Live action, Hollywood version of Ghost in the Shell. Like most anime adaptations, expect fans to be annoyed regardless of what they do. In this case the white-washing argument dominated early reviews of the movie. Ignoring all of that, its a movie about a girl who is given an artifical body but finds out her memories are also artificial and then seeks out the truth.
A while ago, and I do mean a while ago given it was a few months now, I had the chance to spend a few days in a town with a cinema and took full advantage of it by pretty much spending each evening trying a different movie (its usually about six months in between cinema visits so yes, I over indulge when given the opportunity). One of the movies I watched last time was the Ghost in the Shell live action movie with Scarlett Johansson in the lead role. I’m going to be clear in that while I have watched some of the anime franchise releases I am not a fan of the Ghost in the Shell anime. Mostly I found it to be a bit dull (and I just lost every fan of the anime right then and there). With that said, I actually wanted to see what Hollywood would do with this movie because the basic concept in the anime was kind of cool.
What this means is I didn’t go in wanting a faithful re-enactment of a source or a true Ghost in the Shell experience. I wanted to see a futuristic story play out in an interesting manner. From that point of view I actually wasn’t too disappointed even if some of the film leaves itself open for criticism. I also viewed this with someone who never watches anime. When I said I was interested in seeing the film they said they thought the trailer looked interesting. I pointed out it was based on an anime and they looked stunned. They showed me the trailer they had watched and yeah, no mention of the fact it was based on an anime. So I had the interesting experience of watching it with someone with no knowledge of the previous franchise and the discussion after about what was good or not about the film was fairly entertaining.
Anyway, the reason for all of that is a lot of the reviews I read of this film prior to getting to see it were comparison based. They looked at the scenes that were essentially re-enactments of anime sequences and they looked at Johansson’s performance as the Major. Some gave it a nod, a lot tore it to pieces, and occasionally you even got to read a review that actually reviewed the movie as a stand alone piece of entertainment.
Let’s start with the positives about this film.
It has a great setting. Visually it is fun to look at and fairly reminiscent of Blade Runner or the Fifth Element, but mostly it just looks and feels like a real futuristic place. It looks lived in and used and feels like something that might eventuate for our cities the way things are going. As the characters move around in this setting there’s a lot of rich background detail which just adds to the overall feel of immersion in the world they are trying to create. Where the setting starts to fall down is when we spend time in the slums and the more isolated locations. That feeling of being a real location kind of falls apart once the characters are on their own in places that look more like set pieces. They needed to stick to the more populated areas because that is where the setting came alive.
The story itself of the Major finding out who she is/was/will be, whatever. Her identity crisis is handled pretty well. It isn’t earth shattering or something we haven’t seen done in sci-fi before but it is a story that works and the writing is good enough that it holds together well. Johansson also gives a decent enough performance as she becomes more who she is rather than who she is programmed to be.
Lastly, the action works in this film. If you want a sci-fi action this one will do the job. There’s some decent fight sequences and some decent gun play/explosions. Certainly this is watchable just from that point of view.
What works less well in this film is the pacing, the support cast, the villain and the final fight sequence. That’s a lot of issues for it to overcome. Admittedly, none of these are deal breakers and you will have seen worse if you have spent any time watching Hollywood science fiction or action movies, but they do interrupt the enjoyment of the viewing and make this good enough but not good.
The pacing is hampered by a desire to throw those bones to the fans. The forced re-enactment of some scenes really does hinder the flow of this story. Admittedly, these aren’t the only pacing issues. The show goes from fast paced action to slow introspections and back and forth as the current scene demands and the end result is going from feeling slightly bored to over stimulated. The person I was viewing with wondered why some scenes existed at all and I pointed out it was a scene from the original and then she just wondered why they bothered to include it. Maybe fans received these moments better but for the casual viewer it really did just mess with the pacing and cohesion of this movie.
Then there’s the support cast with their very hit and miss performances. Conversations go from zero to over the top drama school level anger in seconds and seemingly with little trigger. There’s a few of the support cast that just had me shaking my head as they delivered their lines with as much forced enthusiasm as you usually see in a children’s play. On the other hand, some of the support cast actually did a stellar job with the material they were given and their performances really help hold the reality of the story together.
When it comes to the actual villain of the story, he suffers from an incredibly shallow motivation and almost zero actual plan. When he calls for the spider tank at the end you just know that this guy exists only to be a jerk and he wouldn’t go astray as the villain in an early batman film.
Which leads us on to the final fight sequence against the spider tank. What? Why? We have a thoughtful and interesting science fiction concept about the human consciousness and blending with machines and the best you can do for a final fight sequence is send a tank that does not look like it is obeying the laws of physics to shoot at the main character? Really?
Okay, I actually did enjoy watching this movie. Then again, it was pretty much average Hollywood. Nothing really surprising about it and perfectly watchable with no understanding of the franchise. Would I recommend it? Only if you are pretty much up for anything sci-fi or action and aren’t too picky about the acting.
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