Every attempt to evaluate a particular work eventually bumps into the question as to what difference it makes. The particular work, that is. What difference does it make as an object in the world, what discussions did it spark, what statements have been made possible that were not possible before? What, through the mediation performed by the work at hand, has been accomplished by it being in the world?
On many occasions, this leads the critic to make statements which are vague in nature. A particular work might be described as flawed, unfinished or problematic – words which suggest a general direction of opinion, but which do very little to answer the more direct question of whether something is good or bad. The vagueness of these statements is not a bug, but a feature. Rarely is it the intention of a critic to come to a definite conclusion with regards to the goodness (or badness) of a particular work – rather, they seek to explore other aspects, which will prove more interesting upon further reflection upon the work at hand.
The word ‘problematic’ is a particularly useful word for such discussions. A work might be problematic in that it makes possible discussions upon a topic that were not possible without it, but in such a way that the emphasis of these discussions tilts in an unfortunate (or unwanted) direction. The fact that the issue is now on the table can be attributed to the work at hand, but so too can the fact that any further discussion of the topic now has to navigate around the implications introduced by the work as it exists. On the one hand, a good; on the other hand, a bad. If presented together, they constitute an interesting discussion and a useful critique.
I suspect many upcoming (and, to be sure, already existing) pieces of writing upon the recent Ghost in the Shell adaptation will focus more on the good and the bad rather than on the interesting. They will perhaps mention that it is (in their opinion) bad that the actors speak English rather than Japanese, and that the movie is bad by virtue of this. They might also venture further by pointing out how this is underscored by the one actor who speaks Japanese throughout; imagine how much better it would be if the movie went all the way, they’d say. Which may or may not be true, for any definition of true. But – and this is a big but – it would neither be useful nor interesting to conclude that the movie is bad based on this one thing alone.
Ghost in the Shell is flawed. It does some things well, and other things leaves you questioning its life choices. Enumerating the members of each category could fill blog posts and articles beyond any one person’s capacity to read, and probably will. The interesting thing, though, is that it messes with your frame of reference for how to interpret or evaluate what it accomplishes. And discussing how it does this is definitely useful.
On the one hand, it is a good Hollywood production. It does Hollywood very well, with all that goes with it. If what you seek is something that conforms to the norms and standards (implicit or explicit) of modern Hollywood, then this movie will do just that. Whatever else is to be said about it, the technical mastery and levels of production have to be acknowledged.
On the other hand. If you go into it expecting something that is not Hollywood, you will be disappointed. And it would be reasonable to expect something that is not Hollywood, given its anime origins. There is a very established, very elaborate framework from which to evaluate this new iteration of the series, and this framework jars with the work as it actually exists before us.
The dissonance between these two frames of reference makes watching the movie a very strange experience. On the one hand, the visuals are stunning; on the other hand, the things they do with these visuals makes very little sense, or is brutally underutilized. We know who Togusa is, and what he (significant for the setting) is not; we also see him for about fifteen seconds, and then only as a person who wears a suit. To be sure, that one suit more than likely has more thought put into it than most wardrobes, but this does not help its limited screen time.
The same dissonance can be found in most aspects of the movie. Even in the scenes that stick very close to the anime original, the difference between what is and what could be sneaks up on you and clouds the moment. The fact that they managed to nail almost every little detail in these recreated scenes perfectly, (to the point where you wonder if the depicted places have an objective existence outside the movies and people can just go there) – still does not erase this difference between what is and what could be.
Ghost in the Shell could be something different. But it is not. And it is not with such a degree of polish and perfection that it hurts. And that is a discursive anomaly more interesting than whether the movie is, for any definitions of the words, good or bad. –