Despite a short, low budget spell back in the 90’s Hollywood and Anime had generally avoided each other like recent exes at parties when it full on adaptations – oh sure, nicking the style and certain themes has been going on for yonks (The Matrix etc.) but Fist Of The North Star, Crying Freeman, The Guyver and (ew) Dragonball Z aside, Western Studios had resisted going all out on a mega-budgeted, more accurate version. However, in 2017 they finally took the plunge with – no, not Akira – but Masamune Shirow’s seminal Ghost In The Shell, a super stylish sci-fi thriller that strip mined the basics from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner into a brooding mix of slick, cyber-punk action and giant-eyed musings on the very nature of humanity and the existence of the soul. As a first, real, overdue crack at nailing an Anime adaption for western audiences, it seemed like an inspired choice (especially with James Cameron’s and Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel waiting in the wings), but on closer inspection – maybe they should have waited a little longer…
It’s the near future (although not that near considering all the cool shit they have) and it’s a time where many human have augmented various bits of their bodies for optimum efficiency or simply to be more stylish but Mira Killian has them all beaten hands down as she’s a counter terrorist operative who is the first of her kind; a human brain located within an entirely robot body – aka. a Shell. Her human one was damaged beyond repair in a terrorist attack that killed her parents but now she has achieved the rank of Major and may very well be the first example of where mankind is heading as a species – so no pressure then…
Recently the Major and her team have begun seeing attacks on senior members of the Hanka Robotics Corporation by a shadowy figure known only as Kuze who’s modus operandi hints that he’s tricked out with as many mod cons as the Major herself. However, as Killian’s very existence is a result of Hanka’s innovations, she takes this as an opportunity to address the weird memory glitches shes been having of a past that has remained annoyingly out of reach as she relentlessly broods about the nature of the soul – but she needs to get her head into the game as Kuze talents also include hacking into people’s minds via their implants and having them become clueless assassins.
In a spot of typical movie multi-tasking, Killian attempts to run down her elusive prey while using the chaos (and her suprisingly supportive counter-terrorist team) to look into her mysterious past only to find out that this massive corporation has been lying (no, really?) about both her and Kuze’s origins that are intrinsically connected in ways she couldn’t possibly have foreseen.
It’s not that Ghost In The Shell doesn’t have any merits, but the problem is that all it’s best ideas have been recycled into other, better, movies so much that it feels hopelessly derivative to the films that actually drew from it’s own source material – I call it the John Carter effect. It also doesn’t help that thanks to all the brooding and a peculiarly uneven pace, the film manages to sabotage it’s own themes but being suprisingly uninvolving.
Let start with the positive first. WETA, the special effects company based in New Zealand, probably did their finest work here since the original Lord Of The Rings trilogy delivering a 100% believable future world packed full of advertising holograms, Robo-geishas and more weird tech than you can shake a prosthetic robot jaw at. It’s Blade Runner, A.I. and Minority Report taken to the next level and the film regularly dishes out awe inspiring sight after awe inspiring sight thanks to the countless hologram drenched shots of it’s future-shocked cityscapes. The film also sports some jarring imagery due to the various examples of “upgrades” being modeled by various supporting characters who think it’s aids their profession to detach their eyes at will.
It’s also nice to see how close the film hews to adapting the anime’s memorable action sequences into live action with a slavish eye for accuracy as numerous scenes are recreated almost shot for shot and the movie makes good use of the Major’s cloaking device (here, a ridiculously tight skin suit forgoing the anime’s copious nudity) and a scene involving a virtually impenetrable spider-tank.
Scarlett Johanssen certainly looks the part and certainly has the action chops to pull off the signature action stuff but her role requires her to be closed and shut off, maybe even more so than her impressive performance in Under The Skin, but it all just comes across as faintly bored. Also, in regards to the claims of whitewashing aimed at the movie upon release, if you “had” to cast a westerner in the lead role, then you could do a lot worse than Scarlett, but a plot twist that reveals that Johansson’s character is actually asian is just uncomfortable and proves that casting race is still a problem that Hollywood really needs to get in check.
Everyone else around her fares rather the same only with less characterization, although any big screen appearance by ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano is always welcome.
Loosely adapting the major plot (no pun intended) from the animated original while cherry picking various story threads from various sequels and spin off’s the film changes the main character arc from musing on the existence of the soul to musing the loss of identity, but you’ll be idly fiddling with your phone too much to care as those breathtaking sights are reduced to just pretty stuff that happens while the weighty themes concerning he human soul, corporations turning their nose up at ethics in order to speed walk to the next phase of evolution and the very concept of what it means to be human is verbally spelt out to you within the first ten minutes.
Considering this was made by the same director as Snow White And The Huntsman – itself also a visually arresting yet jarringly hollow exercise, I shouldn’t be that surprised at the vapidness on show and the only real question I have is whether the long mooted Akira remake (truly the gold standard for Anime and something I once desperately wanted adapted into live action) is actually a good idea. Possibly not considering that at this rate Anime remakes aren’t that much more successful as the relationship cinema has with video game movies as proven with Netfix’s Death Note and the James Cameron produced Battle Angel Alita.
So nice shell. Shame about the ghost.