The subject of much controversy in recent months, DreamWorks’ attempt of creating a live action adaptation of the popular 1995 anime film Ghost in the Shell hit theaters this weekend. Directed by Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman), the cyberpunk film follows a cyborg super-cop named Major (Scarlett Johansson- also the epicenter for most of the film’s controversy) as her and her team at Section 9 take on a terror plot of conspiratorial proportions. Curious to see where the Internet hate lined up with what was actually shown, I gave it a shot. Below are my thoughts over the film with minor spoilers.
Pushing the baggage that comes with a title as feverishly followed as this aside, making an adaptation of any kind is an incredibly difficult feat (if it were easy, we would be lining up to go see a superhero flick every weekend). No matter how great or terrible an adaptation is going to be, if the audience enters it with a disdain for a franchise being made (be it a sour taste from a previous iteration or downright rage towards a live action film being made for the work) all the more the viewer can really say is that they working with a confirmation bias. This disclosure still doesn’t do Ghost in the Shell any real favors, as there are several red flags within the first two or three scenes that spell doom for a film of any kind, adaptation or not. A majority of the top billed acting talent feels unreasonably stiff, with exchanges often times comparing to hearing a computer reading off a script with two plain voices. At first I was able to dismiss it as a fluke, but after the third time that Johansson replied to questions with less emotion than her Black Widow role (think about that for a second), the problem became a very dark reality. I’m not sure if the direction was for a gritty, stoic atmosphere between characters, but I found myself begging for another scene with Pilou Asbæk’s tolerable Batou performance like it was my last bit of air. When the members of Section 9 were together, a lot of the stiff delivery was masked decently by cheesy bantering and lighter shades in an obviously over dramatic setting.
My first instinct was to say that the film looked great, but by the time the second act rolled around, a lot of the polish wore off and the style decisions became downright head scratching. One of the more iconic scenes from the original led the beginning of the film, with Major shooting through a business meeting gone wrong. The scene was clearly meant to be the sales pitch, because the action and visuals worked at their best here- the slow motion felt just right given the speed of the scene, and the firefight ended really satisfying. Unfortunately, a lot of the same techniques overstay their welcome into the following action scenes and feel incredibly out of place. Every bullet, every punch, and every explosion is accompanied by a two to five second slow motion effect. Halfway through the last fight of the film’s first act, the effect gets so dull that it drags the pace and drains the fun out of the sequences. The city looks beautiful when in overhead shots, but as the drama picks up and the focus is more direct on the conspiracy, the colors blur into underwhelming backdrops.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of Ghost in the Shell is that the movie comes really close to being decent. With the notch on the seriousness kicked back a few and maybe about twenty minutes shaved off the run time, there could be a tolerable film in there. Unfortunately, the critical mistake it makes in simply trying too hard with every element of the film plummets it down to the cold hard reality of how small of a window adaptations get in being successful. Moments like having Major see herself as a teen (which is clearly played by an Asian teen and not Johannson) only feeds the problems and comes off rather irresponsible to the wishes of making effective cinema for the source material. Not only do the blunders hurt the film and the fans of the series, but it sets the big picture goal of bringing the culture into a wider audience. If the film fails as hard as experts are anticipating, producers will want nothing to do with a script related to an anime or manga series for quite some time. For a (potentially large) part of the otaku community this might be music to their ears, but I can’t help but to be let down by the enduring stigma that faces anime and manga in the States. Hopefully someone will take note of what Ghost in the Shell did and take it into account when the next big franchise is given a chance for the silver screen, because this film certainly has slammed the door shut for now.
For more Ghost in the Shell be sure to check out the original manga series, now in print from Kodansha Comics USA!