perhaps he isn’t the one she is looking for, because he necessarily isn’t the enemy (our old familiar friend – “the bad guy who is actually a misunderstood hero”, a cliche we all know and love and have seen countless times before.
Scarlett Johansson is undoubtedly a talented actress, and she does choose unique roles. I wasn’t personally a fan of her performance in Under the Skin (or that entire film, honestly), but I will always hold Lucy as one of the most thrilling and action-packed guilty pleasures I’ve ever seen. Ghost in the Shell gives her another opportunity to play a different kind of character and establish herself as a relatively solid action star that can also give a reliable performance. Sadly, Ghost in the Shell didn’t show her at her best, because she lacked that quick wit she has displayed elsewhere, and through this film’s often flimsy dialogue, her acting seemed so forced and wooden, and it made me cringe a few times. Even if she is playing a robot, there is no need to be that robotic, honestly. I’d love to say that got the perfect person for the role, but unfortunately they didn’t, because someone else exists that would’ve been so incredible in this film:
Rinko Kikuchi. Its weird to mention someone who wasn’t even in the film, but how could they overlook her? First of all, she is Japanese, and no matter how much the filmmakers justify their decision to cast a white actress, this role should’ve gone to someone Japanese. Secondly, she is beyond talented and would’ve brougth such an incredible performance to this film. Thirdly, she has managed to make it somewhat in mainstream Hollywood films, and even if she isn’t a household name, she is certainly someone who has enough familiarity to have a breakthrough role like Ghost in the Shell. One more thing – Rinko Kikuchi is an Academy Award-nominated actress, and you know who isn’t? Scarlett Johansson. I just find the irony so delightful.
Anyway, let us move on swiftly. Ghost in the Shell really is only worth it for one reason, and that is the godly and utterly captivating Juliette Binoche, who has a major supporting role in this film. I could honestly watch her read the newspaper. Her work isn’t groundbreaking, but it was comforting to see an established and talented actress in this film. As a cinephile, seeing one of the most revered actresses working today in such a messy film is wonderful, because it distracts us from the chaos elsewhere in the film. Binoche is obviously great, but she always is great, and she elevates her small role to something special. It isn’t a definitive performance, and I suspect a lot of the target audience won’t know who she is, but that doesn’t change the fact that we should be grateful to the incredible Juliette for going through the labour of making this film somewhat bearable with her performance.
Japanese icon and legendary actor Takeshi Kitano is also in this film, and he’s as brilliant as he has ever been. His character is mysterious and captivating, and he does a great job of also elevating the character beyond the point where the filmmakers wanted it to go. He is the one character in the film that is unpredictable with his motives, and right until the end, we don’t know where his character is headed. If this film just focused on Binoche and Kitano, I would be a very happy cinephile (and who wouldn’t want to see one of the most acclaimed European actresses starring across from a true Japanese icon?). If you haven’t seen any of Kitano’s work before as an actor, director, game-show creator or comedian, then you are missing out on quite a bit.
I don’t like getting into the whitewashing debate of this film, because I feel everything that should be said has been said. Personally, I saw no point in casting Johansson other than the fact that the filmmakers thought she’d be the best choice. She didn’t do a bad job, and in the end, if you can play the role, then why not? Obviously I would have preferred someone like Kikuchi, but ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. They do try and explain the origins of the character, but it is sloppily added on, and while I wouldn’t call this the most blatant and offensive example of whitewashing recently, it just seemed like they were looking for trouble and controversy. There are so many roles for Johansson, an already world-famous actress. This could’ve been the breakout role for any other actress who actually needed one, but it was just another example of just going with a name to rake in the dollars, sacrificing both authenticity and the chance to actually make a star out of an unknown or a more obscure actress that desperately could’ve used a role like this to further her career. Or Rinko Kikuchi, who is just a sublime actress in all aspects.
I just want to mention one thing about Ghost in the Shell that was actually very positive – it was beautiful to look at. Visually, they really did a wonderful job. Far from being a generic action film, the filmmakers actually took the time to create a world that was eye-poppingly beautiful, and the production design was just excellent in every way. Detailed and astoundingly pleasing to the eye, the visuals Ghost in the Shell are on another level, and it would’ve been a much better film if it just focused on the city itself, because the world-building in this film was brilliant and far better than the actual story.
Overall, Ghost in the Shell was a mediocre film. It was visually pleasing, but a lesser performance from Johansson, and some very bad acting from some actors (who I just don’t want to discuss), and a sense of laziness just prevented this film from being as great as it could’ve been. I just wish the source material had been adapted more faithfully – but there is no reason an authentic Japanese production of this can’t happen, someone just needs to call Takashi Miike, and hopefully he’ll bring Rinko Kikuchi along. Not a great film, but not a terrible one either. Just mediocre, that’s all that it was and could ever hope to be. At least it wasn’t eye-scratchingly bad, which was a genuine worry for me going into this film.