Most people already had their minds made up about the big budget Hollywood remake of Ghost in the Shell before they ever saw one second of film. Accusations of whitewashing due to the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role of the iconic (and presumably Asian) anime/manga heroine Major Motoko Kusanagi ran rampant on the internet and still do, a decision probably based more on commerce than any sort of devious, inherent racism, but the criticism still stands. Completely writing this project off entirely due to that questionable casting choice would be a folly on the part of fans of this source material though, because Ghost in the Shell (2017) is really fucking good.
The original 1995 animated Ghost film was definitely a formative part of my nerd tutelage, but I’d be lying if I said I had any emotional connection to it. That would be its 2004 sequel Innocence, which plumbed the depths of the inherent pathos and despair of living in a world where the very concept of humanity was slowly fading into the technological abyss. Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders’ live action Ghost melds those ideas, as well as the feel of futuristic police procedural Ghost television series Stand Alone Complex, into a succinct, propulsive blast of entertainment that does lean heavily on the ’95 original (even lifting action set pieces shot for shot) but still coalesces into its own formidable beast over the course of its brisk run time.
The elephant in the room? Yup, she’s white, and even, somewhat cringingly (along with a forced info dump at the film’s outset that seems unnecessary even for complete Ghost neophytes) referred to as “Mary Killian” for the majority of the film, though the cultural appropriation, surprisingly enough, is woven into the plot and used to make the villain of the piece (and not exactly who you’re expecting) that much more despicable and worthy of the justice meted out by the Major and her Public Security Section 9 brethren.
As for the other members of the Major’s team, this has to be some of the best casting of any adaptation ever, Takeshi Kitano, best known to most American Japanophiles from the original Battle Royale, getting the MVP award here, though Danish newcomer Pilou Asbæk also shines in a pitch perfect appropriation of Kusanagi’s right hand man Batou. Notoriously prickly character actor Michael Pitt (Boardwalk Empire) is particularly impressive here as well, in a role that could be overwrought and laughable in less capable hands. And Johansson is great too, by the way, emotionally distant in a way that many will criticize as under acting, but the performance hit just the right mark for me, especially as her true origins are revealed and her motivations become clearer.
Production design splits the difference between the original films’ used future aesthetic and the more traditional Blade Runner-y vistas of the series’, and the cinematography and staging (though, yes, heavily cribbed from the source material) is a breathtaking ballet of futuristic death and destruction, full of easter eggs and clever nods to the franchise’s history. The sequel minded world building after the film’s climax is even daresay, sweet? Yes, wildly divergent from any previous incarnation, but more organic and less mercenary seeming than the aspirations towards franchising seen in other recent remakes/reboots (looking at you, Kong: Skull Island post credits scene).
So what we have here is a deft adaptation of complex source material, handled more elegantly and respectfully than anything outside of the very best Marvel Cinematic Universe films, that many in its core audience will either decide to hate or refuse to see based on one arguably dire casting decision. If Hollywood’s closed mindedness towards casting had you up in arms about this one then don’t mirror their closed mindedness by refusing to see it. It really is better than it has any right to be, and has me, for the first time ever, somewhat optimistic about the prospect of a live action Akira.