For full disclosure, I have not in fact ever read or watched Ghost in the Shell in any of its forms. I would have had to have been a hermit not to pass through the later 80s and into the 90s without at least encountering it’s fans and getting at least a passing familiarity with it’s subject matter and cliff notes. However when settling in to watch the Hollywood adaptation directed by Rupert Sanders, expectations were not high. For context – his only prior feature film was Snow White and the Huntsman.
Scarlett Johansson stars as Major Mira Killian, an android with an implanted human brain. Her human body was damaged beyond repair in a terrorist attack and Hanka Precision Instruments (a robotics super-company) accomplishes the task of embedding her brain into a new body. When she awakens she doesn’t remember much before her rebirth, and is assigned to an elite paramilitary squad, Section 9, whose mission is to hunt down cybercriminals.
When a new rash of terrorist attacks start targeting key Hanka employees, Major and Section 9 is hot on the trail. Mira begins having increased “glitches” which are memory fragments from her human life and questions start to arise about who she really is.
The film overall is a visual homage to the art designs of the original. In places it’s done to a fault, when a scene’s visuals don’t really have a logical sense in a cinematic presentation, but it genuinely does look like an anime splash page. There are some scenes where CGI is impeccable, but then in another when the Major is having some post-battle repairs done we see her red android innards being repaired. From one angle it looks great (all CGI), but when we get her side shot, it’s painfully clear that we are seeing red latex over her torso (practical effect). I’m a huge supporter of practical effects, but this one was just weak.
The performance are fine, with Peter Ferdinando as Major’s right hand agent, Cutter being the distinct standout. The shockingly poor performance of Juliette Binoche as Major’s creator, Dr. Ouelet, I can’t even begin to fathom. I adore her as an actress, and here her readings fall flat and stilted.
But generally speaking the world is well visualized and rich. There’s clearly a mythos that has been thought out about what it’s like to live in the 21st century world of Ghost in the Shell. What the movie is not, however, is original. The cold truth of the source manga and anime is that they weren’t very original, either. It was indeed during one of the great eras of anime – Akira had just hit the year before). It was also during the time that Cyberpunk was very much in vogue, and Ghost worked with elements that had been codified in anything from Heavy Metal to Blade Runner and any of the books by William Gibson or Philip K Dick. As a new visual medium, it must have been amazingly cool, working in a genre that was fresh. That was nearly 30 years ago now, and that genre has evolved (and in some ways cooled), and this new film doesn’t add anything to bring it up to date. Now looking at the film one would include immediate comparisons to Will Smith’s I, Robot.
The hardest thing about this film is you have fans who remember the original, and likely have it being the great cutting edge film that it was – at the time it came out. Had it come out now, it might be popular, but it wouldn’t have the same impact on the genre. So what we have is a film that is mostly very ascetically pretty, but the story just feels like you’ve heard it all before, so it feels like the story itself is cobbled together from so many other cyborg/cyber/dystopian films in the same way that Frankenstein put together his monster.
If you’re a hardcore fan of the original and remember if from your childhood, I don’t think seeing this will change the original’s impact on you. This might be cool to see it realized in live-action, but it might also make you just wish you were watching the original again. For newcomers, one thing I will say is that I never really had the urge to watch the original. Now I really do. So in that way, it’s succeeded in making me want to learn more about what inspired this in the first place (and what they changed or didn’t change), and were those crazy spider-Gisha-assasin-spider-brain-hacking robots were in the original. They were cool and original enough, I have to think that they were.
Ghost in the Shell also stars Pilou Asbæk as Batou, Takeshi Kitano as Aramaki, Juliette Binoche as Dr. Ouelet, Michael Pitt as Kuze, Chin Han as Han, Danusia Samal as Ladriya, Lasarus Ratuere as Ishikawa, Yutaka Izumihara as Saito, Tawanda Manyimo as Borma, Peter Ferdinando as Cutter, Anamaria Marinca as Dr. Dahlin
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