Remakes and adaptations are no strangers to cinema. Some people argue that this continual return to old creations is a result from a lack of imagination on the part of Big Hollywood, while others suggest it’s a way to take a property niche audiences love and make it more digestible for larger audiences. Though this practice has its successes – 1954’s acclaimed Seven Samurai was adapted into 1960’s The Magnificent Seven and again in 2016 by director Antoine Fuqua – there are just as many disappointments – 1981’s Clash of the Titans vs 2010’s Clash of the Titans. Where The Magnificent Seven took the original concepts of feudal Japan Seven Samurai and placed them into the wild frontier of the old west, 2010’s Clash kept the characters and main story of the previous film, but removed much of the dramatic heart of the original, replacing it with CGI action set pieces. Therein lies the danger of remakes and adaptations in cinema: if you seek to recapture the spark that lit audiences in the first place, instilling the spirit of the work is critical and can’t be replaced by action scenes or faux intellectualism. This alone is the singular failure of director Rupert Sanders’s (Snow White and the Huntsman) adaptation of the seminal work Ghost in the Shell: it’s visually beautiful and successful recreates many of the iconic scenes from the Japanese anime film (itself an adaptation of a manga); yet it fails to capture the central essence of the story.
In the far future, where technological integration reigns supreme and humanity does everything it can to assimilate technology into their lives, walking the line between extending humanity and removing it completely. Perceived as the peak of evolution, the Major (Scarlett Johansson) is the first fully-successful merger of a cybernetic body with a human mind. Singular and unique, the Major possesses strength, agility, and exceptionally resiliency, yet she lacks any memories of her life before her mind was placed within a cybernetic shell. As part of a governmental agency called Section 9, the Major works with an elite group of soldiers to protect the innocent from terrorist threats. Though not indestructible, her technological enhancements afford her strength, speed, and incredible endurance. Faced with an enemy who is like her, she begins to uncover a mystery which poses a threat to her team, her home, and her identity.
Where Ghost in the Shell excels is in the recreation of the look and feel of the original material, instilling a sense of wonder, while also creating a continuous sense of dread. The story unfolds in an urbanized city devoid of most natural elements with technology breaking through every town, apartment, and individual that walks the streets. From the giant holographic ads kicking translucent soccer balls high into the sky to the geisha robots hosting dinner parties for elite businessmen to the average garbage truck driver, everything and everyone appears devoid of organic life. These elements don’t just capture the futuristic feel of Ghost in the Shell, but also serve as subtext for the larger pervasive theme of identity. In this, Sanders does an excellent job of highlighting the “always-on” nature of techno-organisms. This world, however, would be nothing but a glorified set piece without the characters brought to life by a talented cast.
Say what you will about the casting – and this review will not dive into that particular hot bed as there are those more capable of navigating those waters than I – but, in terms of characterization and depiction, each member of the cast (even Johansson), appear taken straight from the original material. Reportedly, each iteration of the Major – from manga to animated film to animated television series – possess a slightly different characterization depending on the story presented. In the original, the Major is painted as aloof and direct and, for her part, Johansson perfectly portrays Major as a person whose lack of physical sensation translates to a direct-coldness in her actions and interpersonal relationships. Audiences might assume that a lack of physical sensations results in an emotionless Major; rather, Johansson portrays her as someone longing for connection, despite struggling to obtain it. Taking on the role of Batou, the Major’s closest companion, is Pilou Asbæk (Euron Greyjoy in The Game of Thrones). Where the Major is frequently terse and direct, Batou is more glib and subtle. Their partnership being the emotional cornerstone of the original film, Asbæk perfectly captures the balance of Batou as soldier and friend, delivering a performance that capture the authenticity of the original perfectly. Rounding out the Section 9 team is Danusia Samal as Ladriya, Lasarus Ratuere as Ishikawa, Chin Han as Togusa, and Takeshi Kitano as Aramaki, the formidable leader of the unit. Where the original characters play a stronger, more impactful role in the story, these wonderful performers are ultimately underutilized in comparison to Johansson and Asbæk. Each do a great deal with their roles to demonstrate cleverness and utility, yet they are nowhere near as memorable or necessary to the larger story as the original characters. Oddly, Michael Pitt as the mysterious, potentially villainous, Kuze is given more screen time and depth than the Major’s team. On the one hand, this serves to make his story more compelling; on the other, it shifts the focus from the larger unit to focus solely on the Major and Kuze which forces the team to feel shoehorned into action sequences to remind audiences that they are there.
On the whole, Ghost in the Shell entertains and is bound to invite new eyes into the world of the Major. Additionally, fans of the original story will delight in seeing many of the iconic moments play out in vibrant, kinetic live-action. However, where Sanders’s take on Ghost fails is in recreating the intellectual nuance that permeates the original story. The original told a slow-paced spy thriller that forced the audience to infer key concepts amid discussion of humanity and technological advancements, whereas Sanders’ Ghost devolves into the standard American film – huge action mixed with expositional dialogue serving only to set up the next action sequence. This style removes the emotional center from Ghost that is desperately needed to keep it from becoming what it ultimately becomes: a fun sci-fi ride that’s easily forgotten when you leave the theater. Perhaps that’s ok for those that enjoy this picture, but as a live-action recreation of a lauded animated film, it’s an enormous disservice.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.