An Adaptation That Treats Its Source Material with Reverence While Managing to Carve Out Its Own Identity
Few films have explored the idea of what it means to be human quite as strongly as Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell. Based on the 1989 manga of the same name, this cyberpunk film raised the bar for not only Japanese animation, but animation as a whole, even influencing renowned live-action films like The Matrix. So, naturally, this American adaptation had the unenviable task of honoring its highly regarded source material while still managing to be different enough to justify its existence. Ghost in the Shell (2017) primarily succeeds in this regard.
Perhaps the largest point of pre-release criticism towards this adaptation was the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the Major, the main character of the Ghost in the Shell franchise. With accusations of whitewashing abound, it was interesting to see how this situation would actually be handled in the film’s plot. There is a scene in the latter half that does an admirable job at explaining why the Major is Caucasian. It is the most emotionally resonating moment in the film, and will probably satisfy most of the individuals with whitewashing concerns. As illustrated by her work in Under the Skin and Her, Johansson is no stranger to portraying characters who feel distanced from humanity. She feels at home in this type of role, accurately conveying the Major’s growing feelings of loneliness.
Ghost in the Shell’s greatest strength is found in the technical wizardry on display throughout the film. The technical aspects of filmmaking are all given time to shine, with the cinematography visually arresting, the editing precise, the sets and costumes artfully crafted, the score melodic and the visual effects seamlessly integrated with practical effects. The film shares some similarities with the anime’s vision of the future, but director Rupert Sanders has managed to give his version its own visually distinctive look.
In spite of its strengths, Ghost in the Shell does suffer from an issue all too prevalent in recent blockbusters: the lack of a strong villain. The film’s antagonist is essentially “CEO Corporate Schmuck Number 527.” This is not to say that Peter Ferdinando’s performance is bad. Rather, he does the best he can with a script that is sorely lacking in certain areas.
Some of the dialogue is noticeably stilted and a bit on the nose. While the anime occasionally devolved into technobabble, the dialogue was engaging and fostered philosophical discussion. The franchise’s trademark philosophical underpinnings are still present in this film, but it does feel like this content has been dumbed down somewhat for the sake of catering to the masses.
Still, this is a fine effort in many respects. The technical design is nearly faultless and the performances, while sometimes held back by a lackluster script, capture the spirit of the source material’s characters. Big-budget films based on manga and anime are a rare sight, and Ghost in the Shell represents a sure-footed, notable step forward in bringing this content into the public eye.