‘Ghost in the Shell’ Looks Great, Yet Lacks the Philosophy
While a staple in anime culture, Ghost in the Shell remains a challenging film to digest nearly 22 years after its release. Combining cyberpunk with philosophical overtones, this vision of Masamune Shirow’s 1989 manga has this tendency to be heavy-handed. However, successfully transforming the beloved anime into a live-action film for mainstream audiences might be the franchise’s greatest hurdle to date.
The world of Ghost in the Shell takes place in an undated futuristic Japan. Flesh and blood is less prevalent as most beings now exist with some variety of cybernetic upgrades. The Major (Scarlett Johansson), though is a one-of-a-kind. She’s a cyber officer, who’s been artificially reconstructed after a mysterious tragedy. Her sole piece of humanity that remains is her ghost (or consciousness). The Major’s latest mission has her uncovering a terrorist plot against the robotics company that created her. Though, the more she and her team investigate, the more she may discover about her true past.
For director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman), translating Ghost in the Shell into an accessible Hollywood film was quite the arduous task. Especially since anime remakes into live-action films just don’t click here. Remember how Dragonball Evolution lobotomized its beloved lore? And The Wachowski’s Speed Racer was panned upon its release in 2008. It took almost a decade for the high-octane anime adaptation to be appreciated by a much greater audience. Ghost in the Shell meets audiences halfway, going light on its themes yet not sacrificing the anime’s integrity entirely.
Anyone who has seen this new Ghost in the Shell can’t deny it’s one hell of a visual spectacle. Beautiful to behold, Sanders’ futuristic backdrop is an eye-popping kaleidoscope that very well could be the spiritual successor of the world in Blade Runner. Its stylized action sequences are gorgeous drops of cinematic energy. Most noteworthy is a spectacular opening assault by a mech-geisha at a banquet .
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Like the anime, Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell tends to be quiet endeavor as Johansson’s Major unravels her past. Action sequences come in spurts when necessary. However, there’s never any deliberate decisions to overpower the mystery with excessive set pieces. Mystery is commonplace in the anime, though it goes hand-in-hand with philosophical monologues. The Architect scene from The Matrix Reloaded is pure child’s play in comparison, even though some have called it pretentious dribble. This iteration of Ghost in the Shell strips away the grad school philosophy lectures quoting Buddha and Confucius. The screenplay co-written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger is more along the lines of an intro to an intro to an intro to philosophy. Thoughts about humanity vs. artificiality, fantasy vs. reality and corporate property are teased at, but never fully realized.
While the live-action adaptation pays homage to the 1995 anime time and time again, the narrative direction manages to deviate. The Major’s free-fall prior to the geisha assault is pulled right out of the first few minutes of the anime. The same goes for a minor scene where she swims underwater to be off the grid for a while. Those little moments will please fans of the anime, despite there also being a finely blended mix of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and the series Stand Alone Complex. And hearing Kenji Kawai’s iconic choral theme brings on the goosebumps in full force.
But the biggest elephant in the room is the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the Major. The anime depicts her as Asian, which Johansson obviously is not. Yes, it’s a delicate subject that’ll just open up a can of worms. However, Johansson nailed the mannerisms that go along with the role. After Lucy and Under the Skin, she’s no stranger to tackling the monotone, robotic persona. Her character is depicted as detached, struggling to connect to anything, while the rest of humanity is all intertwined. For audiences, it may seem different to latch onto a lead like the Major who appears more mechanical. The disconnect is a great challenge.
The 1995 anime was a masterpiece way before its time. Ironically enough, the live-action Ghost in the Shell is forced to play catch-up when films such as The Matrix and Ex Machina have paved the way for modern-day sci-fi think-pieces. While Ghost in the Shell does plenty of justice as a captivating love letter to Shirow’s manga, one could hope for a few more risks in unraveling the deeper messages within this brilliantly crafted world.