A movie adaptation of Ghost In The Shell has been a long time coming. The original 1995 anime is an absolute gem and definitely raised the bar for Japanese animation. Whilst 1991’s Akira was the starting point for many on their discovery of Japanese anime, it was arguably Ghost In The Shell that really showed off the format’s potential. It was a visual assault on the senses with production values better than most of Hollywood’s output at the time. It certainly influenced many filmmakers after its release, most notably the Wachowski brothers who practically plagiarised every aspect of Ghost In The Shell when they conceived their hugely over-rated Matrix trilogy. Visually influenced by Blade Runner, the futuristic anime dealt with issues of existentialism, the dominance of computers and machines in society, and the connotations of having our lives so utterly reliant on the internet. Ghost In The Shell’s concept is that the majority of the human population have been ‘cyberized’ to some degree – cybernetic implants, brains that can directly access the internet, and in extreme cases the only biological element present is the human mind (the soul, or ‘ghost’) within a synthetic body (the ‘shell’). It was well ahead of its time, and just begged for a full-blown feature adaptation. At one point James Cameron, another filmmaker who was heavily influenced by Ghost In The Shell’s visual design, was toying with the idea of bringing this futuristic world to the big screen.
Flash forward to 2017, and the big screen incarnation has finally arrived. Was it worth the wait? Well to be honest… sort of, yes and no. The film is good, but not great. Actually, it is a lot better than it could’ve been, especially considering Hollywood’s poor track record of pop culture adaptations so I suppose that’s a positive. And considering the making of the Ghost In The Shell movie was mired in controversy from the very outset – accusations of ‘whitewashing’ with the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the Major instead of a Japanese actress, and reported CGI tests to make Johansson appear ‘more asian’ – it’s actually turned out to be a fairly satisfying rendition of the anime, albeit with both positives and negatives.
Story-wise, the film sticks closely to the original cyberpunk anime. Johansson’s Major is a cyber-soldier from Section 9, part of an elite counter cyber-terrorist division tracking down cyber-criminal hacker Kuze (wonderfully played by Michael Pitt). That’s a lot of cyber. Director Rupert Sanders has lifted themes and included like-for-like shot recreations and sequences straight from both the original anime and its 2004 sequel Ghost In The Shell: Innocence, as well as the Stand Alone Complex series too. If you’re familiar with the source materials then you’ll recognise things such as Batou’s basset hound, the Major’s water fight with a fleeing criminal, and of course that iconic spider-tank. It does at times feel that this is all just ‘fan service’ and it would’ve been nice to have seen some more original concepts, but that’s the tricky thing with adaptations these days. Stray too far from source material and fans get upset. Stick too closely to the source material and fans deem the adaptation as pointless. (Just look at the reactions to the Star Wars prequels and then The Force Awakens, for example). The film doesn’t have as much depth as the anime – somehow the original seems much grander in scope – but it does shift along at a steady pace with plenty of well executed action sequences. The central theme is somewhat of a Hollywood cliché however – the Major experiences flashbacks to a previous life and desperately tries to uncover the truth behind her past (RoboCop anyone?).
Visually it is stunning, drawing on the anime’s Blade Runner influences and increasing them tenfold. The futurist ‘Tokyo’ cityscape is immense, and the screen is absolutely cluttered with imagery, bringing comparisons of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element to mind. The casting is actually more diverse that the controversy would care to admit – there are American, French, Danish, Japanese, and British actors in major roles. Johnasson’s performance is pretty spot-on - she’s already proved with 2014’s Lucy and also the Avengers movies that she's able to play a frowning emotionless bad-ass pretty well – and she portrays the Major with enough conviction to silence the naysayers. Dane actor Pilou Asbaek was simply born to play Batou, the Major’s police partner. And it is thrilling to see Beat Takeshi Kitano in a live-action Ghost In The Shell movie.
The music is a superb reworking of the original’s, and does elevate the film somewhat. I just wish this Ghost In The Shell movie was more meaty given its excellent source material– more ‘ghost’ and less ‘shell’ if you will – but it's stylish and entertaining enough, and there’s always the two anime films to revisit, which I would definitely recommend doing before watching this adaptation.
Slick and stylish, a faithful enough adaptation but unfortunately doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.