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Lost in Translation

I think it's fair to assume that a lot of us were very skeptical upon hearing that Masmure Shinrow's cyberpunk manga Ghost in the Shell was being updated for mainstream audiences, in the form of a live-action film. We've seen how this business has handled manga/Anime properties in the past, and the track record, outside of the Wachowskis' Speed Racer, has been dismal, to say the least. When it was revealed that Scarlett Johansson was chosen to play Major Motoko Kusanagi, the Internet went ablaze, the cries that studio suits were whitewashing a beloved Anime character, as well as petitions making the rounds to remove the actress from the role in favor of an Asian actress to carry the role. When the first trailer dropped in mid-November of last year, I think most of us were blown away with just how, on a surface level, it looked like the live-action version might do the original source material justice.

Then, the actual film was released.

It's hard to talk about the various issues I had with this adaptation without going into full-blown nerd territory, but if I had to be honest with myself? I watched Ghost in the Shell four times, and on each viewing, I didn't hate watching what I was seeing. Now, for those who aren't acclimated to the anime, here's the overall jist of the story: in the near future, society embraces cybernization - the augmentation of the human brain as it interfaces with online networks, to the point where a fully, functional mind can be integrated with a complete prosthetic body, making the line between humanity and artificial intelligence almost indistinguishable. This level of technology gives way to a group of highly-skilled criminals, dubbed "class-A-hackers", who can access and take over entire networks, drones, cyberbrains, etc. In response, Japan's Minister of Home Affairs creates Public Security Section 9, a counter-terrorism unit charged with weeding out hackers and being tasked by the Minister to operate on highly sensitive cases within the government.

Again, on a visual level, this adaptation is a marvel: you can tell that director Rupert Sanders (Snow White & the Huntsmen) and screenwriters Jamie Moss and Ehren Kruger did their homework on translating this brave new world from page to screen (bonus points for taking inspiration from Ridley Scott's Blade Runner!). The city itself has this tech-sheen glossing over the surface, only to be taken to a seedy nightclub that's owned by a Yakuza gang or to be transported to a housing complex to realize that perhaps this world isn't as fantastic as one was initially led to believe. They even pay homage to the birth of Motoko, where they merge the living mind with the artificial vessel it will be concealed in, and again, the sequence is stunning all on its own, which brings me to Johansson as Major Mira Killian, the leader of Section 9. I know there's been backlash on the whitewashing aspect, and I do feel that she really didn't need this role, but when you do take into consideration that she has played a character like this in other films like Under the Skin and Her; in addition to her action-movie chops in the MCU films and Lucy, it makes sense as to why someone of her talents (performing as an imitation of life, crossed with the skill set of a professionally trained killer) would tackle this role, and honestly, she looks at home playing that part. Johansson definitely isn't terrible, and she does elevate the material she's working with.

Again, if I'm being honest: the acting isn't terrible in this movie, period. Case in point: Michael Pitt as the film's antagonist, Kuze. His appearance and backstory feel like a cyber-punk version of Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein"; a deformed and unstable Creature lashing out against his creators and society for discarding him like garbage. Even his speech sounds broken and deformed, as if he's incomplete, both in appearance and in form. At his core, Kuze is a byproduct of a company playing God and failing miserably at it, making the character more of a sympathetic anti-hero, and Pitt does a fine job communicating the rage of a misplaced science experiment now gone rouge. The always sublime Juliette Binoche is a welcome presence as Dr. Ouelet, the Major's maker. Their scenes together are warm and draws a nice contrast to that of Peter Ferdinando's Cutter, the CEO of Hanka Robotics, who sees the Major as a weapon/asset for the company's bottom line. She's the inverse of Victor Frankenstein - a friendly, caring matriarch who doesn't shun her creation, but rather tries to guide her. Best of all is Takeshi Kitano as Daiskue Aramki, the head of Section 9. Yes, his dialogue is fully in Japanese, and it is jarring as hell to figure out how the members of this unit can understand what he's saying, given that everyone from Motoko on down speak English, but he does have a wowzer of a moment when his op gets burned and has to fight off hired guns in a parking lot.

Yet, for the strength of the acting, the visuals and the visual nods to various moments and Easter eggs in the GitS universe, the live-action version fails to bring the spirit of the anime to life, nor it's philosophical themes. The 1995 anime version, along with the re-imagining of the material, via the TV series Stand Alone Complex, examines humanity at a crossroads: when artificial life is given human-like features, does the line between man and machine matter anymore? If the meaning of humanity changes, who or what decides what is human? There are also weighty themes on immigration, technology, privacy in a rapidly digitized age and the messy consequences of playing God, but the film version only covers them in a half-baked way that doesn't resonate or satisfy in an emotional way. Ghost in the Shell also finds itself in this precarious situation where the filmmakers want to satisfy the fans of the series while welcoming in new ones who aren't familiar with the universe, and ultimately end up pleasing neither side. If you're like me, the references - Motoko going primal on a drone spider, ripping off her right arm in the process; the 'birth' of the Major, etc. - are welcome touches, but that's all they feel like: a wink and a nod to what we've seen before. Additionally, the remaining team members of Section 9, if you're a fan, are given little to do. Hell, Saito, the team's expert maksman, only appears in one scene and has one line before the end of the movie! Togusa, Bato, Borma, even Cheif Aramaki are short-shifted in this version and are given little to do, which is maddening to me, because even the '95 animated version gave more backstory to these characters, and that movie was 86 minutes long!

Ghost in the Shell isn't terrible - the visuals, the acting, and the music are all fine, but the story and the spirit of what made the anime great is sorely lacking. Instead of blazing a new spin on familiar material or even expanding on the franchise's lofty themes on society, technology and what it means to be human in an increasing digital age, the filmmakers reverted inward and tried to please the hardcore fans by dipping into plot-points and nods to various moments in the GitS cannon, while simultaneously trying to welcome in a new generation of potential fans, and ended up satisfying neither camp in the process. But, i'll give it this: between hideous adaptations like Dragonball: Evolution, The Last Airbender, and a few others, this is perhaps the closest since Speed Racer that we've gotten to a solid adaptation based off of an anime/manga property, and I have no doubt in my mind that it cannot get any worse from here.......

** 1/2 stars out of ****


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