By Hubert Ta
Any adaptation of a story from its original medium to a new one faces inherent problems. The new medium’s core tenets and opportunities must be combined with the best elements of the original source material that made it popular, striking a balance that blends these fragments into a coherent work of art. Rupert Sanders’s “Ghost in the Shell” strikes that balance, recrafting Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime classic and Masamune Shirow’s original manga to life on the big screen.
Set in the fictional New Port City in 2029, “Ghost in the Shell” opens in a world that is uniquely familiar and unfamiliar. Cybernetic enhancements like night vision, steel limbs, and artificial organs are popular, the world is more multinational and fractured due to world wars and technological advances, and corporations hold a substantial amount of power and leverage over the government and populace. Hanka Robotics is the global leader in cybernetic augmentations and develops a project to fully merge the best elements of man and machine, creating a fully synthetic android body with a human brain as the processor. Using the survivor of a terrorist attack, Mira Killian, the project then focuses on training their creation into a counter-terrorist operative.
A year later, Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is a member of the Section 9 counter-terrorist unit alongside several other squadmates led by Chief Aramaki (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano). Section 9 begins investigating a string of murders and hackings of top Hanka Robotics scientists and division heads, all leading towards a hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt), who can hack into people’s brains, control them, steal information and delete memories. As the Major and the rest of Section 9 investigate, they start to discover cracks in the image of Hanka Robotics, its leadership, and the Major’s life before the cyborg implantation.
Overall, “Ghost in the Shell’s” story isn’t as complex as Oshii’s 1995 film, nor is it as simple as a generic Hollywood action blockbuster. Instead, it treads a line that revels in action set pieces and vibrating colors, and steps — but doesn’t dive — into the philosophical discussions of identity, memory, and religion that made the original manga and anime film so popular. Existentialism, the alteration of memory, and the difference between human and machine are the core ideas from the original brought to Sanders’ 2017 adaptation. These themes focus on the concept of the ghost or soul, and its corruption and dilution at the hands of encroaching technological immortality and replaceability.
If there is one thing that makes “Ghost in the Shell” shine as an adaptation, it is the stringent and almost perfect reflection of the original anime film’s visuals. The film is a vivid marvel, taking cues from “Blade Runner” and “Metropolis” in building the futuristic New Port City, a blend of Tokyo, Hong Kong and New York City with a range of high-end districts and crowded slums. Advertisements run rampant as holograms and people walk down the streets isolated in their technological bubbles while neon lights pulse from street signs and nightclub entrances, filling the city with constant distraction and information overkill. The cinematography only further captures the city’s gravitas, combining the visual overload with individual isolation, demurring the ideal of the technological future where dystopia and utopia collide.
Furthermore, the film employs CGI and special effects that blend into the film’s universe, helping to recreate memorable scenes from the 1995 film. The most notable is the opening credits’ step-by-step recreation of Oshii’s cyborg creation sequence in the Hanka Robotics lab, visualizing the slow trance-like creation of the cybernetic-human. Another cinematic marvel is the scene where the Major delves into cyberspace and the mind of another robot; the scene creates a completely digitized space where memory, surveillance, and the human become interspersed in a sea of black, orange, and green pixels and digits. Other highlights are the Major’s freefall and the water fight sequence, which employ the Major’s optic camouflage to great effect and utilize slow motion in a brilliant, stylistic manner that doesn’t feel gimmicky. The action is also well-executed, utilizing light and gunfire, quick editing, and tracking shots to accelerate the dynamic pace of each fight sequence.
Finally, the visual aesthetic is completely faithful to the original. Every little detail calls back to the 1995 film and the “Stand Alone Complex” TV series. From the Major’s various outfits, Batou’s dog and Togusa’s revolver, to the sleek style of the 1980s/1990s futuristic cars, the advanced helicopters and spider tanks, and the briefcase guns all look nearly identical to the anime’s conceptualization. The cybernetic enhancements are beautiful as well, with Batou’s vision-adjusted eyes, robotic arms and bodies, and the melding of flesh against metal truly defining the cyborg fusion.
As for the actors, Johansson does a good job at capturing the isolated poise of a person struggling with their identity, and captures both professionalism, doubt, and awkwardness that seemed inherent in the 1995 film’s iteration of the Major. The standouts are Pilou Asbӕk’s Batou, who relishes the role of the Major’s second-in-command and gruff, yet caring colleague, and Takeshi Kitano’s Aramaki, whose mentorship role is refined by a calm and undeterred demeanor. Last is Michael Pitt’s Kuze, who represents a strange blend of villains from the anime, but brings tonal weight into the moral and ethical questions he poses to the Major in their encounters, all with the walking gait of a damaged man and the voice of a corrupted computer.
Inevitably, people will compare “Ghost in the Shell” to the original film or TV series, and Rupert Sanders’s adaptation succeeds but doesn’t exceed in matching their themes. What this adaptation does well is capturing the visual aesthetic and mis-en-scène of Oshii’s classic film, bringing to life scenes from the anime film and crafting a worthy treatment of the franchise’s characters and philosophical mediations. While the story isn’t particularly groundbreaking, the film still represents Hollywood’s ability to craft immersive experiences, and presents one of the few good live-action adaptations of Japanese anime/manga in recent years. Hopefully “Ghost in the Shell” will kickstart a path towards earnest adaptations of other anime properties like Robotech, Cowboy Bebop, and Akira.