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Review: Ghost in the Shell is a sci-fi cult delight

Major’s silver screen debut isn’t as bad as everyone wants you to believe

Ghost in the Shell Spoilers Below!

Ghost in the Shell may have bombed at the box office, grossing $170m with a budget of $110m, but there’s sure to be a cult status to follow the visually engaging film with time. Ghost in the Shell was the perfect storm of controversy, with criticism surrounding the choice to cast white actors in an Asian film and lackluster critical reviews. There may be flaws in the Rupert Sanders directed flick, but all-in-all, the story’s silver screen debut brings beautiful visuals and an engaging storyline that’s well worth the runtime.

My thoughts are from someone who is not overly familiar with the manga or anime. With that said, I watched the film with a big Ghost in the Shell fan, one who grew up watching the anime and was extremely excited to see how the story would be told on film. Our end thoughts didn’t seem to differ too much, either. He was more critical of the film’s story and its accuracy to the source material, noting changes that had been made. My criticisms were focused more on the film’s flow and tightness, with a desire for the major characters to have more care and attention on their backstory.

We both enjoyed the film’s visuals and performances, though. Accusations of whitewashing aside, the film’s cast bring wonderful life to their roles. Scarlett Johansson brings fantastic empathy and invigoration to the role of Major Mira Killian, the first human cyber-enhanced soldier designed to stop criminals in their tracks.

Johansson’s Major is equally full of emotion and void of it, a wonderful yin and yang balance of human and cyborg. In moments where most would pause to reflect before proceeding, Major does not hesitate. Meticulously taking out a room full of murderers? Major’s got no problem. She’s more pensive when it comes to her past, wondering how she became a ghost in the shell and even thinking more abstractly, wondering what her ‘life’ means for society and others.

As technology advances every day, Ghost in the Shell remains a sci-fi flick today, but the future in which it is set seems to draw nearer. When Major finds herself pondering the true price of human cyber-enhancements, it leaves the viewer wondering the same thing. Major may be a soldier, a government born mercenary, but how would society be different if the technology in Ghost in the Shell were a reality?

These eerie questions make themselves present thanks to the film’s superb visual effects. The team behind Ghost in the Shell worked tirelessly to create a fully realized future society. Landscapes are decked out with future tech, from holographic billboards to immense and towering statues. Characters are immersed in this world flawlessly with costuming that makes Ghost in the Shell always seem set in the future, but with enough of a modern flair to not make it look cheesy or dated.

Ghost in the Shell‘s expansive visual effects still manage to shine despite the film’s bleak color palette. Major faces many threats to society in the film, making the subdued and, at times, outright dark settings appropriate.

While Major was designed to fight crime, the main antagonist of the film is hacker Kuze (Michael Pitt,) whom Major tracks to a night club. The resulting scene is taut and intense as Major, along with backup from Batou (Pilou Asbæk,) get lured into a trap set by Kuze. It is later revealed that he has an entire network of mentally linked humans.

Ghost in the Shell has a healthy serving of action, but it’s also marked by its moments of revelation and sadness, thanks to its development of minor characters. There is a vast universe here, and all characters are given equal amounts of attention. This works to the film’s advantage when it comes to the death of Major’s designer, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche,) and any scene involving Major’s mother, Hairi (Kaori Momoi.) On the other hand, the film’s main characters like Kuze and even Major, lack the amount of depth into their development that would leave all viewers satisfied. The film does a good job pushing the characters forward, but it gives just enough glimpses into their past to leave the viewer needing more.

As Major tries to get a hold on her past, she confronts Dr. Ouelet, and the two have a strained relationship during the majority of the film. It’s revealed that 98 test subjects came before Major, whose memories have been faked. Rightfully, Major feels betrayed by her creator and mother figure. Despite the two being at odds, Dr. Ouelet does not hesitate to free Major and aid her escape after Hanka Robotics CEO Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) labels her a liability and orders her killed on sight.

As a result, Ouelet dies at Cutter’s hand, fueling Major to get revenge and ultimately forgive Ouelet for her years of betrayal.

You are not defined by your past, but for your actions…

Before her death, Ouelet gives Major an address that, when followed, takes Major to the house of an elderly widow, later revealed to be her real mother. The widow tells Major how her daughter ran away years ago and was arrested, committing suicide while in police custody. This is the human ghost in the cyber shell. Major is visibly overtaken by emotion and leaves, ready to take on Cutter and enact her revenge.

The visit with her mother shakes loose memories that Major was trying throughout the film to get a firm grip on. She uses this knowledge to go to the last place she can remember in her life before committing suicide. It is here where she meets the hacker, Kuze, and the two recall their past lives. Neither one of them supported cyber enhancements, but were abducted by the government and used as test subjects. This is a very climactic part of the film that was due more attention and care. Both Major and Kuze deserve having their past fleshed out more concretely and visibly for both audiences new to the Ghost in the Shell franchise and old fans alike.

Cutter deploys a Tachikoma (spider-tank) to wipe Major off the face of the earth, and it damn near does. The inclusion of the spider-tank is straight from the manga, and its inclusion in the film is only apparent to those familiar with the series. The history of the Tachikoma is completely dropped on the viewer in the end of the film, and it isn’t revealed why Section 9 even has them. It’s a bit of a “this is a future world, expect giant robotic arachnids, because duh” moment.

Kuze’s love for Major in their past life is apparent as he draws the attention of the Tachikoma, allowing Major to get the upper hand and destroy its tank, but not before the spider-tank nearly kills Kuze. As the two lie on the ground, injured but victorious, Kuze offers to merge his ghost with Major’s, combining their minds into his network and achieving what could be perceived as a nirvana, free from physical form.

Major makes it clear that she has work to do on earth, and she declines his offer. The film wraps things up concisely and with a ribbon on top, with Major ordering the execution of Cutter. Once she’s been repaired from her battle wounds, she visits her mother and lets her know she’s no longer alone without her daughter. She returns to work, ready to kick criminals’ asses like she was created to.

It’s a satisfying ending that manages to bring the film back to where it began, despite the events that passed. It’s a testament to Major’s indestructibility. Many humans (and even a fellow cyber-enhanced shell) died during the film, but she is performing better than ever. The real difference between the Major that takes out a bunch of evil geishas in the film’s opening and the one that prepares for her next mission at the end of the film is her knowledge of the past. She’s now been liberated from the memories that used to haunt her, and she knows her purpose. Ghost in the Shell may have performed terribly at the box office, but it sure set itself up for one hell of a sequel.

Maybe one day. As Major says…”Maybe next time you can design me better.”

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Written by Sam Bennett

Sam Bennett is the creator and editor of POParazzi. He works primarily in Washington, DC. You can contact him at sam@poparazzi.org and visit his portfolio at sam-bennett.com.

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