When it comes to the most eagerly anticipated live action anime adaptations, Ghost in the Shell is right up there with Akira, Robotech, and James Cameron’s long promised Battle Angel Alita. Will Rupert Sander’s remix open the floodgates to anime adaptations? We “Deep Dive” to find out.
In the future, most humans are cybernetically enhanced in some way. Some visibly, with metal limbs and protruding body-parts, but more often than not, just with “cyberbrains” to interact with the data networks around them. Major Mira Killian (not Motoko Kusanagi) is different. After an accident all that’s left of her original body is her brain, encased in a completely android body from Hanka Robotics; one with an uncanny resemblance to Scarlett Johansson.
The setting for the live action adaptation of 1995’s Ghost in the Shell is almost identical to the original, however director Rupert Sanders has taken elements from the original , it’s sequels and spin off TV series and reassembled them into something different.
I mean, have you ever actually seen your brain?
The film features “The Major” and her recognisable colleagues at Section 9, an elite counter terrorism unit, hunting down a mysterious hacker who’s hacking peoples minds or “ghosts”. unlike the anime the victims this time are executives at Hanka Robotics, rather than members of the government. Could this hacker have any ties to The Major? Why does she keep experiencing “glitches” and visions of things that aren’t there?
Sanders, along with screenwriters Jamie Moss & William Wheeler have done a good job of distilling the essence of Ghost in the Shell into an enjoyable multiplex crowd pleasing action film, but along the way may have lost a chance at making something truly outstanding. The film is a mix mash of imagery from previous incarnations, with some scenes lifted almost wholesale from their inspiration , but the characters or the context has been altered. One of the most striking changes from the original, is that the major is now the “first of her kind”, rather than just another full body cyborg. It makes her character stand out a bit more but unfortunately it also introduces a regrettable plot thread where she is still getting used to her body, something that wasn’t even raised in the original. GitS was never about The Major finding her humanity, merely questioning it.
Unfortunately Johansson’s performance while she does so is quite flat. She seems to have decided that because she is is playing an android, she shouldn’t use too many facial expressions.
There’s nothing sadder than a puppet without a ghost
Opposite her Pilou Asbæk delivers an almost perfect Batou, The Major’s comrade in arms but the rest of Section 9 are mostly there for window dressing, including a new member of the team to increase the international appeal. Malaysian Pete Teo however provides a deliciously nasty performance as as a very sweaty looking gangster. While it’s great to see Japanese cinematic legend ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano in such a big film playing Section 9 chief Aramaki, every time he speaks Japanese to the rest of the cast (who reply in English) it does feels a little odd.
It also raises the “white elephant” in the room.
Whatever your opinion on Scarlett Johansson’s casting and the whole “whitewashing” controversy surrounding the film , one of the more interesting things about the plot is, it actually addresses this directly in the film. It may not address it in a manner satisfactory to everyone involved in that discussion but it must have driven the filmmakers nuts, not to be able to point at parts of the film and say “We know and It’s in the movie!!”.
And where does the newborn go from here?
Sander’s attempt to bring the visuals and some of the philosophising of of GitS to the big screen is mostly successful. The world and special effects are well realised, although I personally found the giant holograms adorning skyscrapers distracting rather than impressive, much preferring the stark landscapes of the lawless zones later in the film. The action sequences ripped from the original won’t blow fans away, as they’ve literally seen them before, while the new action sequences don’t really wow. The Wachowski’s may have taken inspiration from the original anime for The Matrix, but they added enough of a new spin to make them stand out. The same can’t quite be said here.
There’s still plenty here for fans to enjoy, including spotting the homages to Blade Runner and Mamoru Oshii’s previous work dotted around, but I doubt it will resonate as much as the original.
As the film ends it becomes clear exactly what the point of this Ghost in the Shell has been; to (hopefully) launch a new franchise for the studio. Judging the film on it’s own merits its hard to say whether it succeeds on those terms.
The live action Ghost in the Shell does a lot right and is fairly enjoyable, but in other feels like a missed opportunity.
In comparison to the original it’s not an empty shell, but, it does ring a little hollow.
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Peter Ferdinando
Directed by: Rupert Sanders