“Your soul, your ghost, is yours.”
So, full disclosure before we begin these most delicate proceedings. While I know and am a fan of the original Ghost in the Shell, I am not one of the people that screamed about the heresy of it being remade. I saw the film, because it was a film; and I know nothing of its source material or sequels to the 1995 anime. I don’t really have any strong feelings about Scarlett Johansson playing the Major.
Finally, I’m trying very, very hard to give every remake a fair shake. Whilst there are classics that we all believe should never be remade, there’s nothing we can do to stop it from happening, so I’m trying desperately to go in with at least a little positivity.
And you know what? I actually thought director Rupert Sanders’ adaptation looked kind of fun. I was really looking forward to it.
In a (deliberately) unspecified near future where augmenting humans with cybernetic parts is fast becoming the norm, Major Mira Killian (Johansson) is the first of her kind. Essentially the reverse of humans being improved with robot parts, she’s a robot who’s had a human brain implanted in her. Now, with the strength and agility of an android and the intellect and reasoning skills of a human, The Major, along with her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk) have become some of the best agents within Section 9, a special operations investigative police department.
After an attack leads to the head of robotics giant the Hanka corporation being taken hostage and his mind being hacked by robots who themselves aren’t fully in control of their actions; Section 9 find themselves on point in an investigation into whoever is behind the attack. The problem here, at least for The Major, is that the deeper she digs into this mysterious hacker and his motives, the more it reveals about her and her past. The robot/human hybrid finds herself at the end of a thread she may not want to begin picking at, lest she uncover truths she might not want to discover.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I really, really liked Ghost in the Shell. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realise just how much I liked it. But let’s talk about the elephant in the room first, shall we?
The perpetually offended amongst us have been crying for God knows how long about the whitewashing of a classic Japanese story. Equally, the perpetually moronic excuses for it have skated so close to childish nonsense that try as you might, you simply can’t take them seriously. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, I’m not sure either is right.
Very early on, as the film recreates the 1995 original’s opening scenes and the Major’s “Shell” is created, it is carefully explained to you that Mira (formally Motoko Kusanagi) is no more than a human’s brain implanted into a cybernetic host. Not only does the colour of its outer shell not matter (much like a bag of M&Ms, they’re all the same on the inside), it is quite obviously a manufactured “thing”. Where the original’s Major was purposefully a naked human, only discernible from mankind under a microscope, the shiny new 2017 model is obviously, OBVIOUSLY, a cyborg.
Whether or not this was in an attempt to keep the rating down in this 12A actioner (another bone of contention for many of the permanently pissed off) is of little concern, it works very well.
Now that’s over with…
Scarlett Johansson is great as The Major. Bringing just the right amount of humanity to her high-tech replicant wannabe to show that she is indeed still human under all that synthetic skin. As you would expect, given her recent roles, action and fight scenes are no problem for Johansson to pull off. Apart from the bit where she seems to have stolen Imogen Poots’ Green Room wardrobe, it was a joy to watch her make such an iconic role her own.
However, what I found far more surprising were the supporting cast. Pilou Asbæk’s Batou was outstanding. Everything from his look, to his mannerisms; the Danish actor has nailed the one character who stands out from the classic almost as much as The Major. Once he gets the eyewear that everyone knows him for, it’s perfect. Just perfect. It’s like the guy was born to play the role. Asbæk looks so much like his animated counterpart, it jolted me from the film a couple of times.
Almost as much of a surprise was Michael Pitt’s portrayal of Hadley Cruz, once Hideo Kuze and the Puppeteer in all but name. His role as the big-bad-guy here is very cool – and very well put together. With a weird synth effect added to his voice, he looks and sounds like the failed experiment he is and as one of the biggest parts of the two decade old story. He’s been updated nicely and played beautifully by the Boardwalk Empire actor.
Ghost in the Shell does leave a strange aftertaste in its aesthetic though. It looks absolutely gorgeous; it’s completely stunning to the point that I have pre-ordered the 4K UHD Blu-ray knowing that I’ll have to upgrade my entire system just so I can watch it in all its glory on release. I mean, it’s fucking beautiful. Sadly, style over substance is something that director Rupert Sanders is known for – I see you, Snow White and the Huntsman.
The movie has a feel that I couldn’t quite put my finger at the time. But I think I can best describe it by describing another film. Back in the same year as the original GITS came out, Keanu Reeves was in a God awful little number called Johnny Mnemonic. Something It was an insane techno-thriller VR thing that wasn’t particularly well received, but I remember watching and loving it the first time around. A couple of years after that, I bought it on video and instantly regretted it. The tech that it relied on had moved forwards so quickly that by the time that the second viewing came around, it looked so badly dated that it was close to unwatchable.
This new Ghost in the Shell has that same feeling about it. It’s uber-cool with its tech and shows it off at every opportunity. But I’m left with this tiny feeling in my stomach that, while it isn’t going to happen today or tomorrow, the next high-tech film to hit the big screen is going to show this up for the all dated style and lack of content that it is. I’m not taking anything away from the film. As I write this review, all I can think about is wanting to go watch it again. I’m just concerned that it isn’t going to hold up as the years go on.
When you can tear yourself away from comparing this film to the original – and there were times when it was difficult, I’ll admit – Ghost in the Shell is a more than functional action movie with enough to set itself apart from the 1995 anime. Some of the best, most memorable scenes from the classic are here and recreated very well; but there’s also enough different for fans to be able to sit and enjoy.
I saw flashes of inspiration from classics like RoboCop, more than a little taken from Ex Machina and the later instalments of the Deus Ex game series. I don’t think it’s going to convert hardcore fans that have been intent on hating it since day one. But if you can forget your attachment to the original that it’s based on for just a few minutes, you might find yourself enjoying it as I did.