With movies based on an existing property, especially one that has permeated a whole generation, one must go in with very light hopes. A successful adaptation should have the characters we know and love, be visually stimulating, and feature the major themes of the original work. So many movie adaptations botch one or more of these core ideals.
For me, the themes are easily the most important thing to get right. Although some would disagree, I feel the live-action version of Ghost in the Shell (directed by Rupert Sanders and distributed by Paramount) retains most of the original’s important ideas. These themes and the setting echo those of fellow futuristic films, Blade Runner and Dredd. Perhaps one day Ghost in the Shell will reach similar cult status.
Meet Section 9
From the early casting announcements through release, the loudest complaints about the film have involved the whitewashing of the protagonist. Across all iterations of Ghost in the Shell, Major Motoko Kusanagi has always been a cybernetically augmented field commander for Section 9, a futuristic law-enforcement organization backed by the Japanese government. Here, she is played by non-Asian actress Scarlett Johansson. I don’t mind the casting, but that’s something each viewer must decide for themselves.
Besides, the actual characterizations of the Major’s team of Section 9 are so much more interesting than casting debates. The primary team members we get to know are Battou, the Chief, and of course, the Major. As the Major, Scarlett Johansson captures the character’s steely focus, no-nonsense attitude, and competence quite well.
Batou (played by a scene-stealing Pilou Asbæk) exhibits his characteristically fierce loyalty for the Major, without too many undertones of unrequited love. Takeshi Kitano delivers a quietly awesome performance as the grimly competent Chief Daisuke. Even the villain Kuze makes a fair impression thanks to Michael Pitt, who has a long history of playing characters who skirt the line between menacing and sympathetic.
The performances are strong throughout most of the film, though the occasional scene falls flat (particularly one involving a “deep hack” towards the end of the first act).
Welcome to Neo Tokyo
Anyone with eyes can see that Ghost in the Shell is gorgeous. The film does a brilliant job of bringing the Neo Tokyo landscape – a cluttered amalgam of Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Sprawl series – to life. Holograms pop up on virtually every surface in this futuristic world. Tops and sides of buildings are covered in billboard-like ads; medical techs wear holographic heads-up-displays over their faces; even the streets have holographic arrows indicating one-way driving.
Cybernetic enhancements adorn nearly all of this world’s inhabitants, ranging from small implanted scalp interfaces to scar-covered hack-job body replacements. A person’s wealth and status comes through in the subtlety of their modifications. The abundance of small details in every character and scene instills in the movie a very dirty, lived-in feel – much like Blade Runner’s future Los Angeles. I could study the detailed setting for days and still discover new details.
I watched Ghost in the Shell on IMAX 3D, and that was not wasted money. The 3D conversion consisted largely of depth-of-field effects, perfectly suited to a movie with such expansive metropolitan landscapes. Very few scenes included too many unfocused areas on the screen, thankfully. That visual overload tends to give me headaches.
Of ghosts and puppets
Ghost in the Shell’s actual plot is lean and propulsive, similar to the minimalistic narrative of Dredd. That’s not to say it doesn’t have some good character moments when the action slows down, but they’re not the main focus of the film.
The majority of the plot involves Section 9’s latest case. A terrorist called the Puppet Master is wreaking havoc with his ability to hack and highjack robots and cybernetically enhanced humans with ease. Meanwhile, the Major discovers hints of a past she does not remember – a subplot newly introduced in this version of the story.
The movie’s themes dwell on identity, just as in the original manga and anime. What does it mean to live in a world where technology can smear all the lines of reality, including body composition and free will? This version doesn’t swell on the nature of the soul, or “ghost” like in previous iterations; the change admittedly weakens the connection between title and story here.
Replacing the meditations on the existence and transference of the human soul are ideas about loss of selfhood inherent in merging man with machine. What did the Major lose when she became a cyborg? Some have decried this version of Ghost in the Shell as too shallow, but I disagree. The movie still spends plenty of energy contemplating the connection of a mental reality to the physical world.
There’s only so much ground a modern blockbuster action movie can cover – perhaps a sequel could follow up on more of the original manga and anime’s themes. Of course, a sequel might be unlikely given the film’s tepid box office performance so far. But Blade Runner and Dredd both found their audiences over time, and Ghost in the Shell has that same potential. The world of Neo Tokyo is one that begs to be revisited in the future.