This is gonna sound really bizarre, but in the old old ooolllddd days of anime, you couldn’t watch something by clicking on a mouse button or putting a disc into a player or even really buying it. In the way way back of long long ago you had to get a tape, and frequently that tape wasn’t very good. A lot of times the tapes didn’t come from stores, but from a convention where a bunch of people strung VCR’s together to copy one tape over to a lot of others. Unfortunately, the farther you went down the copy line, the worse the tape you got would be. Maybe some part got kinda washed out or the subtitles got mixed up, and in a worst-case you just got an incomprehensible mess. Unfortunately, the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell (now available on home video) may not be at the very end of a metaphorical daisy chain, but it’s definitely pretty far down the line.
This is a bit of a hard movie to review because it isn’t a straightforward adaptation of any single Ghost in the Shell production, but it isn’t a whole-cloth reinvention either. Rupert Sanders and his fellow creators have obviously watched a lot of Ghost in the Shell material, but either they just didn’t get any of the deeper meanings, or they had it taken from them by the budget folks. Most of the plot and visuals come from the original film, but there’s some bits kipped from Stand Alone-Complex and Arise as well along with the new stuff. There’s definitely a lot of hands at work here and a general feeling throughout that one hand wanted to make one thing and a 2nd hand wanted to make another thing, and then a money man stepped in and said they just wanted some PG-13 eye candy that came in under 2 hours. Maybe with a little more time they could have made for a better movie, as the slower sequences are generally the best, but I suppose there’s something to be said for not overstaying one’s welcome. The movie looks absolutely gorgeous, so if nothing else Rupert Evert and the associated visual effects houses can create some very impressive visual shots. Given the rumored $110 mil budget, you’d hope it would at least look and sound great.
It’s impressively violent in a very sanitized way as well. There is a pretty serious amount of what should be startling violence in this movie, including a number of point-blank shootings, but there’s no blood what so ever. It feels weird to see someone get shot point blank by a shotgun, and then…nothing. Weirder, the trailer seemed to show a number of exploding squibs, so either there was something added to the trailer or subtracted from the movie to achieve a rating. My suspicion is that a lot of the blood was digitally removed because of the number of Chinese funding sources in the credits and Chinese government censors being a bit touchy about showing large amounts of bloodshed on movie screens. The lack of even a hint of gore sticks out, since every Ghost in the Shell production of any kind up to this point was pretty explicitly R-rated, so this one feels a bit neutered.
All of the requisite characters for a Ghost in the Shell production are here, along with a few more for good measure. Despite the relatively lean hour-and-45-minute run time, apparently someone thought there should be a few more characters chewing up screen time. Not that anyone beyond the five major ones (the Major, Batou, Aramaki, Dr. Oulete and the nominal baddie Kuze), really register anyway. I’ve honestly forgotten the name of one new member of the Section 9 team, which should tell you a lot, but she doesn’t really do much of anything so one has to ask whether it’s worth the effort to look her up on the IMDb or Wikipedia. The rest of the team is kinda lost in the mix as well. Dr. Oulete and Kuze are also new characters, but they do at least have some noticeable effect of the story.
For better or worse, the story is the most basic of cyber-punk “people good, corporations bad” archetype. It seems maybe a little funny to see a lot of people accusing this movie of being a rip-off or of whitewashing, since the original Ghost in the Shell isn’t much more than a Japanese Philip K. Dick story. As for casting Scarlett Johansen over a Japanese actress, I suppose everyone brings their own point of view to things, but none of the Japanese creators for Ghost in the Shell had a problem with it. That doesn’t absolve the makers of this movie of everything, but it’s something to keep in mind. It is a little odd having the rest of Section 9 aside from Aramaki being played by mostly non-Asian and definitely non-Japanese actors, but they all do a fairly credible job. Again though, the only characters who really register are Aramaki and Batou, played by “Beat” Takeshi Kitano (Battle Royale) and Pilou Asbaek (Euron Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) respectively.
The ending is definitely a bit more problematic. It’s probably the easiest place to accuse the movie of whitewashing, but I’m pretty sure it’s more emblematic of modern franchise film making. There’s also a bit of a clash between the ending and some of the ways they chose to fill in Major’s back story that I can definitely see raising some hackles, not the least because it kicks the original ending of the first Ghost in the Shell movie completely out the window. If the movie wasn’t so pretty, it’s totally generic nature would make it hard to recommend it at all, but the visuals have just enough going for them that I can say it might be worth watching if you’re a Ghost in the Shell completist.
The Blu-ray certainly looks and sounds great, especially the action scenes and some of the cityscapes, created from a mixture of Hong Kong, Shanghai and apparently Wellington, New Zealand. There were almost no extras to speak of on the set I got: a couple of “making-of” bits and that’s it. Not even a commentary, and poking around online revelas that none of the other sets have much more other than a 3D version and a steel-case version. If the original Ghost in the Shell was somewhat more than meets the eye, this version is pretty much skin-deep. Lovely-looking fake skin, but just skin all the same.