Considering in my youth I was a massive Anime fan it was only in April of this year and only because of being part of the Science Fiction Rating System Podcast I finally saw Mamoru Oshii’s amazing original 1995 film Ghost in the Shell. I loved it (you can hear all about it HERE) and I believed it to be almost perfect hence my reservation that Hollywood was adapting it into live action Sci-Fi action blockbuster.
Reserving judgment I plunged into rookie director Rupert Sanders film and was instantly blown away with the sensational visuals and design. Starting out the same as the original with Major’s creation we see a team of scientist building Scarlett Johansson from scratch all shown with exceptional special effects.
The first big deviation from the original is the insertion of Juliette Binoche as Dr. Ouelet who while working on a secret project for mega-corporation Hanka Robotics becomes Major’s creator and mother figure. She also offers up the audience some handy exposition of the film’s title which refers to the transplanting of a human brain into a mechanical body or shell making Major the first integrated robot of her kind tasked to join Section 9 an anti-terrorist bureau.
The brain, its memories and perhaps the human’s soul is the ghost and this is what troubles Major for the majority of the movie as she suffers visual glitches that may or may not be part of her past life. Added to the intrigue Major’s team must investigate a terrorist calling himself Kuze (Hannibal’s Michael Pitt) who is killing Hanka associates and employees seemingly in a bid for revenge on a bygone wrong.
With a race to solve the case as more bodies pile up and Kuze plunges the city into chaos Major is plagued by doubts on her own history, her construction and her purpose and left questioning everything around her including her friends, colleges and her creator.
The look and design of Ghost in the Shell is wonderful with everything from the cars to the guns to the spider tank amazingly realized. Visually it manages to both recreate the original style that meshed old and new borrowing heavily from cyber punk novels and Blade Runner while creating some spectacular new locations from the epic sweeping shots of the city full of huge 3D adverts to the dark dingy run down lair Kuze operates out of.
Cast wise although Johansson may have caused controversy the rest of the ensemble do a fine job although some characters perhaps aren’t explored as fully as they should be including the techno phobic Togusa (Chin Han) who refuses to upgrade himself while everyone around him does.
That said the inclusion of the legendary ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano as Section 9 boss and badass Aramaki is a welcome and brave inclusion considering he speaks exclusively in Japanese and removing subtitles is usually a prime directive for American adaptations.
As I said earlier the original anime which shockingly only runs at 82 minutes is near perfection in pacing, action and plotting packing in more deep intellectual musings than most philosophy books and more gun blasting mayhem than most modern blockbusters.
The dilemma then in translating Ghost in the Shell to live action comes in whether you remain completely faithful to the source material making your own movie moribund or change everything alienating anyone who was a fan of the original.
Thankfully Sanders and his screenwriters have found a middle ground. Some scenes are almost identical to the anime, including the building jump at the beginning and the first-rate invisible fight with the hacked garbage man as well as its depressing aftermath, and there are great touches such as the inclusion of the spiderlike super typing fingers seen on a secretary and an explanation as to why Batou, brought to life brilliantly by Pilou Asbæk, has those crazy circular glass eyes.
The story is very different as is Johansson’s interpretation of the character and it is here that my major (excuse the pun!) criticisms of the adaptation come in. In the Anime although Major is a female robot she has the cold cool authority, unflinching command of the unit and physical superiority in combat traditionally given to a male character. To counter this and challenge our gender preconceptions we constantly see her naked cyborg body and the final request of the films male quasi-villain is a unity between them impregnating her with his consciousness both emphasizing her femininity.
In terms of its subject matter the original makes you think, it makes you think about the morality of creating AI, about future technology, about the human soul and about humanity itself and more. It also offers very little explanation at all forcing you to make your own mind up and that’s what I loved.
In this version of Ghost in the Shell everything is laid out for the audience with little space for interpretation and Johansson’s Major is the conduit for all emotion in the movie a strange concept when she is the most robotic of all the characters on screen. It is a fine performance but this excess of feelings and literal soul searching makes Major a far less interesting character than what she was before and almost leads us to forget she is a robot at times hence perhaps the inclusion of so many scenes of Johannsson naked being taken apart by technicians.
The switch up of story to a sort of rehash of Robocop also makes the film seem familiar in a bad way and it’s a pity that more risks couldn’t have been taken with both the plot and main character by sticking to the original’s interpretation.
That’s said although I recommend you watch the original first this Ghost in the Shell is visually magnificent and far more respectful than many other Hollywood adaptations making it a treat for the eyes with plenty of excellent action, full on effects and scintillating Sci-Fi. It’s just a pity it is not as much of a treat for the mind as well as the anime was.
Ghost in the Shell is out now on digital download.