Words: Patrick Kolan
When Ghost in the Shell debuted in manga-form in 1989, we were living in a pre-Internet age – a time of William Gibson cyber-punk fiction, the personal computer held infinite potential and the year 1999 still felt like the far-flung, robot-filled future. It was a pre-The Matrix time. It was a more innocent technological age.
Ghost in the Shell didn’t so much break new ground as firmly hold its own when it came to the ethics of cybernetics. After all, Blade Runner (or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and many Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov novels, too) tackled similar themes. However, Masamune Shirow’s manga was transmuted lovingly and often intricately to the animated screen under the helm of director Mamoru Oshii – and it brought with it an immersive and convincing world of augmented humans, neon colours and spider-tanks. It was a hit. It was the Akira of the paranoid ‘90s – and perfectly timed for the advent of the connected world that was emerging around it.
Now, 22 years (!) later, we live in a world where the mystery of technology has all but dissipated. Audiences sit with iPhones in hand, laser-corrected vision parsing 3D images on stadium-sized screens, effects indistinguishable from reality. And we shrug and ask what’s next. Boy, we’re a hard sell these days.
So Rupert Sanders, director of this live-action adaptation, had his work cut out for him. How do you one-up an audience that had its mind blown by bullet-time effects and giant robots of years past? Play to the strengths of the original, for starters: keep the action high, fix the pacing issues, simplify (read: water down) the constant flow of internal logic tech-speak. Then you stick Scarlett Johansson in it.
The good news is, it works for the most part.
The Major (Johansson) is a mostly-synthetic human living in a world that’s on the tipping point of joining her. She and her task-force partner, Batou (excellently cast and screen-friendly Pilou Asbæk), are on the trail of a nefarious domestic digital terrorist, Kuze, who has a nasty habit of hacking minds and trying to overthrow the development of other AI-driven weaponized beings. In a commercial military enterprise, that’s bad for business.
Takeshi Kitano happily appears as their Section 9 commander, working on behalf of the government to ensure things stay on track. They don’t.
Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell reworks the underpinnings of the Major and her motivations; adding backstory and depth in some ways, but thinning the density of the story others. In much the same way as 2009’s Watchmen adaptation made some fundamental changes to the plot, the end result is roughly the same—though lacking some emotional punch. Likewise, it will surely divide fans.
True, if you’re indeed a fan, you might balk at the story’s departures and over-simplification of the original’s complex morality and shocking violence. In the same breath, you’re just as likely to applaud the wise decision to carefully reconstruct the source material’s most iconic, unforgettable moments.
The undeniable artistry of hand-drawn animation now cast aside, it’s up to a mix of digital and practical effects departments to match the tempo. Largely the neon eye-pollution vistas and thoroughly 80s-futuristic automobiles are on the money. A few janky animations stick out here and there, but you’ll be impressed with the translation to live-action. The same Hong Kong-style alleyways and ghettos; the same lithe near-nude swan-dives. Much is made of the “texture” of the world the Major skulks through – and to the credit of the teams involved, Ghost in the Shell has a consistent, and still strikingly original, texture of its own in the flesh.
Viewed in total, the content split between old and new, or perhaps legacy and reinterpretation, is probably about 60/40 – and that’s just enough to ensure everyone gets what they want out of this.
That’s probably the biggest criticism; like it or not, the original Ghost in the Shell really explored what it means to be human. It was verbose, yes, and it had pacing issues – but it took time to wax on about the id, the ghost in the titular machine. This year’s effort is the Cliff’s Notes version – except in changing the fundamental rules of engagement, the Cliffs Notes are for a different story now. It’s similar – but not the same, and frankly not as good.
Decades later, audiences may have just come too far for Ghost in the Shell to still hold the same impact. What were edgy concepts back then now feel rote and even a little hackneyed in the intervening years. We’ve come a long way. Futurism, augmentation, digital lives and ethics should be more relevant than ever, of course – but then, as I crack my arthritic knuckles and extend my aching back, I wish Masamune Shirow’s future would hurry up and get here.