As Beautiful As Ghost in the Shell Is, It Could Have Been Great If It Had Chosen Substance Over Style

Director: Rupert Sanders

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Absaek, Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt, Chin Han, Danusia Samal, Lasarus Ratuere and Juliette Binoche

Studio: Paramount

Rated: PG

Running Time: 1 Hr, 47 Mins

The idea that humanity and technology will soon merge into a single evolutionary leap is not a new one. It’s been a regular toy in literature and film’s playground for decades. You could argue the roots of this particular storytelling fascination can be found all the way back in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. In 1995, the anime hit Ghost in the Shell captured this idea in a way few other stories had (and shoved the cyberpunk dystopia to an entirely new level of popularity). It has since established itself as one of the greatest anime films of all time with a devoted and vocal fan base.

And that popularity is likely to prove toxic to the new live action adaptation because, while I haven’t seen the original, I can tell you why it is so popular and the live action version doesn’t just fail to reproduce the secret of the anime’s success, it doesn’t feel like it even truly tried.

Video: Paramount Pictures

In the future, the chasm between humanity and technology has been bridged and human beings routinely add cybernetic enhancements to improve themselves. But this new world is not without its dangers and a new breed of terrorist has risen to threaten order. The Major (Scarlett Johansson) is the official response, a cyborg that represents the frontier of science (her brain was transplanted from a dying body into a completely artificial body). Leading an elite paramilitary unit called Section 9, she is the primary weapon used against cyber terrorists.

But a mysterious new figure known simply as Kuze (Michael Pitt) has found a way to hack directly into the human mind. Able to steal memories and even enslave people, he is targeting the top scientists at Hanka Robotics, a powerful corporation that created The Major and rivals the government for power. But as the Major and Section 9 is dragged further and further into Kuze’s machinations, she begins to doubt everything she’s been told and suspects that she and Kuze may share sinister similarities. Unable to trust anyone around her and even her own memories, the Major embarks on a journey of discovery while playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with the elusive Kuze.

The Ghost in the Shell’s world building is excellent and it convincingly recreates the original anime’s decaying urban landscape. It spared no expense on its stunning visuals and it is pure fun to watch. If you don’t see this film in 3-D you are truly missing out. Not only did the producers create the perfect future world for the story, but they synced it with the film’s culture as well. The tech isn’t just about the cars or neon signs that clutter the skyscape but rather human existence. Technology has completely replaced mysticism; micro communicators are the new telepathy, holograms are the new glamours, souls can inhabit vast computer networks and even monks have cutting edge neural interfaces.

Scarlet Johansson is adequate as the Major, though it seems demands on her were minimal. Her greatest challenges appear to have been keeping emotional expression to a minimum while mastering more rigid physical movements (the Major seems far less chatty in this version). Pilou Absaek is fairly effective as the gruff Sargent Batou, the towering man of action who trusts no one but has a soft spot for stray dogs and the Major. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of Japanese film star Takeshi Kitano as Section 9 chief Aramaki. He added some sage gravity to the cast and his wily confidence was a welcome grounding for the film. But for the most part the characters were shallow and generic.

While Ghost in the Shell is an okay sci-fi/action movie, it could have been groundbreaking (the controversy over it’s primarily white casting notwithstanding). Ghost missed some great opportunities to do some serious digging into its premise (what defines humanity and how long can individuality survive when blended with technology) instead of superficially scratching the surface. It’s as though it deliberately chooses to ignore the spirit of the original anime, explaining the betrayal so many fans currently flooding the Internet feel (the aforementioned casting had already put plenty of them in a bad mood to begin with). While Ghost abandons some of the narrative clumsiness of its source material, it can’t capture the underlying message that made it so popular.

What’s so frustrating is that it could have easily done what it failed to achieve. The foundation was there. They captured the sleek, dystopian future landscape perfectly and did a good job establishing the culture. Audiences are already well versed with the theme of the story, either from the anime or the legion of other sci-fi movies that have toyed with the same idea. And Ghost had no shortage of scenes that flirted with a deeper exploration. A few tweaks here and there plus one or two carefully crafted scenes and voila, we could have had a smart, strong exploration of the central premise (that also would have satisfied the anime’s passionate fan base). Instead, Ghost comes across as a shiny, stylish cliché.

It’s an interesting parallel with The Beauty and the Beast live action adaptation. In that case, Disney made capturing the spirit of the original the primary priority. Sure they stumbled a few times but as the kajillion or so dollars its made at the box office can attest, they pretty much succeeded. With The Ghost in the Shell, you just can’t shake the feeling that those attempts were half hearted at best. I would recommend giving it a chance as long as you aren’t a fan of the original (or expecting anything new). If you have seen the classic anime, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give this a wide berth.

Image: Paramount Pictures