Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell ★★★★

The idea of Ghost in the Shell being adapted to a Hollywood live action remake may baffle many, as the original anime by Mamoru Oshii in 1995 has generated a strong following that marks the film as one of the best that the medium has to offer. Personally, I am one of the few who showed little to no praise for Oshii’s film, recalling a particular distance between myself and the protagonist and the world that surrounds its characters, thus making its visuals all the more unappealing.

Sure, Hollywood could have taken a different route and instead invested on new material that would have taken a strong influence with Oshii’s film, a more inventive and innovative concept and effort that would surely earn greater respect from its audience, but knowing that in doing such would lack the immediate hook of the general market, and thus increasing its risk of financial returns. Paramount and Dreamworks studios would instead take an already established product and create a familiar or, at times, a new spin on the matter, knowing that its audience would either carry their own generated hype or they would come to watch for the mere curiosity of its marketed appeal.

However, if this is the direction that studios are willing to take for their yearly large-scale productions, then I can only hope that what they bring to the table would be interesting and engaging. Many of the reviews that have already surfaced for Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell have already pointed out their criticisms for its storytelling and some highlighting the redundancy of its mere existence. I came into the film expecting not to be overwhelmingly impressed, but instead to provide a small dose of escapism from a hard week’s work, as I tend to with these kinds of films. It was to my surprise that the overall impression that I had was far greater than I had anticipated, marking it as one of the best films so far that the studio system has yet to offer.

Those criticisms that I had with Oshii’s film were not present here, as the combination of Scarlett Johansson’s committed performance and Sanders’ careful direction, there is a palpable sense of humanity that is empathetic in Johansson’s Major. It was in the awareness and exploration that Major shows with her own identity, questioning the pieces of her past and weighing the value of her existence. I was with her throughout the way, holding on to her shoulders as secrets begin to surface and dangers slowly begin to close in on her. The film becomes a highlight on humanity’s progression towards seamless blending towards manufactured robotics, with Major as an example of her brain merged with a “shell”, an innovation that has the potential to save the lives of many, while also highlighting the dangers of exploitation that comes along with it.

As the film’s personal story unfolds, Ghost in the Shell makes every opportunity to contrast’s Major’s journey with the world that surrounds her, revealing the conditions that mainstream society is enduring through scenes of her and her colleague, Batou (Pilou Asbæk), walking the city streets, or the sense of luxury that is found in the individuals within the higher socio-economical gradient, or the growing aggressiveness towards commercialism despite the apparent dissolution of the middle class; these are aspects of world-building that feel apparent through Sanders’ visuals, never taking precedence over the primary story, but becomes critical in shaping the appeal of the film and in immersing its audience in its imaginative world. The effort that Sanders provides in this visual storytelling recalls the aesthetics of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, notably in its fusion of both Asian and Western culture, reiterating the slow consumption of Western civilisation with the values and products of the modern Asian tradition, fabricating an identity that feels firmly established rather than one in the brink of transition. While also it brings forth a sense of inspiring awe in its blend of sterile beauty and cluttered filth, a world seemingly keen to create majestic towers while its foundation, the city streets, feel neglected and subjected to passive disintegration; this was a quality that felt familiar to the impact left on me by Alex Proyas’ Dark City and Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, two films that are noteworthy for their constructed worlds.

Most importantly, Ghost in the Shell is a film that exists to entertain its audience, and personally I found the film highly effective in that regard, as given the surprising depth and care that were provided for establishing and unravelling Major’s plot, the film’s intersection of action sequences never felt out of place or for mere indulgence, constantly in conjunction with the demands of the narrative and merely stylised to apply particular flavour that would visually induce a sense of awe with its audience. The gunplay, the hand to hand combat, and the chase sequences are marvels to be had, but without the urgency and curiosity behind Major’s personal journey, then the film would surely have been synonymous to the common hollowness that grand-scale blockbusters have succumbed to since the turn of the century.

I cannot deny the film of some of the flaws that it carries, though most are forgivable, their existence still withheld the film from being the state of excellence that it potentially carried. The dialogue is one of the film’s primary issue, with some moments of delivery felt easy and close to being off-putting, it is a reductive approach to a film that seemed to have placed a greater focus on its visual aesthetic to create shades of depth in its character and world-building, but thankfully it never overwhelms the film to a drastic measure, however, a tinge of ambiguity in the spoken words would have further allowed the engagement to be demanded from its audience.

As any other mainstream action film from the modern era, there is an obligation for the film to construct a specific villain that would be ultimately be confronted in its climax or finale. Ghost in the Shell is certainly a film that suffers from such demands, allowing the narrative to resolve in a much simpler fashion than it personally deserves, but unlike many of its peers, the concept of this archetypal antagonist is challenged as the initially perceived villain would begin to show shades of his agenda and existence to be sympathetic and at times morally ambiguous, and slowly the film reshapes the antagonistic mould, finding another individual that would fill in such a role while staying strongly relevant to Major’s story. It can even be argued that the film’s true villain is the immoral progress of technological innovation, attempting to reduce the value of Major’s existence, viewing her as merely a tool for the agenda of others, not realising of the core humanity that is the soul of these “shells”.

It may be possible that the film’s sense of wonder was merely captured from the ideal conditions that the space of cinema can provide on an individual, but I cannot deny the film of the strengths that it possesses in its mode of storytelling, demonstrating great care and effort for making its protagonist’s story a relevant and empathetic one, while providing the masses with the visual treat that they were desperately promised. It is a shame that many others can’t seem to find the same appeal as I have with it.

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