In the near future, Major is the first of her kind: A human saved from a terrible crash, who is cyber-enhanced to be a perfect soldier devoted to stopping the world's most dangerous criminals. (from IMDB)
At the risk of invalidating myself from the start, I have to admit that I've never been a fan of or followed any anime. For as long as I can remember, the style has just never appealed to me. I had friends, while I was majoring in art in college, who loved anime, but that appreciation never rubbed off on me (much to their chagrin). So, as you can imagine, my knowledge of the popular manga -- and the 1995 film -- Ghost in the Shell is rather unfamiliar to me. I know the name, and am only semi-familiar with some of the imagery, but I've known next to nothing about it. However, I've been a fan of Scarlett Johansson ever since I saw her in 2004's In Good Company, and the underrated sci-fi action vehicle, The Island. Of course, she's most known for her role as Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but this highly versatile actress has been in just about every kind of role you can think of, and in very different movies like We Bought a Zoo, Scoop, The Prestige and Lost In Translation. She even voiced the snake Kaa in the live action version of The Jungle Book. A film like Ghost in the Shell just seems fitting for an actress of her strength.
Sadly, from the announcement of Johansson's casting in Ghost in the Shell, there's been backlash heaped upon the film. Having a Japanese story with Japanese characters get an American white girl cast in the lead role was enough to send fans over the edge, but I do think that serves as a discredit to Johansson -- and I think she looks the part well enough for the role. The way the story is told -- having a human brain installed into an entirely robotic body -- also works just fine for explaining her look in the film. But nationalities aside, Johansson just has got the acting chops to pull off the film. If you took Black Widow and married that kind of action with the spirit of The Island, Surrogates, Terminator and Blade Runner (and a dash of The Matrix), you'd pretty much get the look and feel of Ghost in the Shell. It's a beautifully crafted film visually, and the acting brings it home.
Aside from the fact that the film deliberately retells much of the story from the 1995 film and even pays homage to the look and feel of it, Ghost in the Shell isn't brimming with originality, but it's very entertaining in its own right. The story thematically deals with one's identity, as Johansson's character, who mostly just goes by "Major," struggles to figure out who or what she is, given her shadowy origin. It's also compounded as she continues to have "glitches" and see fragments of another life, which cause her to dig into her past even more. Acclaimed French actress Juliette Binoche is an unexpected but welcomed addition to the cast, and she helps bring more heart and emotion to the story. Pilou Asbæk is also quite good as Major's comrade Batou who fights right by her side, with popular Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano serving as the crime-fighting squad's leader.
Like The Island, Ghost in the Shell is one of those odd occurences when a film is just as much an action film as it is a commentary for something much deeper. Both films deal with what defines humanity, while The Island used the topic of cloning and Ghost in the Shell uses society's increasing dependence on technology. When we stop to realize how dependent we've become on computers and cellphones, it's not hard to admit that something like Ghost in the Shell isn't too far-fetched. Rupert Sanders, whose directorial debut, Snow White and the Huntsman, was a surprise hit, does a fair job bringing this manga to life in a big way, and I found myself thoroughly entertained and invested in Major's character throughout the film. The storyline is a little unsettling at times, seeing humanity's extreme reliance on robotic enhancements and cybernetics, but it makes for a great action film, and Sanders seems to know what he's doing when it comes to bringing this science fiction world to life.
My only viewing of the film so far has been in the 3D format at home, and I have to say this is an excellent film to see in 3D. The fight sequences are especially good in the third dimension (I love the shot of Major jumping through the window near the beginning), while many camera angles and cityscape shots also look really great in 3D. From seeing clips of the film in 2D while watching the bonus features, I'd have to say that this is definitely one of those movies that just looks better in 3D. So if you have the capabilities, I highly recommend it.
There's quite a bit of violence in this action thriller, but little of it is gruesome. Major's body is full-on mechanical, but she has a red, fleshy coating on her metallic frame that makes any wounds she sustains look a little bloody (without liquid blood). Many times, we see characters that have a humanoid appearance have either robotic implants or are able to remove part of their face to reveal circuity and wires and such underneath. In one such example, a scientist woman pulls out a plate where her eyes are, moves it up to her forehead, and plugs something into the void where her eyes normally are. It's a little disturbing, but it isn't gory. Major sustains damage several times in the film, so we often see large portions of her mechanical frame visible while other parts of her body look human (particularly her face). Another character looks human with large metal plates and such haphazardly fixed to his body. Still, some other action scenes show robot humans being shot up, robot faces opening to reveal the framework inside (like one of Michael Bay's Transformers), or imagery of characters plugged in by the neck (sort of like The Matrix) into a central hub of some kind. There isn't much profanity, but there is 1 "S" word, and a couple other minor ones. Lastly, there isn't much by way of sexual content, but Major's robotic body is shaped like a woman, so we often see her in some kind of rubber shell or her robotic frame in a shapely woman form. She also wears a skin-tight, white bodysuit that makes her appear naked, but she isn't (and Scarlett Johansson wore a padded rubber suit for the filming, so she definitely didn't film the scenes naked).
Ghost in the Shell won't be the best film you see this year, and not even the best sci-fi film you see this year, but I think it's more underrated than it should be. It's a good action film with a decent musical score, strong acting, and an interesting premise. Fans of the original manga or film might be overly critical--and I can understand that to a degree as a fan of other properties--but Ghost in the Shell is still a worthwhile effort for anyone who enjoys a good futuristic sci-fi action movie.- John DiBiase (reviewed: 7/24/17)
Hard-Wired Humanity: Making Ghost in the Shell (30:03) - This featurette is the main special feature on the Blu-Ray disc. The filmmakers lovingly recall the 1995 original animated film, and talk about paying homage with this film. The featurette also covers casting in this live action adaptation, filming it at the Lord of the Rings studio in New Zealand, stunts and various action scenes, crafting the film's finale, and shooting some scenes on location in Hong Kong.
Section 9: Cyber Defenders (11:29) - This featurette delves into the main characters a little deeper, covering each member of the the crime team, the attachment of Batou and Major, their weapons and the actors' training workout. (1 "a" word)
Man & Machine: The Ghost Philosophy (10:35) takes a more serious look at the growth of and dependency on technology in society, as well as what that could look like in the near future.
Inside the Shell (27:54) - This may just be an iTunes exclusive, as it does not appear on the Blu-Ray disc, but Inside the Shell is a little indie film made and narrated by a man named Ed Gill about visiting the set of the film in New Zealand. A little avatar version of himself narrates this making-of film as he shares his experiences on the studio backlot and while watching some scenes being film. First, he gives us a peek into filming the interrogation of the "skinny man" before he moves on to the prop shop. Unfortunately, it isn't long before the viewer realizes that Gill is all over the place with his direction. There's no narrative or sense of time for his "story," and his voiceover is so monotone, it's liable to make even the most attentive viewer turn narcoleptic. Gill only further proves just how much of an amateur filmmaker he is when he attempts to interview Scarlett Johansson in almost stalker fashion as she's walking on the backlot, but didn't have enough battery power in his camera to pull it off. When he does show us his attempt at interviewing her while walking-and-talking a day or two later, it's terribly awkward, and it's obvious she wasn't interested in it. (He made a passing comment early on in the video that he's a friend of the director, yet there was no official way for him to set up an interview with Scarlett? It just seems like Journalism 101 to actually schedule something.) To make matters worse, as someone who's seen a lot of behind-the-scenes featurettes over the years, this is one of the most dull and boring attempts at it I've ever seen. I'm not surprised this is not on the Blu-Ray disc, but I am surprised iTunes bothered to lump it in with the film's special features. Its only redeeming quality is seeing some extra b-roll footage of key scenes being filmed or film crew in action on set.
Lastly, the iTunes version offers Image Galleries, including images for Behind the Scenes, Production Design, Character Design, Shelling, Skeleton, Cityscapes, Tech, Vehicles, Weapons, and Storyboards.- John DiBiase, (reviewed: 7/23/17)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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