Three things up front. One, I'm easy to please. Two, I watch a lot of anime and I've seen all of the GitS anime except half of the Arise timeline (so around 85% of the franchise). Three, I like to think that I am aware of and understand the racial/cultural complexity of the issues surrounding this movie, but I acknowledge and recognize that I may have experiential and cultural blindspots. So, with that out of the way...
tl;dr - I liked it
And honestly, it took me a little while to figure out if I did. I had to view this movie from many angles. I was so in my own head while watching it, that the whole experience was too meta. In real time I was measuring this movie as a GitS fan, a movie-goer, an arbiter of public opinion, and someone just trying to have a good time. Seriously, I had a hard time just watching it and taking it in.
I thought a lot about how to talk about this movie. In the end, I think it's best to talk about it from multiple angles. Some of these angles come from eager-to-be-entertained places. Others come from "prove me wrong" places. Combined, they form my overall opinion, which I detail at the end.
The Sci-Fi Movie Angle - 8/10
It was serviceable, and even fun at times. It looked real good, and had good action. It was a little noisy, visually. The story wasn't that remarkable, but easy fodder for science fiction (cyborgs, futuristic society, very shiny). It felt kind of Matrix-ish at times (which is funny, since GitS was an inspiration for The Matrix). It got passing scores on all my sci-fi criteria. I'd love to watch it on FX or TNT once a year.
ScarJo was...okay. Which is par for the course. I'm not a ScarJo hater either. I first heard of her in The Perfect Score, and only really took notice after The Island. Since then, I've thought she was okay. Not great, but not bad. I'm not one to hate on actors. Her performance was between "meh" and decent. She didn't steal the show, but was satisfactory. Her action scenes were believable enough. When it comes to action, I've accepted that 65% of performances are "meh" and must be approached with appropriate suspension of disbelief (whereas 25% are pretty good, and 10% are phenomenal). The end of the thermoptic camo footchase was her action highlight, I thought. The way she grabbed that guy and punched him out seemed very Major-like. That was the most she felt like a cyborg for me. That and the tank scene at the end.
This is the rosiest of my angles. And if that seems too complimentary, it helps to know the context of how I how determine what is a good and bad movie. Let me say something about the concept of a bad movie. Most people don't know what a bad movie is. Yeah, I said that. I wrote a journal about this three years ago, and I encourage you to read my thoughts. It may explain why I have more patience with movies than some other people do.
The Casual Ghost in the Shell Fan Angle - 7/10
I must admit, this movie has the look and feel of the GitS franchise. They did a good job of creating the atmosphere of some of the most iconic shots from the movies and anime (at least, the best you can with live action). Most of the main cast from the movies and series was in it, or at least, all the memorable ones. They added a female team member who wasn't in the franchise, but she fit in well and it was no big deal.
The thermoptic camo footchase was recreated pretty well. It lacked the eerie feeling from the movie, but it would have been jarring to fully recreate that just after the previous scene. The tank fight was okay for the most part. For being perhaps the most iconic of any GitS scene, it was a little disappointing but still really rewarding to finally see it in live action. But it was neat that they changed it up a little and had Kuze be the one who got grabbed by the tank. I thought that was a smart way to keep in that little ragdoll tidbit.
There were so many little things here and there throughout the whole movie. The cyborg hands on Aramaki's assistant, the thermoptic hand wave at the end, Togusa's gun (I think), Batou's dog, etc. This movie was filled with Easter eggs from the franchise. There was enough in it to satiate the casual GitS fan. And even the bodysuit, in my opinion, was a great effort. There was no better way to faithfully recreate some of the things from the anime.
And honestly, it we really look at it, this movie is the best Hollywood movie to ever be based on an anime franchise. Because we all know that Dragonball: Evolution should not have seen the light of day.
The Hardcore Ghost in the Shell Fan Angle - 4/10
For fuck's sake, this movie was a Frankenstein's monster of shit from all over the franchise. Literally every timeline was referenced in this movie (check out my breakdown of the timelines if you're curious). They took decades of complicated storylines, and tried to make a casserole out of everything they could find. They then mixed it all up and made a shitload of references like it was a contest. It was very annoying, to see them chop up the franchise to create a mish mash. By doing so, they failed in doing the franchise justice. This thing was less than the sum of its parts. Here are some titles from the franchise, and some things they took from them:
Ghost in the Shell movie (1995)
-opening shelling scene
-opening building jump
-thermoptic camo chase scene
-thermoptic hand wave at the end
Innocence (2004 sequel)
-the geisha's face design
Stand Alone Complex (2002-2006)
-the geisha scene
-the Major's hallucinations
-Major's outfit in the club scene (in my opinion)
They also got some things very wrong, or at least, different. The character that ScarJo chases during the thermoptic chase scene is actually a combination of two different characters from the original movie. The person who was driving the garbage truck and the person who was being chased were two different people in the 1995 movie.
Also, the tank fight scene originally takes place in a building, not in an open area. Not to mention that they changed what happens to who, took someone out of it, added someone, and even altered the ending.
A nitpick would also be the Major's avatar during the deep dive scene. In Stand Alone Complex, she used a different physical appearance when employing the use of an avatar while diving in the internet and various systems.
Another nitpick would be the boat scene. In both the 1995 movie and the live action movie, the Major went diving underwater. In both, she felt fear while being underwater. But in the 1995 version they suggest that the main reason she felt afraid was because she had to use "floaters" to avoid sinking, and that a cyborg being underwater would be a thrill-seeking activity (see the first 20 seconds of this video).
And let's not even get started on the wholly fabricated storyline of the entire movie in which she was an experiment and weapon made by a corporation. In Stand Alone Complex she was cyberized after a plane crash at the age of 6. And in Arise, I read, she was cyberized as a fetus. But perhaps the greatest offense was the combination of two different franchise villains to make the villain in the live action movie. They took the concept and motivation of the Puppet Master from the 1995 movie, along with the name and part of the character design of Hideo Kuze from SAC, and mushed them together.
So, from the standpoint of Ghost in the Shell connoisseurs and hardcore fans, this movie takes what it needed from the whole franchise in order to produce a product for the masses. They selected elements from separate continuities and chronologies, fabricated their own, and sewed them all together. It was at once novel, and frustrating. But most of all, disappointing.
In Light of the Whitewashing Controversy Angle - D+/C-
This angle is a bit long-winded.
To clarify, this rating is not based on whitewashing and casting alone. If it was, it'd be much lower. I tried to come up with a quantifiable number (based on a complex and pervasive issue in Hollywood) that I could measure and deduct from my baseline enjoyment on a 10-point scale. But how do you measure personal outrage and the reality of media? It seemed both impossible, as well as an undercut of a nuanced issue. So, I changed it to a letter grade. I basically take the score and experience of my sci-fi angle, and factor in the movie's ability to assuage the concerns of whitewashing. The result?
It didn't do it.
This angle can be best explained in three ways:
Source Material on the Main Cast (Public Security Section 9)
It's arguable that the Major is Caucasian in appearance. However, it must be acknowledged that - as far as I can tell - her race has never been definitive. They never explicitly say she's Caucasian. And in my opinion, when it comes to anime, you can not go by appearances when determining race (those hair colors don't occur in nature). Not to mention that she is in an artificial body, and race becomes mutable or even irrelevant. We never see her face before cyberization. In fact, I am unaware of any mention of even her parents' races. And it should also be noted that she served in the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force. In my opinion, there was nothing in the source material that said she should be Caucasian. In fact, a case could more easily be made that she was supposed to be Japanese, considering her home country is Japan.
Regarding the rest of the main cast, they got 4/7 right by the source material. Chief Aramaki, Togusa, and Saito (by most accounts) are Asian in the anime. In the live action movie, each character is played by an Asian actor. Batou, by my research, was recruited from the US Army Rangers. It would not be incongruent for him to be played by a Caucasian actor (which he was). Ishikawa and Borma on the other hand, both served in (or with) the Japanese military. If I had to bet, these two characters were Japanese. In the movie, they were played by Australian and Zimbabwean born actors. The last main character from the anime franchise, Paz, was not even in the movie. Paz was most certainly Japanese, since he was in multiple yakuza groups before joining Section 9. This character was wholly replaced by a completely new female team member named Ladriya (whose actress is of Kurdish and Polish origin). This character was not in the anime or manga.
So, the movie accurately portrays the race of four main characters, changes the race of two, and drops one for a new character of a different ethnicity. That's all in addition to the lead character. I'd say they got the main cast's races right by 50-62%, depending on your tolerance for the Major's race. I'll let you decide how much that matters.
Portrayal of Asians in the Movie
Yeah, not good. The majority of Asians in the movie were bad guys, who were killed or defeated by white characters. The only non-villainous Asian characters (outside of the main characters) were a couple female characters that had a collective 30 seconds of screen time. And even the prominent Asian characters were tertiary to the story.
Also, what's up with Aramaki being the only one who spoke Japanese? Throw some more Japanese in there man. It was almost like the writers wanted to emphasize his unwillingness to speak English, more than the other characters' understanding of Japanese.
A friend recently tweeted a link to a Hollywood Reporter article in which four Japanese actresses discuss the Ghost in the Shell movie and whitewashing in general. I would HIGHLY recommend reading it. It's a very good read, and touches on some things you may not realize.
For one, there was a prominent Asian actress in the movie that no one could remember. It turns out, her contribution was her face. They only used her likeness for the geishas' face design. That's it. On its face (wink), that was a big cop out.
One thing they talked about was the twist at the end, in which it was revealed that the Major and Kuze were previously Japanese, and that they were cyberized as Caucasian as part of an experiment. My reaction was one of "ah, way to go". I perceived that as a sort of racism Trojan horse, in which the writers made it a meta-statement on whitewashing itself. I was ready to give the movie credit for that. However, I was wondering how that would go over for Asian audiences. It was not a surprise that the four Japanese actresses in the article did not like it. I can totally see how they would perceive that as comedic, or even pathetic. It would also be an eyebrow raiser if the writers, as Ai Yoshihara suggested, wrote that plot point as a deliberate counter to whitewashing concerns. One would hope that that would be an independent decision.
The article is also very intriguing in its breakdown of the differences between western and Asian cultures, and how that affects the believability of Asians in American media. I won't get into it too much, but let me just say, the scene where the Major's mother invites her in without knowing her was also very weird to me (as a Hispanic American). I thought maybe she operated a business out of her apartment, and was treating the Major as a potential customer. Because otherwise, it was just plain weird, even for western culture. Also, regarding the touchy feely scene at the end, I doubt American audiences would have liked it as much if it went down the way the four actresses said it should have. Which sucks, because I wish that scene was more genuine and true to form like the actresses outlined, and that Hollywood didn't always go for such a formulaic resolution.
On the Topic of Hollywood and Whitewashing (but wait, keep reading! It's almost over)
Real talk, it's a pervasive problem in the culture of American media. The focus is increasingly on Asian actors as of late - which is undeniable - but the problem has been around forever. Whether it's Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange in 2016, Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia in 2010, or even Ben Kingsley in Gandhi in 1982 - it's a problem that has persisted (though Kingsley does have Indian heritage, his performance was phenomenal, and the film was well-received in India). So, any analysis that doesn't acknowledge this reality is incomplete.
It is also very arguable, as is the common refrain, that many of these types of movies would not be successful (or even greenlit) if a less popular Asian actor was cast as the lead. At least, in America. In my opinion, these decisions are not as important for international success. But, as in most Hollywood productions, the target demographic is Americans. Therefore, the motivations behind this culture of casting are not beyond comprehension.
However, this is only an explanation, and not an excuse. Understandable, yes. But not a validation of the practice. Because regardless of the reasons behind it, this is not right. And the damage it is doing is real. At a minimum, it contributes to a racial hierarchy among characters in American media, resulting in bias that negatively affects Asian actors in the industry. At worst, it leads to Asians being seen as sub-relevant in their contributions - or even caricatured - within greater society. In both instances, the result is the marginalization of Asian people and Asian culture.
The past three paragraphs were my attempt to lay out the reality of issue, as objectively as I could. If you're very concerned about whitewashing, those paragraphs might seem too lenient on Hollywood (or even unnecessarily impartial). If you disregard whitewashing concerns, those paragraphs probably came off as pandering. So let me use the next paragraph to voice my personal opinion on the issue.
Of course whitewashing fucking exists (let's just establish that). I understand why people may want to deny it, or downplay its prevalence. I can acknowledge the reality of "outrage culture", and how it has changed our perception and trust on many issues. But those that dismiss whitewashing concerns are being disingenuous at best, and willfully ignorant at worst. Because not all of whitewashing is a byproduct. Indeed, part of it is born of willful and deliberate disregard for Asian perspectives. Hollywood needs to get off its ass and take a long hard look at itself. Someone just take a fucking chance. In the age of streaming, surely someone will find a risk-free way to start changing the culture. I suggest we start with the hair streak trope.
To Sum Up This One Angle
The movie did not, in my opinion, assuage the whitewashing concerns. The adherence to characters' races from the source material was lacking, the relevance of Asian characters to the overall story was minimal, and it's portrayal of Asian culture was very off the mark. So, that's why I give it a low grade in this angle.
So many angles! What do they mean?!
Well for one, they mean this movie came with so much baggage. I can't remember the last movie that had so much. Maybe The Interview? I'm not sure. But in the end, I think it's hard to give an objective review of the movie. It's a sci-fi movie with a good size budget, a lead actress that some people deride, it's based on source material from another country loved by fans of varying intensity, and it has a controversy surrounding its casting. As a lover of sci-fi, it was baseline entertaining. As a huge fan of both GitS and anime, it was unfulfilling but very rewarding. Unfulfilling in the sense that it didn't do full justice to the original, but rewarding that it was a full-throated attempt by Hollywood to make a movie based on an anime (which I appreciated). The movie also satisfied much of my GitS fan service itches. But within a greater consideration of society and Hollywood culture, it was unsurprisingly unfulfilling, as well as a perpetuation of the status quo.
In trying to make sense of all these, I came to the conclusion that it was indeed worth it to see this movie. It was worth the money and effort, and I had a good time. It fell short of my hopes, but not my expectations. Admittedly, I really wanted this movie to be good. I imagine that this might be a determining factor in how I perceive it. When you want to like something, a lot of the time you end up liking it. Nonetheless, I found the movie to be satisfactory.
If you want to see this movie yourself, I suggest determining why you want to see it and what you want from it beforehand. I think that will be the best way to not only measure it against your expectations/hopes, but also to make the experience as pleasant as possible.