During the 1990s, at a time when anime was an underground phenomenon, there was a handful of people who purchased VHS tapes that were distributed by Manga Entertainment. Along with Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, there was Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 sci-fi masterpiece Ghost in the Shell, which not only redefined cyberpunk and pushing the boundaries of adult animation, but became a massive influence to future works such as The Matrix. Gaining enough popularity from the spawning of numerous movies, TV shows and video games, a live-action remake from Hollywood was bound to happen, even if we hardcore fans would have nothing but disgust toward it.In the near future, in which the vast majority of humans are augmented with cybernetics, counter-cyberterrorist organization Public Security Section 9, led by Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), hunts down Kuze (Michael Pitt), a cyber-criminal wanted for committing a series of murders of scientists from Hanka Robotics, the world’s leading developer of augmentative technology.
Originally based on the manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow, Rupert Sanders’ film is less about that manga – an inconsistent mix of action, comedy and gratuitous titillation – and primarily using the 1995 classic as the blueprint for his take. Like a collage, mixing elements from the previous incarnations from the two Oshii-directed films to Stand Alone Complex, there is a great detail with respect to what came before as there are many Easter eggs sprinkled throughout, as well as many iconic set pieces being recreated, such as the creation of the Major.
Although this isn’t a shot-for-shot remake, the film takes many cues from the original in terms of themes and iconography, and as the more the story unfolds, it ultimately feels derivative of – oddly enough – the 2014 Robocop remake, which itself suffered from an element of redundancy. From previous incarnations, the Ghost in the title has many meanings as it can be from the human soul to an entity born out of the Sea of Information. In this version which once again explores the Major questioning her cybernetic existence in a technologically advanced world, the philosophical discussion of a ghost existing in a cybernetic shell does get lost within the shiny surfaces, nor indeed does it have much to say as an allegory to our current digital age.There has been much reported over the “whitewashing” controversy regarding the casting of Scarlett Johansson and yet, despite the film’s attempt at explaining this through its central mystery in a way of “have their cake and eat it too,” the final reveal ultimately doesn’t work. However, as a continuation of what she had done in Under the Skin and Lucy, Johansson delivers a terrific performance as the Major who has both a commanding presence and an existential angst, as well as being a bad-ass action heroine that doesn’t feel sexualized. Supporting Johansson is a stellar and diverse cast, featuring the Danish Pilou Asbæk as the imposing Batou, the Japanese legend Takeshi Kitano as Chief Aramaki, and the French Juliette Binoche as the mother figure Dr Ouélet. Sadly, because of the focus toward the Major, we never see a dynamic to how her operative team functions, to make the film feel more like a procedural thriller.
It’s been five years since his directorial debut Snow White and the Huntsman and as before, Rupert Sanders’ true strength is his eye for detail. Taking place in a futuristic unnamed city that is very Asian influenced as well as inspired by the sci-fi outings by Ridley Scott, we see this lush dystopian world with these huge holograms being advertised on the many buildings. No doubt, this is a feast for the eyes thanks to Jess Hall’s stunning cinematography, as well as being an audio delight as Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe’s atmospheric musical score captures the cyberpunk aesthetic.
So what’s the verdict? One has to respect Sanders’ fan dedication in maintaining what made the original Ghost in the Shell great in the first place, even if the deeper meanings have gotten lost during the translation and the story itself is a derivative one.