I've Got A Lot Of Thoughts About Ghost in the Shell
Few people were as critical of the new Ghost in the Shell movie prior to release than me. Well, probably Japanese-Americans, but in terms of angry white men, I was probably the angriest and definitely the whitest. After all, GitS is something near and dear to me - Stand Alone Complex, in particular. This was a franchise that helped define a lot of my life philosophies, one that helped shape who I am today in a lot of respects. It was a sublime critique of the geopolitical sphere and society's reliance on technology, and Hollywood had the fucking gall to turn it into a generic action vehicle for one of the most generic actresses out there? You'd best believe I was pissed.
And you'd also best believe that I inevitably shelled out money to see it, just so I could complain about it. Yet walking out the theater, I was left with a surprisingly conflicted feeling. More accurately, a long series of conflicted feelings. Feelings that I had to type out here, because what else am I going to do with life if not bitching about anime on the internet?
It's Not Bad
So right up front, I'm going to say this - Ghost in the Shell is not a bad movie. No, really. All told, compared to most of the garbage that Hollywood shovels down our gullets these days, it's pretty decent. Compared to incompetently made snoozefests like Rogue One or Doctor Strange, or utter pieces of cinematic trash like Jurassic World, Ghost in the Shell is surprisingly ambitious in its usage of special effects, and its plot that occasionally threatens to make you think.
It's also possibly the best anime adaptation Hollywood's put out. I know, I know - low bar. But think back on the pure trash that America's managed to turn anime into. Dragonball Evolution, Fist of the North Star, The Guyver, and that new Death Note thing that looks hilarious for all the wrong reasons. Anime adaptations are few and far in between, and I'm thankful for that. Anime usually shouldn't ever be turned into live-action films, anyway, much like comic books. But in the rare occasion it goes live-action and American, all pretenses of making a decent film seem to go out the window.
With apologies to Speed Racer, of course - that movie is a goddamned national treasure.
But in the field of American anime adaptations, Ghost in the Shell is a cut above the rest. That's because it feels, at every twist and turn, that it was made by people who actually respect the source material. For a good portion of the runtime, I felt like I was watching a particularly decent fan film. While I doubt this was the product of Ehren Kruger's final draft, considering that he's a fucking hack and all, there are isolated instances of character interactions, visual nods, and other things that feel like a labor of love from people who love both Mamoru Oshii and Kenji Kamiyama.
It's Also Not Amazing
Unfortunately, though, much like even the best fan films, Ghost in the Shell also feels kind of one-note for the most part.
Yes, despite me not entirely hating it, I can't exactly say this is a sterling example of cinematic quality either. All the pieces are there, sure - a novel plot that's mostly a retread of the first movie and some stellar visuals, plus some surprisingly great performances. But these bits and pieces feel at odds with other parts of the film that feel underdeveloped, to the point where I suspect a good portion of this movie was left on the cutting room floor. The whole thing feels disjointed, like there are whole character backstories and lore details we're supposed to just know. Because we don't, we're left to flounder during some parts of the film.
This disjointed feeling applies to the pacing as well. The whole film feels like it's moving in fast-forward, and I genuinely can't tell if that's bad writing or because this is a truncated version of an earlier, stronger draft of the film. Remember, this is a movie that's been in development for almost a decade - I vividly remember reading about its production in Anime Insider in 2008 or so. There's no doubt in my mind that somewhere, a better version of this movie exists. A version that Ehren Kruger and Rupert Sanders hadn't gotten their artistically vacuous clutches on yet - probably the version that Spielberg was heavily involved in, in fact. The fact that a Laeta Kalogridis draft of this movie exists gives credence to this theory, considering she was behind the fantastic Birds of Prey and Shutter Island, not to mention the underrated Terminator Genisys.
So, yeah, Ghost in the Shell feels like it was a great movie at some point, and those bits of greatness definitely glimmer through sometimes. Unfortunately, they're overwhelmed by Kruger and Moss' propensity for hackneyed, crowd-pleasing entertainment and Sanders' general absence of intelligent filmmaking in favor of spectacle.
However, I hate Sanders significantly less than I do Kruger, so I need to give credit where credit is due.
At Least It Looks Good
There's a lot of CGI carnivals in Hollywood, aren't there? And while some might say CGI these days is at its best, I disagree. I disagree because most of it looks fucking uniform. There's a general "look" to most special effects today that's hard to describe - sort of a "know it when you see it" situation. The thing is, people don't. Give me weird looks when I say people that Rogue One looks the same as the last seven thousand Marvel movies which looks the same as Jurassic World which... well, you get the point. Whether it's creative bankruptcy, a few select SFX houses having a monopoly on big budget movies, or something else entirely, the multi-zillion dollar movie landscape is looking pretty bland. Sumptuous visual feasts like The Great Wall and A Cure For Wellness are few and far between.
Thank God, then, that Ghost In The Shell found time to hire an actually decent visual designer with its 110 million dollars. Everything in this movie looks fantastic. The set design is impeccable. The CG is used to render things that aren't explosions, buildings, or exploding buildings. There's actually a meaningful sense of scale and breathing room for the characters to occupy. Oh, and the shot composition isn't just jittery, fast garbage.
Part of that, as much as I hate to give credit to the genius behind Snow White and the Fucking Huntsman, is probably thanks to Sanders himself. If you've seen the guy's commercials and music videos, then you'll know he has a real knack for pretty, well-composed shots and lush visuals. With a good script, he could really make a killing, much like Gore Verbinski did with A Cure For Wellness. You see that a little here, considering that the script for this isn't all bad. When the plot isn't grinding to a screeching halt for Michael Pitt to be an edgy fucklord (more on that in a second,) and the script, score, acting and visuals are all working in perfect harmony, you see glimpses of legitimate greatness.
So yeah. This movie's really pretty, and not like other schlock the Hollywood system's churning out. If you're interested in visual design, this movie is well worth watching for that alone.
Michael Pitt Must Be Stopped
I'm going to talk about the casting in a second, because I actually think everyone's pretty well cast (with one big caveat.) But first, we need to talk about Michael Pitt. We need to talk about the edgy, brooding teenager of Hollywood, Michael fucking Pitt, who I'm half-convinced is actually just a persona of Jared Leto. I'm not a fan of singling out actors and dumping on them, because hey, I used to act. Almost pursued it as a career. But for the life of me, I can't understand how Michael Pitt manages to keep getting work.
For 3/4 of Ghost in the Shell, he's the antagonist, and took me out of the movie every time he was on screen. Somebody told him to be a robot, and he saw fit to just do his finest Microsoft Sam impersonation in every major scene. It's such a piss poor performance that his big scene where he reveals all of his motives, where viewers are supposed to realize the story goes deeper than they thought, ended up making me crack the fuck up throughout. His Kuze (Puppet Master in the original) is an angsty automaton who lends no real gravity to the character, which is a problem considering he's an actual lynchpin to the climax of the movie. I was actually fine with him just being a one-note bad guy, because then I could be happy about him dying. Instead, the movie expected me to care about him, and honestly, I just fucking couldn't.
I don't have much beyond this. Michael Pitt's bad as always. He singlehandedly ruins parts of this movie. Next!
The Cast Should've Been Japanese, But...
Up front, the whitewashing critiques of this movie are correct. One-hundred fucking percent. None of these characters should be white. At the very least, a character named "Batou" shouldn't have been, and the Major herself shouldn't have been. This movie continues a long, long history of pretending people of color don't exist, and if they do, they sure as hell aren't Japanese, Chinese, or Korean. Despite all three of those countries making up a good portion of box office draws - to the point where movies like Terminator Genisys actually did better in Asian countries than it did in America. And despite the fact that there are plenty of Japanese actresses who could've anchored this movie.
Also, people saying it was just a business decision can just stop it already. It's the "Civil War was about economics" argument - ignoring the real, uncomfortable issue in favor of a sanitized fabrication of the truth. This decision is based very much in racism, whether intentional or not. But unintentional racism is still racism in another form, and so, continuing a long-standing tradition of ignoring Asian people's existence is still racist as fuck. Further compounding the problem is that this is an adaptation of a franchise steeped very deeply in Japanese philosophy and politics - making it all the weirder that ScarJo is the anchor for it. Mamoru Oshii's myopic opinion aside, the Major should never be white, because Ghost in the Shell is about the idealized Japanese woman navigating Japanese society's culture and politics through the lens of science fiction. There's something lost when you whitewash her.
Now, here's where my opinion gets controversial, a wee bit. Let me preface this with, yeah, I know I'm a white guy unaffected by racism, so I get that this isn't as much of a blow to me as it would be an actual Japanese-American. But I've gotta say...
This thing is honestly pretty well cast.
Pilou Asbaek, in particular, is fucking phenomenal as Batou. While I love Motoko, Batou has honestly always been my favorite character in the franchise. His role as a proxy between Motoko and humanity, his gruff sarcasm, his rough-and-tumble nature... he's just great. So, of all people, I was going to be one of the hardest on Batou. Yet Asbaek passes with flying colors. He completely nails everything that makes the character so great, right down to small physical mannerisms that convince me he spent a great deal of time with the source material. His exchanges with the Major feel like they're ripped straight from the anime, even when they're composed of original dialogue, and that's not an easy feat to pull off.
The rest of the cast is pretty great, too! Beat Takeshi lends his signature "salty old fuck" demeanor to a more robust Aramaki, and Chin Han lends a grounded humanism to what few scenes Togusa is in. Juliette Binoche excels as new character, Doctor Ouelette, and acts as a maternal foil to ScarJo's Major. Oh, and ScarJo herself is... well, she's fine. There are some scenes where I feel like she's a little too wide-eyed and whimsical for the role, but she really sells all of her action sequences.
Yes, the casting choice was fucking racist. Michael Pitt is insufferable. But the rest of the cast we ended up with? Not bad, especially Asbaek. But this is far from my most controversial opinion. Here, hold my beer and watch this.
It Actually Improves Upon The Source Material
I know, I'm supposed to turn in my anime fan card for even typing that sub-heading. But hear me out.
See, I like the original Ghost in the Shell. I do. It's a seminal work of the medium, after all. However, much like the mediocre manga that inspired it... well, Mamoru Oshii's original film feels like a rough prototype of something that both he and Kenji Kamiyama would finish about a decade later. There are bits and pieces of philosophical elements, sociopolitical statements, et cetera, present in Ghost in the Shell that would become much more than bits and pieces in Innocence and Stand Alone Complex. Yes, it's a profound work of art, and has style for days, but it also feels a bit rough around the edges to me. In particular, Motoko herself is kind of a bad heroine in the original. She's bossed around by men, persuaded by men, and at the end of the film, has her entire worldview shaped by literally becoming one with a man. She has no real autonomy. Some might say that it's a commentary on women's roles in Japanese society, but honestly, one need only look at Shirow and Oshii's other works to know that feminism isn't really high on their priority list in terms of topics they care to tackle.
This new film actually improves on the original in that it makes Oshii's take on Motoko (not Kamiyama's, whose Motoko is the character her very best) a more dynamic character. She's given a backstory as a runaway teen who was snatched from the street and forced into a strange new body. She's given a major female character to play off of in Ouelette. She's given an actual mother in Kaori Momoe's character. Instead of acting as a sex object or a proxy for men's ideas, this version of Motoko is given legitimate autonomy to become a fleshed-out character with a crisis of conscience she solves herself. The film even adapts Motoko's merging with the Puppet Master a more autonomous decision, and even puts in some commentary on consent throughout the whole film. Cool stuff, all told.
While this Major isn't nearly as good of a character as Kamiyama's Motoko, or even Tow Ubakata's Motoko in Arise, she's a cut above Oshii's and Shirow's in terms of being a more fleshed-out character.
It Didn't Need To Be Made, But It's Fine For What It Is
At the end of the day, Ghost in the Shell was an unnecessary adaptation. Hollywood films need to stop being considered the standard bearer of entertainment, as usual. Comics, books, games, anime... it seems like something hasn't truly "made it" until it gets a big-budget movie. That's some bullshit, if we're being honest. Sometimes, it's best to just leave things be. Let comics be comics, books be books, games be games, anime be anime. Like, Christ, I am dreading that Akira movie, even if I'm not a big fan of the original movie (the manga's dope as hell, though.) Or the Naruto movie. Or that Death Note thing, although admittedly, it looks hilarious and Willem Dafoe is a great casting choice.
But ultimately, as far as adaptations go, Ghost in the Shell is a pretty good one. It manages to keep a little bit of the social commentary and philosophy intact, even if it is watered down for mass appeal. It does something unique and arresting with its visuals and score, going beyond the "get ready for bad Blade Runner with dubstep" I thought it was going to be. It has a pretty great cast, even if the casting was based in racial bias and Michael Pitt is just the worst.
So... it's a pretty okay movie, and pretty good by the standards of anime adaptations. It's worth watching if you're a fan of the original, I think, and maybe even if you just like Hollywood movies that are a little different from their peers. If you don't want to financially able racism, watch it for free sometime - it's not terrible.
But if you actually want to watch Ghost in the Shell without nearly as many caveats, just go and watch Stand Alone Complex, Innocence and Arise. They're all a lot better.