Review: Ghost in the Shell (3 out of 4 stars)

The original Ghost in the Shell is a film that I admire and appreciate much more than I actually enjoy. Despite a multitude of excellent visuals, arresting action set pieces, and legitimately intelligent dialogue and subtext, it’s a film that in my opinion is set back by a deficiency in emotionally interesting characters and some subpar pacing. The original film – and ultimately the remake – tell the tale of a cyborg policeman dubbed “The Major” attempting to track down an elusive rogue robot. In an understandable attempt to give the film broader appeal, the filmmakers opted to cut back on the more cerebral aspects of the film and attempt to focus more on the new mysterious past of “The Major”, this time played by Scarlett Johannsson, and to explore their created world through the use of visual effects.

On a purely technical level, this film is in a class of its own. It has a subtle yet atmospheric score, and some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in a Hollywood blockbuster. Almost every shot is trying to convey a different mood or emotion in the scene or the characters through the angles and movement of the camera, an endeavor most blockbuster filmmakers seem to have forsaken. Not only that, the visual effects are nothing short of staggering. In addition to capturing the feel and look of the city portrayed in the original film, they also managed to grant a sense of reality to the special effects. The world of the film is vibrant and extremely visually engaging, utilizing many purple neon hues that immediately draw the eye while contrasting it against the canvas of a dark blue color palette, but it also feels tangible and almost imminent. The sets appear very real, almost like they were constructed out of actual stone, concrete and metal rather than generated by a computer.

This movie has been the subject of a lot of controversy surrounding the casting of Johansson in the role of The Major, an originally Japanese character named Motoko Kusanagi in the anime. The Major isn’t exactly the most expressive character, and the hand drawn animation of the time prevented her from really opening up to an audience. Johannsson clears these hurdles with aplomb. She manages to be subtly demonstrative in her facial expressions and vocal affectations while still remaining subdued to properly portray a robot. It’s quite an impressive performance.

The rest of the film is fairly cookie-cutter. Other than two fairly solid performances in Pilou Asbœk as Batou and the perpetually great Takeshi Kitano as Aramaki, most of the other characters aren’t given much opportunity to develop. Despite the story enabling Johannsson to show off subtleties in her acting, the story and much of the screenplay is just adequate. Nothing bad, just a bit bland. The person who probably fared the worst from this is Michael Pitt, who plays the villainous Kuze. I felt bad for him because I could tell he was trying to create a compelling character with his performance, but he doesn’t have nearly enough screen time or a good enough character to do it. This film was never going to be as intelligent or as transcendent as the original, but as far as remakes go (especially live action anime adaptations) you could do much worse than this one. I was engaged for almost all of the film, and if you go see it I suspect you will be, too.

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