In one Ghost In The Shell scene, Scarlett Johansson’s Major does a “deep dive” into the cyber-mind of a compromised android, in which she really gets into its mind, memories, and every deep, dark secret that it might have.
It’s too bad the movie itself doesn’t do the same thing with its source material.
This Hollywood version of the iconic manga/anime is more like a shallow dip into that cyberpunk world than a deep dive.
Johansson stars as Major Mira Killen, an agent of counter-terrorism unit Section 9, which also includes agents Batou (Pilou Asbæk), Togusa (Chin Han) and led by Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano).
Fully cybernetic apart from her brain, Major is a cyborg with superhuman capabilities, but has no memory of her life before her brain was transferred to this body. After a run-in with a hacker called Kuze (Michael Pitt), she starts getting glitches in memories, and soon learns that her past is not what she thinks it is.
Created by Masamune Shirow, Ghost In The Shell began life as a manga called Kokaku Kidotai (“Mobile Armoured Riot Police”), that ran from 1989 to 1990.
The manga spawned a franchise that included two television series, video games and three feature-length anime movies – the most iconic of which was 1995’s Ghost In The Shell, directed by Mamoru Oshii.
It is from that Oshii’s film that this version draws most of its influences.
From the iconic opening “shelling sequence” in which Major’s brain is transplanted into her cybernetic body, to the camo fight scene, some of the film’s best scenes were lifted directly from the anime.
Visually, the movie is stunning, and the faithful reenactment of some of the anime’s more iconic scenes will certainly please the fans.
However, the visual brilliance of the movie only slightly mask the hollowness of the movie’s shell.
Much has been said about the film’s supposed “white-washing” in casting Johansson as The Major, who was originally a Japanese woman called Motoko Kusanagi.
While it can be quite distracting to have an actress as well-known as Johansson in the role, the real issue here isn’t who the actress is, but rather, why her Major is such a major letdown.
The “ghost” in the title refers to the human soul residing inside a cybernetic “shell”, but there is hardly any soul in the way Johansson’s character is portrayed.
In the manga, Major is a feisty, almost comical character who is completely self-aware of just what she is.
In the 1995 anime, she is a lot more serious, and philosophises a lot about her own existence.
The Hollywood version, however, dumbs her character down to a brooding superhero, and dilutes the existential philosophising to a simple question of “Who am I?”.
It’s not just Major who gets that treatment. The orginial franchise’s science fiction concepts, technologies and futuristic elements form the foundation of the Ghost In The Shell universe, but director Rupert Sanders merely uses them as visual candy or plot devices to move the action from one scene to another.
And don’t even get me started on Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), an appropriately named cookie-cutter corporate bad guy who just sees Major as an asset.
This over-simplification of the original franchise’s themes and characters is what frustrates the most about the movie.
While it is understandable that the producers might have wanted a simpler version of the story to introduce the franchise to non-fans, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this would have been a much better movie had it featured a fully-formed Major instead of one who is still obviously in the infancy of her development.
As it is, however, this is just a ghost of an adaptation packaged in a pretty-looking but rather hollow shell.
Ghost In The Shell
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche
Director: Rupert Sanders