Review: New ‘Ghost’ a Good-Looking Shell of ‘90s Anime Classic
In director Rupert Sanders’ new take on Ghost in the Shell, a Japanese manga turned into Mamoru Oshi’s groundbreaking 1995 anime classic, Scarlett Johansson stars as Major, a human brain inside of a robot body that confronts those old questions of man vs. machine.
Following the earlier film somewhat closely in both style and story - while still carving out its own unique identity in both regards - this new version crafts a striking Blade Runner-like futuristic world and sufficiently transcribes the themes of the original manga, which grow more and more relevant with each passing year.
But in a time when robotic prosthetics are commonplace, scientists operate robotic arms from thousands of miles away, and Olympic runners have synthetic legs, this version of Ghost in the Shell is a little less interested in the core human/robot question. Of course Major is completely human. Even if all her parts have been replaced and her mind altered.
Johansson’s Major has been built by the Hanka Robotics corporation, who salvaged her human brain after a boating accident that left her parents dead and transplanted it into a synthetic state-of-the-art robot body.
In this brave new world where cyberterrorists can hack into the brains of their targets, erase old memories and implant new ones - but, the good guys would never do that - Major is in charge of a task force chasing after a hacker (played by Michael Pitt) who has been leaving a trail of Hanka Robotics employees in his wake.
Even those who haven’t seen the 1995 will know exactly where things are going. But plot was never really an asset here.
Along for the ride: Juliette Binoche as Dr. Ouélet, the doctor who put Major together and forms an emotional bond with her; Danish actor Pilou Asbæk (a lot of fun) as Batou, Major’s right-hand-man with cybernetic eyes; and the wonderful Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano as the Major’s commanding officer.
Kitano, oddly, speaks all of his dialogue in Japanese while the rest of the cast responds to him in English. I’ll take it; he’s a commanding and most welcome presence whenever onscreen (and, I believe, his first English-language film since 1983's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence).
During the rather routine storyline the filmmakers throw enough interesting visuals our way to keep us engaged; every shot seems to be filled with so much to take in that we wish the camera would linger on the cityscapes just a bit longer so we can take it all in.
There are also a couple thematic asides that add a lot of depth to the characters.
There’s one scene, in particular, that I really appreciated: Major’s visit to a prostitute, during which she becomes fascinated by the freckled imperfections in the woman’s human face. This one-minute sequence nails some of the themes of the original in ways the rest of the movie never even approach.
But in the end, however good-looking this shiny new Ghost in the Shell is, it can’t compete with the groundbreaking piece of hand-drawn art that was the original. The thought-provoking themes are always worth delving into, but the rest is a by-the-numbers cyberthriller.
Many have complained of the whitewashing of the lead character, but while the studio rationale behind casting Johansson may be unfortunate, it bears little consequence to the story and might even add an interesting (and most-relevant) angle. The core character is still Japanese, but as a factory-made idea of perfection the corporation has rebuilt her into the image of Western standards of beauty.
Still, fans of the earlier film are likely to be disappointed. ScarJo can’t help but represent an opposite of the decidedly un-feminine Major in Oshii’s movie, though she comes closer to the more sexualized characterization in the original manga.
While many critics are giving this new Ghost in the Shell a pass, as great as it looks the CGI was never going to challenge the art of the 1995 film, and story-wise it brings little new to the table. It’s yet another factory-made remake that will inevitably live in the shadow of a groundbreaking original.
The location of the film is never specified, but it was shot in both Hong Kong and Shanghai and very much looks like a Blade Runner-esque take on those cities.