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The first of her kind, Major (Scarlett Johansson) is a human mind inside of an artificial body designed to fight the war against cyber-crime. While investigating a dangerous criminal, Major makes a shocking discovery – the corporation that created her lied about her past life in order to control her. Unsure what to believe, Major will stop at nothing to unravel the mystery of her true identity and exact revenge against the corporation she was built to serve. (From Sony’s official synopsis)

 Ghost in the Shell
The Hollywood machine has been trying to cash-in on the zeitgeist of Japanese animation since the late 1980s. But, for whatever reason, western filmmakers can’t seem to get any of their high-profile anime adaptations off the ground. Even after the Wachowski’s Matrix franchise demonstrated the ‘genre’s’ glorious dynamic potential in live-action, retrofitted versions of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988), Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita (1990), and Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll (1993), among others, languished in production hell. Those that finally do get off the ground, they’re either high-profile flops, like the Wachowski’s own Speed Racer (a great movie, by the way, 2008) and James Wong’s Dragonball Evolution (a pretty bad movie, 2009), or B-movies relegated to nearly-straight-to-video status, like Tony Randel’s Fist of the North Star (1991) and Steve Wang’s The Guyver (1991) and Guyver: Dark Hero (1994). Enter Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell – a big-budget, live-action version of Masamune Shirow’s groundbreaking comic – one that sat unmade for nearly a decade after DreamWorks and Steven Spielberg acquired the rights in way back in 2008. Could this be the movie that finally drags anime/manga into the American mainstream (though, to be fair, it’s technically a US/Chinese co-production)?

Nope.

About not, I should probably admit that I didn’t read Shirow’s original manga, haven’t seen Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated adaptation in probably 15 years, and was never interested enough in the property to see the 2004 sequel ( Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, also directed by Oshii) or the Stand Alone Complex television series (2001-2003). I’m not equipped to compare/contrast the various interpretations. I’m also going to glaze over the very real ‘whitewashing’ controversy that surrounded the film, because there are already two dozen decent thinkpieces on the subject. Having now actually seen the movie, I realize it is an even bigger problem than I assumed (in an effort to mitigate the issue, the filmmakers managed to draw more attention to it and magnify the dilemma) and that the normally great Scarlett Johansson is utterly wrong for the role. Strange, given how much she excelled with a similar character in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.

 Ghost in the Shell
Anyway, even separated from its shoddy adaptation (or so I’ve heard – again, my knowledge base is minimal) and dumb casting choices, Ghost in the Shell is a bland, hyper-manufactured Hollywood product. Its only real personality is found in Sanders’ stylish, undeniably attractive visuals, but these are tied directly to other cyberpunk films, specifically Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), which was a major influence on Akira and, of course, Ghost in the Shell (edit: the director admits to the strange choice of taking single scenes/stills from the anime/manga and adapting them out of context). This shallow sort of beauty, built upon common influences, is quickly defining Sanders’ as a director. His only other feature-length movie was the dreadfully boring, but definitively cool-looking Snow White and the Huntsman (a movie that features its own direct links to scenes from famous anime – namely Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, 1997). This makes the slightly less dull Ghost in the Shell a mostly lateral move as far as his skill-set is concerned. That said, there are some fleeting moments throughout the film that touch upon the kind of surrealistic and soothing ‘pure cinema’ that carried Blade Runner well beyond its narrative problems. Unfortunately, they’re weighed down by the compulsory nature of the action scenes and a completely uncompelling plotline.

In their defense, the screenwriters – Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger – were saddled with some very exotic source material. There was no easy way to make this ‘work’ for mainstream western audiences without making big changes. But their attempts to ‘normalize’ the attributes that make Japanese comics/cartoons so unique end up so rote and, ultimately, so trivial. Even people that are completely unfamiliar with Shirow’s manga and Oshii’s anime will easily be able to guess where the story is taking them only 20 minutes into the movie. Yet, despite the simple monotony, key exposition seems to have been deleted to maintain a tighter runtime (or the sake of being cryptic?), which means that certain story and character beats only really make sense, because the audience has seen very similar movies. Most egregious of all, everyone involved with the production forgets to have fun with the material. The characters are constantly arguing, the fight scenes refuse to acknowledge how silly they are, and you could probably count the on-screen smiles on one hand. Michael Pitt is the only person involved who seems to be enjoying himself, aside from Beat Kitano, who appears to have gotten a few good naps in during filming.

 Ghost in the Shell

Video


Ghost in the Shell was shot using Arri Alexa cameras fitted with Panavision Sphero 65 lenses to create a big, super detailed look. It was converted into 3D and prepped for IMAX screenings, but I’m looking at the 2D, 1080p, 1.78:1 Blu-ray edition. At its best, this is a top-tier transfer with tight front-to-back details and neat image separation that doesn’t get in the way of the purposefully hazy imagery. It’s a fine balance between capturing comic book futurism and depressing, dystopian pollution, and it mostly works. In most cases, the occasionally fuzzy edges and build-up of digital grain fits the look and can be ignored. More importantly, very few of these artefacts appear to be the result of compression. Cinematographer Jess Hall does a nice job capturing the gritty grays and blues with all of their spooky, Bladerunner-esque neons, but his most impressive achievement is probably the moody shadows, so the super-deep and consistent black levels are very important here. The only other problem to report are some banding effects throughout cool blue blends, but these are another common side effect of smokey photography.

Audio


Ghost in the Shell is presented in Dolby Atmos sound with a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 core. As I’ve stated before, these core, downgraded Atmos tracks tend to be a little quiet on my not Atmos-ready receiver and I’ve tried to keep that in mind while reviewing the sound quality. Even without the full Atmos benefit, this is a very impressive track. The boring tonal qualities of the film actually help the mix to sound more compelling, because it is so consistent. Dialogue-driven sequences have generally the same dynamic range and directional enhancements with the exception of some of the most bombastic, gun-heavy battles. In addition, the effects (especially the really sci-fi-heavy ones) have musical qualities and music has textural qualities, which keeps the stereo and surround channels regularly engaged throughout the film. While the movie may not be very good on its own, the always reliable Clint Mansell, working with Lorne Balfe, has produced a memorable electronic score that mixes vapor wave techniques with typical symphonic melodies and Japanese motifs.

 Ghost in the Shell

Extras


  • Hard-Wired Humanity: Making Ghost in the Shell (30:05, HD) – The cast & crew discuss the film, its themes, its relation to the source material, the characters, the cast, production/costume design, special effects, and stunt choreography.
  • Section 9: Cyber Defenders (11:29, HD) – A closer look at the cyber crime unit at the center of the story.
  • Man & Machine: The Ghost Philosophy (10:36, HD) – The filmmakers’ exploration of the film’s metaphysical, cyberpunk themes.


 Ghost in the Shell

Overall


A lot of care went into Ghost in the Shell’s intricate details and convincing effects work, and there are few egregious errors on the part of the filmmakers, but none of that matters, because it’s all so bland. It belongs in the most confusing pantheon of movies that aren’t bad enough to even be interesting. I honestly imagine that its casting controversy will be the only thing anyone will remember about it in another couple of years. The Blu-ray does look nice, though, and it sounds fantastic, especially when it comes to its fantastically cool musical soundtrack. The extras are brief, but still manage to cover most aspects of the production.

 Ghost in the Shell

 Ghost in the Shell
*Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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