Ghost In The Shell (Cert 12A)
US (2017) Dir. Rupert Sanders
So, here we are with one of the more controversial films of the year – the live action version of the seminal Cyber Punk manga and anime franchise Ghost In Shell. There was always concern over how it will be handled, but the casting of a Hollywood actress as the iconic role of Major Motoko Kusanagi spurred accusations of whitewashing.
This issue divided opinion – Because the Major doesn’t look Japanese the manga or anime film, it didn’t matter who played her; conversely, as a Japanese creation with a Japanese name who spoke Japanese, the Major WAS Japanese by default. Both points are valid because the Major isn’t a real person per se.
The story is set in a future world where most humans have some form of cybernetic enhancements, at the forefront of which is Hanka Robotics. The human brain of a young woman Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), whose body was destroyed in a terrorist attack, has been placed in a cybernetic body or shell by Dr. Ouélet (Juliette Binoche).
As the first successful transplant in this experiment, Hanka’s CEO Mr. Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) has Mira trained for Section 9, a secret Government anti-terrorist bureau headed by Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano). Alongside Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and Togusa (Chin Han), Mira, now ranked a Major, thwarts a terrorist attack when a geisha robot (Rila Fukushima) goes rogue at a business party.
Learning the geisha robot had been hacked, the Major “dives” into its brain for clues but experiences flashes of memories she doesn’t recognise. In investigating this, they help lead her to the hacker, calling himself Kuze (Michael Pitt), and uncover shocking truth about her past, which she discovers is connected to illicit acts by Hanka Robotics.
Fans of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime move will find only elements of the above plot synopsis recognisable, which will either be forgiven, as this is a Hollywood production, or seen as rank impertinence of the highest order. The storyline of Oshii’s film could easily have been used here but the conceit is that there isn’t a tangible antagonist – in other words, we don’t see the villain get his, as he doesn’t exist.
In that sense there is an argument for accusing the screenplay of being dumbed down to fit the accessible blockbuster criteria, dispatching with the existential and psychological aspect of creator Masamune Shirow’s original concept in favour of explosions and gunfire. British director Rupert Sanders and his writers are very much guilty as charged on that front.
However the action is spectacular with many scenes are lifted directly from the anime, presumably to appease existing fans, whose cynicism level will be stratospheric. The classic opening scene from the anime of the Major’s naked drop from the building top is replicated here (twice) whilst the rubbish truck chase and subsequent fight also feature, albeit with different villains.
These nods to the anime at least suggest Sanders has watched and paid attention to what made the original film so iconic, so we should at least appreciate this indulgence of the fickle whims of the fandom. But the story takes so many liberties with the concept and the characters that we ultimately find ourselves watching something which is within the Ghost In The Shell diegesis in essence but doesn’t feel quite legit.
First and foremost, the name change from Motoko Kusanagi to Mira Killian may seem like the ultimate act of blasphemy but this is actually a clever part of the script, which requires a bit of patience until the reveal. Again, it might be a big liberty, but writers of the various anime spin-offs from Shirow’s work have done the same by creating their own backstories for the characters.
Batou gets a mini-arc of his own, beginning the film with perfectly normal human eyes until an explosion blinds him and he is repaired with his trademark cybernetic eyes now in place. Unfortunately Batou is the only other character to receive any attention – Section 9’s only fully human agent Togusa gets a few scenes whilst hacker Ichikawa (Lasarus Ratuere) and sniper Saito (Yutaka Izumihara) get about 20 seconds of screen time combined.
Even Aramaki appears occasionally to bark a few orders (in Japanese as Kitano hates speaking English) and only a few moments late in the film to get in on the action, in contrast to the prominence he had in the anime dealing with the bureaucratic interference from other government departments. A waste of Takeshi Kitano if we’re being frank, but his presence is to Asian markets what Johansson is to Hollywood.
I’ve never been a fan but Scarlett Johansson is actually quite good as The Major, having earned her lumps as Black Widow in the Marvel films and Luc Bessons’ Lucy. Little touches such as the stiff robotic walk add nuance to her cybernetic characteristics yet the script calls for her to be too human at times, which negates the whole point of her being a cyborg.
Juliette Binoche lasts longer here than she does in Godzilla and does as much a she can with this bespoke character, her presence being the international gravitas spot that Kitano brings for the Asians. Pilou Asbæk, spared the whitewashing accusations Johansson incurred, makes for a credible Batou.
Unsurprisingly, the visuals are the real star of this film and under the aegis of the legendary John Dykstra, the heavily computerised world is one hell of an eye-popping treat to witness. Elements from the anime, such as the thermal camouflage and the multi-finger typing are successfully transferred to this version, whilst the robotic make-up and body constructions are superb.
Ghost In The Shell isn’t a bad film but is hampered by the pressure of having to serve two masters. Existing fans will need to be charitable in accepting the changes made and liberties taken, which may be hard and with some justification, while the neophytes should find this an entertaining, if occasionally cumbersome, sci-fi action flick.
It is what it is.
Rating – ***
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