Video game movies seem to be the hardest for Hollywood to adapt. But coming in at a close second is anime adaptations. If the dreaded Dragonball Evolution taught us anything, it’s that Americanized anime can lead to a massive failure. But with the blessing of the company that owns the source material, the latest attempt to adapt a popular manga and anime series looks to be a step up in the genre.
Based loosely on Masumune Shirow’s original manga series, Ghost in the Shell takes place in a distant future version of Japan where cybernetic enhancements have become a societal norm. Scarlett Johansson stars as The Major, a revolutionary android with a human brain who remembers little about her past. As a member of a special task force known as Section 9, she fights alongside a burly officer with robotic eyes (Pilou Asbæk) and a stoic but loyal Chief (Takeshi Kitano). When the team begins investigating a cyber terrorist (Michael Pitt), the Major’s true past begins to bring her into conflict with her team and her own creator (Peter Ferdinando).
Like with Exodus: Gods and Kings and Gods of Egypt, this film isn’t flimsy because of its miscast leads. In fact, more than any misrepresented film, this one actually attempts to weave some of its primary casting choices into the plot. So while it’s still arguably unjustifiable, it doesn’t seem as blatantly egregious. The biggest problem is that Scarlett Johansson never really seems to fit the role and not just because of her race. Johansson spends the entire film operating as if her only instructions were to be robotic. The character is supposed to show little emotion, but that doesn’t mean the Major can’ have some sort of dry wit. As a result, there is virtually no charm or even interest to a character that dominates the screen time.
I’m by no means a fan of the anime, but I’ve watched some of it before, and Johansson’s portrayal fails to fairly represent what should’ve been a very invigorating character. The film’s plot, which takes no real risks and is filled with action sci-fi cliches, doesn’t help either. And while the casting of white actors in some roles are virtually explained, little to no such attention is given to the numerous other non-Japanese characters in the film. Why is a black Australian (Lasarus Ratuere) playing a character named Ishikawa? Why exactly is a Japanese company called Hanka Robotics run by a white guy?
But unlike the dumpster fire that is Dragonball Evolution, this film does get some things right. Visually, the movie is absolutely stunning and takes advantage of 3D technology. The action sequences are also smooth and exhilarating like a new version of The Matrix so even though only a handful of the characters are interesting, such as Kitano’s Chief Aramaki and the also noticeably white Pilou Asbæk’s portrayal of Batou, the movie does manage to capture the atmosphere of the Ghost in the Shell franchise.
There’s absolutely no guarantee that an all Japanese cast would’ve made the movie better or even more profitable, but it could’ve given the story more room to find a purpose or at least connect with the source material. A futuristic film where police hunt cyborgs while being lead by a cyborg could’ve worked just fine without the story hovering around its main character’s melodramatic background. As it stands this version of Ghost in the Shell is an aesthetically nice product with relatively hollow intrigue, much like the lead actress’ portrayal.
FINAL GRADE: C