A film adaptation carries a lot of ambiguous responsibility. Should it replicate the source material or be an original story by itself? By far, Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell has been the most controversial film adaptation in recent memory. Mostly due to the whitewashed casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major, the series’ protagonist, 2017’s Ghost in the Shell is already typified as a poor attempt to Westernize the anime classic.
But the curtain has just been drawn. Ghost in the Shell surprises everyone by serving up an imperfect but very watchable entry to the sci-fi genre.
The adaptation isn’t the shit stain everyone makes it out to be. Firstly, it pays homage to the original movie by reinterpreting various scenes from the 1995 classic. While following the structure of the classic movie, it packs elements from succeeding entries in the series into the reimagined movie. Ghost in the Shell stands alone as its own film, but it still closely follows the legacy of its predecessor.
Set in the near future, Ghost in the Shell imagines a world where cybernetic augmentations are not only possible, but proliferated to the common populace. Major is the world’s first total cyborg without any human elements except for her brain. She works for Division 9, a law enforcement agency working under Japan’s Prime Minister. Ghost in the Shell starts as a terrorist hacker threatens scientists all over Japan.
Stated like that, Ghost in the Shell sounds like your standard fare of action movies set in futuristic settings—a faux sci-fi film. But Ghost in the Shell isn’t just your standard action film. It’s a cautionary tale that tackles the problems of identity in the age of technology—a tradition that the 1995 classic started. It does dumb down the original’s questions by spoonfeeding viewers the thoughts that should naturally occur from watching the movie, however. Still, it’s a tale that asks the right questions in today’s modern technological time.
Most of the questions revolve around Scarlett Johansson’s character, Major. She deftly tackles issues concerning what exactly she is as a human trapped inside a robot’s body. But pacing quickly devolves the movie to who she was—a turn that transforms Ghost in the Shell into a detective thriller rather than what it could be.
Pacing still remains an issue even without the philosophical mumbo jumbo. Most of the movie is a thoughtful exercise in worldbuilding and plot-moving. Latter acts, however, barrel down into territories moviegoers should be familiar with—cookie-cutter action blockbuster. Ghost in the Shell was so absorbed in its own philosophy that it forgot to build up its villains and its ending. It was weak and didn’t have the impact that a Ghost in the Shell entry should have.
Still, Ghost in the Shell is still watchable, helped perhaps by Johansson’s performance as Major. Coming into the movie, my biggest concern with the casting is her stigma as Black Widow from Avengers. It’s extremely difficult to see actors snapped away from their most iconic roles. Johansson suffers no problems of the sort. While Black Widow was definitely in her performance, she mixes it up with her roles from both Under the Skin (which is another Johansson film that delves deeply into the problems of identity) and Lucy.
Further, a huge chunk of Ghost in the Shell’s success is rooted in its amazing artistry. If anything, Ghost in the Shell looks beautiful. Future Japan looks spectacular with its holographic billboards and lived-in districts. Robotic augmentations (and even the actual robots used) were well depicted.
Ghost in the Shell might not be the perfect anime adaptation that everyone was hoping for but it’s not the absolute garbage that everyone expected to be, either. It’s good but not great. Both sci-fi fans and Ghost in the Shell aficionados should find something to love in this film.