The original film adaption of Masamune Shirow’s manga, 22 years old by now, is a true milestone in the history of Japanese anime. Together with Akira and Spirited Away, it is one of the few anime that was able to garner fame in the Western world. It served as the inspiration for countless science fiction films, including the Matrix trilogy. It should be no surprise then that, in an era of successful live-action adaptions, Hollywood would set their sights on Ghost in the Shell.
The Ghost in the Shell universe, as is often the case after initial success, has become quite extensive. Everything started with the 1989 manga. This cyberpunk classic was originally published under the name Kōkaku Kidōtai (loosely translated as “armoured mobile law enforcement“): The Ghost in the Shell. Later it simply became Ghost in the Shell. In 1995 that was followed up by an animated film directed by Mamoru Oshii, which was given a sequel in 2004. It was even in the running for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival. But for many, including this reviewer, the franchise really started to shine with the television series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. That show tells two stories in as many seasons, which are among the best in its genre. It should come as no surprise that the newest adaption seems to eagerly use elements from both the original film as well as various ideas from the show.
But looks can be deceiving. While Ghost in the Shell became famous for its complex themes, such as identity in a high-tech society where the line between man and machine is blurring fast, the new film barely mentions this issue. Just as in the manga and anime, we meet Public Security Section 9, an anti-terrorism squad specialized in cyber terrorism. At the head of this team of elite agents is The Major (Scarlett Johansson), a new kind of super soldier made up of a fully artificial body. But when a mysterious hacker plots revenge against the industrial consortium responsible for designing The Major’s body, she also begins to doubt the company’s motivations and the true nature of her body transplant.
In and of itself, that’s a nice setup, but at no point during the movie do you have the feeling that the story is taking off. The mystery surrounding The Major’s past has been simplified so much that it becomes obvious basically from the very beginning. I kept waiting for the big plot twist, but in the end, it never came. And that’s such a shame, because this wafer-thin story is vastly different from the complex backstory in Stand Alone Complex. In that story, both The Major and Kuze (Michael Pitt) have a very interesting and profound origin story. This film doesn’t even explain why everyone calls her The Major. Every Section 9 team member has their own personality and background in the anime; here they barely get screen time.
There might have been a lot of controversy surrounding Johansson’s casting, but her etnicity isn’t relevant here. The completely rubbish casting of basically every character in this film is the real problem. The dialogue feels forced and the actors don’t have the connection with the source material necessary to portray these characters. By the way, who thought it was a good idea to cast Takeshi Kitano as Aramaki? Let alone to give him a gun.
It’s a pity, because in contrast, the creators have very clearly been inspired by the films and anime when it comes to the visuals. Let’s be honest: this film is a visual treat. The many iconic scenes have been shot beautifully and gave me goosebumps at times. The Major jumping from the building in the beginning of the film, the scene with the geisha that was seemingly plucked directly from the first episode of Stand Alone Complex, the water fight and the spectacular confrontation at the end are a feast for the eye. The set designs are wonderful and we have nothing but praise for the costumes as well.
The soundtrack was composed by Clint Mansell, known for Requiem for a Dream, but his work here reminds us more of what he did for Mass Effect 3. Those electronic beats can nonetheless never measure up against the sublime soundtrack that Yoko Kanno wrote for Stand Alone Complex, which I will forever associate with this franchise. Luckily, I can’t remember hearing the awful dubstep remix of Kenji Kawai’s theme in this film, although the credits feature a new version of his famed composition.
Ghost in the Shell had an enormous amount of potential. But in the end, this film completely overlooks the essence of what made the show so brilliant. Instead of trying to tell a story, the creators have opted for a flashy spectacle. And thanks to the flat portrayal by nearly the entire cast, this adaption lacks the ghost which was certainly present in the animated versions. Fun fact: the Japanese dub features original voice actors such as Atsuko Tanaka and the legendary Akio Ōtsuka.
Ghost in the Shell will be playing in cinemas on March 29.
Ghost in the Shell
Ghost in the Shell is a prime example of style over substance. Gorgeous visuals barely hold up against a complete lack of depth. In addition to that, the little story there is, is brought without conviction by a cast that has no clue what they're talking about.