Ghost In The Shell REVIEW
Release: OUT NOW!
Director: Rupert Sanders
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt
It’s probably best never to have seen the anime version of Ghost In The Shell if you plan to see this new live-action version. If you have, it’s bound to be a disappointment. Not a disaster, by any means. Go in without expectations and you’ll find it’s a perfectly serviceable, stylish-looking sci-fi action flick, but nothing special. Think the Total Recall remake, the RoboCop remake, Equlibrium or Daybreakers in terms of quality.
The problem is, Ghost In The Shell is such a loved, cherished and revered anime, it needed to be something special. If you are familiar with the anime, watching this new version is a like watching a series of missed opportunities; it’s not as bad as you feared, not as good as you’d hoped, but ultimately a rather dispiriting experience.
Let’s get down to business with a live-action Ghost In The Shell 101. It’s set in a future where humans are becoming so pimped with technology that the line between man and machine is blurring. The military want to replace AIs with robots cyborgs, and Major is the first successful marriage of a human brain (culled from a refugee who was dying after being involved in a ferry disaster) and a completely synthetic body. She’s seconded to a specialist crimefighting team called Section 9, and soon she’s chasing a cyber-terrorist who’s killing the bosses of the company that created her, Hanka.
There’s some glorious imagery to enjoy, excellent FX, exciting action and a number of vivid, colourful characters. But…
If you are the fan of the anime, then you’ll already be noticing some curious diversions in this new script. After the first couple of scenes are a virtual cover version, the new film goes its own merry way, with a few familiar images reconstructed for good measure.
This need not necessarily be a bad thing. The key to a good adaptation is to capture the spirit of the original (and yes, we know the original is the manga, but the majority of fans know the anime better). And one of the key elements of the anime was a chilling central concept that’s even more relevant today than it was when the anime was released back in the ’90s. The idea of a machine becoming sentient and hacking the human mind. Now that’s scary.
Instead, this new live-action version completely jettisons all that and concentrates on an origin for Major instead, and in the process ends up a kind of existential RoboCop, complete with its own OmniCorp and Ed 209 at the climax. There’s also a bit of Total Recall in there. All of which makes a film that should be bursting with new SF ideas feel overfamiliar; we’ve seen the “lead character can’t believe their own memories” shtick so often now it’s practically a genre in itself.
This reemphasis and refocus also neuters the film’s nominal villain, who’s pretty much a revenge trope here. There is an attempt to develop a bit of a connection between him and Major, but you can tell this is a producers’ film and not a director’s film, and the producers are screaming, “More action, less of this boring human* drama stuff”. (*Or, indeed, cyborg.)
Scarlett Johansson is fine as Major, though she’s not required to do much apart from pose in body-hugging outfits, hit things and look puzzled. There’s little attempt to have the audience actually empathise with her plight; her angst is treated more like a plot-driver rather than something we should actually care about.
The rest of the cast does a decent job too, though they’re not particularly helped by the utilitarian script. The costume design often does more to define their characters than the dialogue.
Sure, the film draws in elements from the manga in an attempt to look like it’s done its research, but they aren’t really themes or plot points, just things… like glorified Easter eggs.
But this is a world full of great details, especially the way it conveys the way humans are enhancing themselves in ever more extreme and bizarre ways. There are lots of great cityscape shots. The production design is impressive. Annoyingly, though, some of the most striking elements from the trailer turn out to be “one-scene-only” affairs. The robo-geishas and the room of plugged-in monks are on screen barely longer than they were in the promos, and feel wasted.
There’s also the matter of Major being whitewashed; whatever your feelings on that, the fact that it turns out there’s a plot justification for it feels like rubbing salt into a wound. It may have been better for the film to have simply ignored the issue. As a result, a final revelation/twist/in-joke feels seriously misjudged.
Don’t be put off seeing it, though. It’s entertaining in places and looks great. And even if you hate it, you’ll want to have an opinion on it. It’s just a shame that a film that could have something extraordinary ends up so very, very… ordinary.
Review by Dave Golder