By Andrew Haas
Hollywood has tried many times to take Japanese manga/anime and bring it to live action American cinema, often to dismal results. Whether they be the mind-numbing Speed Racer or the insulting Dragonball: Evolution, these studio adaptations of overseas properties have been treated like cash grabs while failing to understand why they’re beloved by fans. So there’s a lot of pressure surrounding their latest attempt with Ghost in the Shell. Not only are they tackling a property that has been highly influential in modern sci-fi, but the project was facing controversy right from the start with the casting of white actors in major roles against the Japanese setting, specifically Scarlett Johannson as the lead. With all the production and publicity troubles this film has gone though, is there still hope for it? While I can definitely say the Shell has a lot going for it, there isn’t much of a Ghost to fill it.
The film is set in a future where humans give themselves cyber-enhancements. Within the task force Section 9, the Major, played by Scarlett Johansson, is the first of her kind as a fully synthetic body with a human mind. She is on the hunt for a terrorist named Kuze, played by Michael Pitt, who is targeting Hanka Robotics and their artificial intelligence technology. But as she digs deeper into his motivations, she begins to doubt herself and suspect that she might not be who she thinks she is.
To this film’s credit, I could tell that the people behind this adaptation have much respect for the material, at least judging by how it looks. The visuals to this cyberpunk future are breathtaking. From the robotic enhancements to the costumes to the skyscraper sized holograms, everything feels like it has been pulled straight out of a manga. There are many homages to the franchise’s past, including some impressive recreations of scenes from the 1995 classic. The cinematography has the same cinematic framing you’d find in the artwork of a comic panel. I also admire the effects department for incorporating some practical work amidst all the CGI, which is excellent for the most part. I especially liked the effect of the Major’s thermoptic camouflage suit. Accompanying the look of the film is a cool soundtrack by Clint Mansell and Lorne Baffe, which adds to the futuristic setting.
In terms of the cast, they all do a fine job with their characters. Not many of the members of Section 9 are given a whole lot to do, though they have their moments. Pilou Asbæk manages to be likeable as Batou. I really enjoyed Takeshi Kitano as Chief Daisuke Aramaki, who has some of the best scenes in the film. Michael Pitt as Kuze starts out as a promising villain, but that doesn’t last too long. In terms of the controversial casting of Johansson, while I’m not sure what I can say about the race aspect, I thought her performance as the Major was fairly decent, and she does look great in the action scenes. However, even though Johansson does a good job, the way her character is written does bring to light some of the film’s lesser aspects.
At first, I was interested in the new take on the Major’s character. One of the downsides of the original film is that it isn’t so much about the growth of the characters as it is about them exploring their roles and the ideas of their world. Here, they try to give her more of a backstory with secrets that reveal themselves through glitches in her memory. There’s a small but beautiful scene where she meets a woman who’s completely human and touches her face to understand what it feels like. But then I realized halfway through that her arc was leading to a generic missing identity/revenge action plot a la RoboCop or Total Recall. So when the Major goes through some emotional moments as she discovers more about her past, I wasn’t quite as invested as I wanted to be. There’s also a reveal about her character towards the end that, without giving much away, is bound to raise more eyebrows at Johansson’s portrayal.
The problem with adapting such influential source material is that it’s hard to be fresh again when we’ve seen other filmmakers borrow so much from the original since its release. As good and faithful as the visuals are, by this point a lot seems like it’s been done before in films made in between the anime and this version. This is why the story ends up being a burden on the film: it tries to balance various incarnations of the lore along with slightly new ideas, but it ironically ends up struggling for substance. While the 1995 anime was filled with challenging philosophies on identity, they are heavily downplayed here in favor of replicating the cool cyberpunk anime aesthetics, which can only carry a film so far.
In the end, I left the theater feeling half satisfied and half empty. At best, Ghost in the Shell is visual eye-candy, as the filmmakers’ effort is stronger than the script they had to work with. It’s definitely one of Hollywood’s best attempts at adapting anime, but that really isn’t saying much. It wants to honor its source material and mostly does a fair job, but it lacks much of the complexity that gave the property its strength. Without that, there’s little to differentiate the new Ghost in the Shell from other sci-fi films of the past 20 years. I’m glad I saw it, but I’m in no rush to see it again.