The problem with adapting anything considered a classic is that many of its most special features and ideas will have been taken and used by others. And nothing has been robbed of its unique qualities more than Ghost in the Shell, a groundbreaking sci-fi manga and 1995 anime film that defined for many of us our vision of the future and ideas on identity in a technological age. Now that the visually-stunning live-action remake has arrived, so much of what the original story had to say has been considered, reconsidered, and moved on from. The response to that was, predictably and disappointingly, to slim down on the big ideas and emphasize on dazzling visual effects and breath-taking action.
Fortunately, Ghost in the Shell has enough of both to be an entertaining thrill, full of stunningly-realized images of a future literally taken over by cybernetic technology. It's a future where humans get "upgrades" to become more like robots, but not quite. Into this mix is the powerful Hanka Robotics corporation, which has leapt forward with a new design; a human brain inside a cybernetic body. That body belongs to The Major (Scarlett Johansson), a devastating cyborg warrior who becomes a key piece of Section 9. Alongside her best friend partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek), they lead a government-operated task force taking out the city's worst cyber-criminals. And they quickly find the worst, a mysterious villain named Kuze (a barely recognizable Michael Pitt), who uses an incredible ability to hack into other cybernetic beings as a means of killing Hanka scientists. These scientists, he claims, have been holding out the truth about their experiments, and that includes the Major's origins.
While Johansson is as compelling and beguiling as ever, the Major's story is one we've seen numerous times. She's a cyborg who feels an emptiness, a hollowness, a complete lack of a soul. In a world of other enhanced beings she is still an outcast, always on a quest to find out who she was in an attempt to figure out who she is. For obvious reasons, Johansson comes across as reserved, even distant at times, but she perks up during the wildly impressive battle sequences. Many of the best set pieces are ripped straight from the anime, including the water battle as the Major dons her synthetic camouflage suit to unleash pain without being seen. Rupert Sanders, whose visual effects wizardry is the only memorable thing about Snow White and the Huntsman, has created a cyberpunk world almost entirely made up of CGI, and yet it still has an immersive quality which is rare.
You just wish the script, which has a three-man army credited to it, could have been more bold in tackling some of the issues its predecessors did. One of those is the loss of identity, and many would say this Ghost in the Shell lost its identity with the casting of Johansson, a white actress in a role many deem to have been Asian. I've said it many times before that I find this assertion absurd, to apply ethnicity to a cyborg construct. Even Mamoru Oshii, director of the 1995 film, agrees that it's a mistake to claim the Major is Japanese. And there are enough changes to this version of the story, which we must remember was designed for a broad international audience (hence a very multicultural cast that includes Juliette Binoche), that applying prior standards would be foolish. That said, I do think they take a huge misstep in the final act with a "twist" about the Major that is like trying to have their cake and eat it, too. It wasn't necessary, and I would say from a cultural standpoint they should have pushed further away from the original version. Perhaps move the action out of Japan entirely and into Los Angles or someplace fictional.
After a fairly slow start, Ghost in the Shell eventually ramps up the action, which is where Johansson is at her best. I think it's fair to call her the top female action star in the business, and with every kick, scowl, and punch she proves it. She's got credibility in spades. The only thing more enjoyable than watching her kick robot butt were the appearances by Japanese legend, "Beat" Takeshi Kitano (of Battle Royale fame) as Section 9's wily boss. Danish actor Pilou Asbaek, who some may recognize from Game of Thrones, his work with Johansson on Lucy, or the Ben-Hur remake, does a good job of capturing Batou's close friendship and admiration of the Major.
By transferring the spirit or "ghost" of the original Ghost in the Shell into a broader, crowd-pleasing frame, some of what it stood for was definitely lost. But not all of it; a glimmer still remains in Johansson's captivating performance. Hopefully she will be enough for skeptics to give this film a chance to impress on its own terms.
Rating: 3 out of 5