There’s something uncanny about the live-action adaptation of Ghost In The Shell. While it isn’t a direct adaptation of either Mamoru Oshii’s classic anime film or the manga by Masamune Shirow that inspired it, it bears enough of a resemblance to make viewers honestly question their own experiences with the originals. Is it new? Is it a remake? Or is it something similar that just feels really familiar, and did that happen in the first movie or did I just forget about it?
WARNING! MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
Set in an unspecified future metropolis, the story focuses on Major (Scarlett Johansson), an operative for anti-terrorist strike force Section 9. Cybernetic enhancement has become commonplace, but Major is something beyond that. She’s a fully-integrated cyborg, having a human brain that’s been implanted into a robot body. While she believes that she’s unique and the first of her kind, she soon comes to doubt that qualification and the true motivations of her creators when she confronts a terrorist hacker called Kuze (Michael Pitt) who aims to bring down the company responsible for Major’s technology.
Director Rupert Sanders seems to know more acutely than most that there’s no way he could create something as iconic and influential as the original film, which is to his credit. Sanders, who brought gothic glamour and high drama to Snow White and the Huntsman, has a great eye and a good grasp of his own creative vision. His Ghost is a new creation, an amalgamation of several iterations of the franchise accompanied by new characters. Just the same, he seems to take a cautious distance with his compositions, almost as if he’s afraid to put too much of a personal stamp on the film.
While Sanders does recreate several scenes from the original film, he still manages to integrate those into the new film organically. The whole film, in fact, has an almost-anime, heightened-reality sheen that makes even the more ridiculous moments of the film seem natural. Sanders even makes a few striking scenes of his own, the most notable probably being when the Major “deep dives” into the mind of a robot geisha that was at the scene of Kuze’s latest crime. When someone starts hacking into the data stream the Major shares with the geisha, it’s depicted as a mob of zombie-like figures constantly trying to drag Major down and bury her. It’s a harrowing and effective scene that harkens back to classic anime style without completely copying it.
Sanders gives equal weight to Major’s combat abilities as he does her personal story, although sometimes the ratio doesn’t always balance out as correctly as would be hoped. It’s helped out by the haunting and elegiac soundtrack laid down by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe, which has both literal and figurative echoes of Kenji Kawaii’s score from the original film. The soundtrack becomes a kind of detached narrator, almost like a reminder that what we’re seeing is an artificial construct.
To be honest, the soundtrack says more about the action on screen than does the actual script, which on its own sometimes makes the film feel like an overheated Blade Runner knock-off crossed with a bit of Ultraviolet and The Matrix. Sanders may have a great visual eye, but the screenplay by Jamie Moss and William Wheeler is completely boilerplate. There’s nothing truly wrong with it, but there’s nothing exciting about it, either. To the writers’ credit, however, the dialogue rarely comes off as pretentious, and the spartan nature of the conversations probably informs the audience more about the feel of Ghost’s new world than any of Sanders’ imagery.
What binds the film together is Scarlett Johansson’s turn as Major. While Major has a given name, she is almost always referred to by her rank, and Johansson plays her as the kind of character who doesn’t seem to need a name at all. As the plot unfolds and Major discovers more about her origins, this begins to change, and Johansson does an admirable job of showing the character’s slow turn toward a more vulnerable humanity.
Johansson often overshadows her supporting cast, but that’s not through any fault of theirs or hers. Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, as the chief of Section 9 is a pleasure to see anytime he’s on screen, effortlessly sly and charismatic. Pilou Asbaek, as Major’s partner Batou, is a steadying presence for Johansson and both looks and sounds like a classic anime anti-hero. Juliette Binoche, as the doctor overseeing the Major’s repairs, adds extra weight to her lines without trying, even if her dedicated performance highlights the deficiencies in the script. Conversely, although Michael Pitt sometimes comes off as stilted during his initial scenes, there are in-universe reasons for it that end up making his performance almost retroactively impressive.
Nearly every character in the film is defined by their relationship to Major, but it’s the character of Major that has a bit of metatextual unpleasantness to it. Controversy arose when Johansson was cast as Major, as many people felt that the part should have gone to an Asian actress. This issue is actually addressed in the film, although explaining it requires major third-act plot spoilers. While this Ghost, like its predecessor, seems to exist in a post- and possibly trans-racial time, that doesn’t alleviate the immediate problem. Johansson is excellent as Major, but seeing the multi-ethnic cast around her, the idea that this could have been a chance to highlight an Asian actress is inescapable. It’s an uncomfortable reality that the film tries to take on during its narrative but never satisfactorily resolves.
That’s kind of the vibe that the film runs on in general. This new Ghost isn’t as opaque as the original, but it also isn’t as complex. It has a lot of intriguing ideas, but it doesn’t always commit to fully exploring them. While the visuals are gorgeous, the action scenes exciting, and the overall aesthetic almost beyond reproach, it lacks some of the hypnotically-ambiguous humanity that made the original so compelling. There’s perhaps a bit too much shell and not enough ghost here, but what a dazzling shell it is.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B