The original 1995 Ghost in the Shell anime, based on the 1989 manga of the same name, is without a doubt one of the most epic and genre defining anime films out there; it’s tense, philosophical and animated absolutely beautifully and ends up as one of the cornerstones of not just anime but science-fiction in general, serving as a key influence on other sci-fi films such as The Matrix and AI: Artificial Intelligence. As such, it would be fair to say that a live-action remake would seem a worrying prospect, especially since Hollywood has loused up anime before as seen with Speed Racer and Dragonball: Evolution. Additionally the subsequent films that took inspiration from the original Ghost in the Shell there is a strong risk of this new adaptation looking incredibly derivative.
Indeed this adaptation does tread upon similar territory as the source material. Scarlett Johansson plays the Major, a woman who has her mind transferred into that of a mechanical body, known as a shell, following the total damage of her body. Used as a member of intelligence agency Section 9 she is tasked with taking down a cyberterrorist organisation who are attempting to take down Hanka Robotics, the organisation that created the Major. Along the way she begins to search back into her past and discovers that not all the events that happened in her past life were what they seemed.
The biggest problem with this adaptation is that it doesn’t add anything of interest to the Ghost in the Shell world and ultimately retreads most of the beats from the original in a workmanlike manner. There are some changes made – Hanka Robotics has a much bigger presence throughout this film and the origins of the Major differ a fair bit, including giving her a more Westernised name, Mira Killian (though there is indeed reference to Motoko Kusanagi) – but they’re ultimately not enough to make this new version stand out. It doesn’t help that this version is significantly dumbed down from the manga and anime. A philosophical spirit runs right through the original story, discussing the role of AI as the next natural step in human evolution and how much of identity a robot can attain from their conscience, their ghost, from inside of them. The movie flirts with those themes briefly but ultimately it seems far more concerned with being a big action film first and foremost. As such the spirit of the source material isn’t quite there and the film feels more of a generic sci-fi dystopian affair; not bad per se but nothing special by any means.
The cast overall is decent though there aren’t too many standouts. It’s fair to say that very few actresses are better suited to play a robot than Scarlett Johansson and here she works well with her android character, managing to get the robotic look just right with her speech patterns and movements with a bit of humanity lying beneath the surface. The other enjoyable member of the cast is Michael Pitt as leader of the cyberterrorists Hideo Kuze (though his actions in this film are more similar to that of the Puppet Master), who manages to be somewhat sinister yet attain a sympathetic edge all in a small amount of screentime. The rest of the cast do their jobs well enough and deliver a few moments of badassery sprinkled within – this can especially be seen with Takeshi Kitano playing the head of Section 9, speaking only in Japanese throughout, who has a particularly awesome moment in the last part of the movie to make up for his slightly weak role earlier in the film.
Technically the movie does a good job overall. Rupert Sanders is a fine if not astounding director and can get most of the action done efficiently, though he does feel somewhat mechanical in his aspirations and does have an overreliance on slow motion at times which can sometimes help to downplay the impact of some of the action, most notably a death scene at the end. The visuals and designs are very good with the Japanese cities of the movies having a distinctly Blade Runner-esque feel with adverts floating around neon technicoloured buildings. Blade Runner also appears to be the source for the strongest part of the film, the music. Composed by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe, the score is reminiscent of the score composed by Vangelis with its synthesised patterns which helps to give the film an aesthetic that makes the world of the film seem more futuristic whilst also being dramatic at all the right places.
Ghost in the Shell is not terrible by any means but it is terribly uninspired and is, for a lack of a better word, robotic. It strips away the philosophical bent of the original anime and ends up dumbing the story down considerably, becoming more of a simplistic story about AI, which is not bad per se but it becomes significantly less interesting, especially for people who’ve seen or read the source material. This adaptation would work more for people who have never experienced Ghost in the Shell at all – the performances are still decent and the technical aspects are well done, especially with the beautiful score. But even still it’s dreadfully vanilla in comparison to the original so newbies should really start their adventure with the Major there instead.
Ghost in the Shell – Directed by Rupert Sanders, screenplay by Ehren Kruger, Jamie Moss and William Wheeler, produced by Avi Arad, Steven Paul and Michael Costigan, starring Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han and Juliette Binoche. A DreamWorks Pictures/Reliance Entertainment/Shanghai Film Corporation production, a Paramount Pictures film