Following the trend of adapting anime into real live action movies (see Ruroni Kenshin but do NOT see DragonBall Z)- the storytellers of Hollywood decided to take on Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell as the next title to hit the big screen. The source material has had, either directly or not, such a huge impact on anime, games, storytelling and digital entertainment.
We review the movie from two distinct perspectives.
To say that Mike knows the source material intimately is like saying he just likes Star Wars and Lego.
Shane on the other hand has never seen the original.
I’ve made it a point to not read other reviews before seeing it and now that I have, I think the best way to talk about it is to discuss why I was disappointed in what could have been a great movie and what should NOT be done when bringing cult classics to Hollywood.
- Don’t stray too far away from the source material. The success of any anime can be traced back to how great the story is, which also translates to how great the characters are and overall how much of an impact the anime made on you. It might have happened in the first episode of the series, or the first 10 minutes of the movie but somewhere along the journey, something clicks and voila’ you become a fan. Changing these things just to bring the content to the big screen might seem like a way to cater to a larger audience based on some testing the studios might have made or some assumptions some writers/directors/producers made- but the issue is that somewhere along the line, one misstep and you mess up the formula- and the magic is gone. Ghost in the Shell the movie could have tapped into so many side stories within the GITS universe.
The source material is so rich that it even spawned several anime series after the original movie. It even managed to do alternate re-tellings but still maintain the mythos.
After seeing the movie, it seems that the powers that be that produced the movie decided to ignore all of that. Bad idea. It is almost as if the movie execs did not see the movie with the dialogue on and only wanted to make a movie that just LOOKED like Ghost in the Shell. Everything else was trashed.
- Don’t mess with the characters. With no shortage of Japanese, ok, Asian actors in general, and with all respect to Scarlet J. being a great actress, the movie could have done a better job with casting in general. The section-9 crew were relevant to the original story by being remarkable and memorable characters.
Changing Motoko Kusanagi into an easily hackable runaway turned cyborg, the Chief Aramaki into some Yakuza like bad ass and Togusa into some Japanese super cop dude completely changed the dynamic of the characters. I do concede that Batou wasn’t as terrible as I thought he would be but it wasn’t enough to make me see just how tightly knit the team was as they were in the anime. I believe the controversy surrounding the casting was not a knee jerk reaction as some might dismiss it to be. There is a legitimate cause for casting an actual Japanese actor (or Asian actor) for a clearly Japanese role.
- Story trumps special effects. The original animated movie had distinct themes that were carried by an amazing story. It inspired the Wachowski brothers to create the Matrix. It is also know to have influenced James Cameron in some of the tech behind his hit Avatar. I cite those mostly because they not only were movies told with great stories, but they used special effects to tell the story more than BE the story. The technical achievements of Ghost in the Shell as an anime were groundbreaking (not as much as Akira was) and the movie adaptation had huge shoes to fill, and as far as special effects go, it did.
Prior to the movies release the trailer featured an almost scene perfect translation of the pursuit of the hacked garbage man. It was, for all intents and purposes, a great sneak peek at things to come. Below is the original scene.
But as grand as the cinematography and special effects were in the realization of the animated vision, that remained the extent of it. The story was devoid of the actual existential crisis that the animated feature so skillfully presented. It felt like watching a 3rd world knock off movie that was re-written for a tween audience.
- Dumbing down the screenplay is just for dummies. Mentioning “Ghost” and “Shell” in every possible meaningful conversation does not give proper homage to the “Ghost in the Machine” that inspired Ghost in the Shell. The original source tackled concepts from Hegel , the ancient Greeks and tied them with evolution. Questions about the soul were reduced to, as a friend so well put, “lines worse than Twilight”. Concepts like diving into another person’s cyber brain and the complexity of what the puppet master had achieved which created the threat worth investigating were made akin to surfing the web without a proper virus scan and getting infected with some virus. And inviting one to merge consciousness was made to be as simple as entering a chatroom.
There was a critical scene in the original feature that had the audience look at a bullet scarred wall with a tree of life. The tree itself was a key image that asked “where do robots fit in this new technologically driven evolution? In the movie, it was a reduced to a family tree- where “mommy Motoko” and “not the puppetmaster daddy” played house with the rest of the runaway children- just part of the memories which the movie touts as not what makes us human. This was a coup de grace of simplification that the movie so recklessly peddled.
I could spend hours dissecting the movie and tell you how they absolutely screwed it up. Royally. But I would be remiss to say that if the movie did NOT have such a powerful source material behind it, it might have faired well as a regular sci-fi flick that just so happens to have Scarlet J. And even with crappy writing aside, the special effects were stunning and could have been a decent movie- more along the lines of Starship trooper which was campy but that was it. The problem is that Ghost in The Shell DID. And in an effort to deliver something knowing all of this was indeed a challenge. The movie tried too hard to be serious and meaningful. In the end, through the eyes of a fan who has followed the title so intensely, I wish I had several cybernetic thumbs just so that I could rate this movie appropriately.
I liked it.
Maybe it was going in with such a low expectation and not knowing any of the source material. I knew of the anime, of course, but it was just something I had never got around to watching (It is most certainly on my watch list now). I had avoided reviews as best I could but the constant headlines of “poor critic reviews” or “White washing hits again!” bring down your expectation quickly! So I went to it with a friend and neither of us had high hopes.
There was a few sections in the movie where I was a little bit underwhelmed. I feel like they didn’t really make the main “villain” a strong villain, I didn’t like the portrayal of the character. It felt like there was a lot missing from him or something.
The “white washing” was a big thing for me. I didn’t understand why they had to cast a caucasian actress to play the Major. However, it wasn’t until after the show that my buddy mentioned the original director thought the casting was perfect. He was referring to an article on IGN where Mamoru Oshii responded, through email, with “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one“. That is well explained in the movie and upon looking back on it I would have to say I didn’t really have a problem with it. If you had swapped out Scarlett with an Asian actress would the movie have been any better? I don’t think so. I liked the movie, but it only just crawled over the line.
A lot of it felt a little flat, like there was story missing from it. It didn’t captivate from the beginning, it failed to really grip the whole way through the movie. But all of these were by close margins. The dialogue just didn’t achieve what it should have!
Ratings (out of 10)