Review Date: 4/1/17
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Kitano Takeshi
A plodding and dumbed down interpretation that lacks the intense cyber action and tight scripting of Masamune Shirow's original manga, as well as the deep philosophizing of Mamoru Oshii's anime. Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is a combat cyborg with a human brain, working for an anti-terrorist police force known as Section 9. Top scientists at Hanka Robotics (where the Major's body was built) are being murdered by a cyber terrorist named Kuze, and the Major becomes obsessed with hunting him down and killing him. Unfortunately, their fateful meeting leads to some harsh revelations and Mira goes rogue in search of answers about her past life.
Where the film lacks substance, it certainly makes up for it in style. Its vision of the future is a visual overload of "Blade Runner" (1982) inspired imagery, and society is a jarring juxtaposition of technology, wealth, poverty, and filth. For better or worse, the film's greatest accomplishment is the nostalgia it evokes from the startling recreation of several key moments from Mamoru Oshii's 1995 animated movie. Even though they lack originality, these moments are extremely well crafted, although they don't tend to fit in very well with the rest of the film. At times it feels like they only exist in order to keep the audience from losing interest. The costuming is excellent and incorporates several designs from the original series, which I really appreciated. The pacing is extremely sluggish, and while Oshii's film could get away with its meandering philosophical detours, this version doesn't have enough intellect and sophistication to pull that off.
Scarlett Johansson does a fine job as the stone-faced Major, although it's hardly a stretch for her. It's the subtleties of her performance that impressed me most, and her body language in particular. Her presence is extremely intimidating, and her posture and gait are aggressively masculine. Unfortunately, her action scenes lack style and vitality, and look overly computer generated. While she has the title of "Major," she isn't in a leadership role and doesn't appear to outrank any of the other members of her team, which is disappointing and diminishes her character. Pilou Asbæk does an adequate job as Mira's partner, Batou, but their relationship lacks the rivalry and camaraderie that was established by the anime series. Japanese veteran Kitano Takeshi plays Chief Aramaki, and it's nice to see that they kept his performance in Japanese. However, it's peculiar that he's the only subtitled character in the film. In the world as it's presented, you would expect a much more multi-cultural population.
While the film lacks the cybernetic, technological, political, and psychological intrigue of the original series, it's nice to see it explore the history of Mira's ghost before she became a full-body cyborg. In the original, it was implied that she volunteered for service and consigned her ghost to Section 9, whereas the film explores a far darker avenue. Unfortunately, it devolves all too quickly into a tale of corporate-based greed, ambition, and corruption.
Setting aside the film's various deviations from the source material, its biggest blunder was renaming Johansson's character. This is a constant annoyance throughout the entire film, and even though an explanation is provided right near the end, the film fails to follow through with the obvious denouement. The entire "woman without a past" theme that the film is built upon could have been wrapped up and validated with one simple line of dialog: "My name is Major Motoko Kusanagi." But for whatever reasons, they totally dropped the ball on this and ended the story with the completely baffling and nonsensical "My name is Major" instead. It's so clumsy and confusing that it comes across like a glaring mistake.
Overall, the film is a bit of a hot mess. It's certainly pretty to look at, but the action sequences fall disappointingly short, and the story fails to be compelling or emotionally engaging. The fact that the manga came out twenty-eight years ago and is still a pop culture fixture speaks to the strength and appeal of the material, so it's a bit sad that the film doesn't live up to its forebears.