Think about some of the techno-thrillers that emerged in the mid-90s: Sandra Bullock vehicle The Net, say, or Michael Douglas-Demi Moore harassment-in-the-workplace VR opus, Disclosure. Watch them now, and they look almost painfully quaint.
Now take a look at Ghost In The Shell, director Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga; 22 years on, and it’s barely aged a day. It imagines a future where human and machine have long since fused; typists can have their hands replaced with ten-fingered robot limbs capable of banging out 1,000 words per second. Minds can be augmented for faster learning; eyes can be replaced with more powerful optical sensors. Yet in this future Tokyo, where humanity is on the cusp of leaving its body for a life in cyberspace, there’s a growing sense of detachment and even paranoia – cybercrime means that memories can be erased or changed. Ghost In The Shell was an unusually cerebral, disturbing cyberpunk saga – a story of technology, reality and the nature of the human soul. In an era of hacking, fake news, surveillance and social media, Ghost In The Shell still feels as urgent as it ever did.
Little wonder, then, that Rupert Sanders’ live-action version of the movie, its sequel and its TV spin-off, Stand Alone Complex, have been so closely monitored by its fans – and that its casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role has been so surrounded by controversy. This latter point is difficult to elaborate on without spoiling Sanders’ movie; for now, we can only say that the new Ghost In The Shell does touch on the race issue, if only obliquely.
Here, Johansson plays The Major: a scientific breakthrough, since she’s the first instance of full body prosthesis – in other words, she’s a human brain placed inside a cybernetic body. A year after waking up in her new form, the Major is assigned as an agent for a special government division called Section 9 – an outfit devoted to combating cyber-terrorism. The Major’s latest case is her most unusual yet: an unknown hacker is breaking the security of androids and using them to kill scientists who work at Handa, the government-owned robotics company which made the Major. Together with her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and mentor Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), the Major aims to track down the hacker, known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), while at the same time figuring out how the strange glitches in her vision relate to her past.
Five years on from the similarly stylish Snow White And The Huntsman, Sanders delivers another intricately-designed movie. Drawing heavily on the imagery from Oshii’s film, from major action set-pieces to incidental details (Oshii’s dog even makes an appearance), his Ghost In The Shell is striking-looking, with an aural landscape to match courtesy of Clint Mansell.
The plot’s a curious amalgam of the Oshii film and bits and pieces from Stand Alone Complex and other places, albeit with an additional plot strand which is more RoboCop than Shirow. There’s a somewhat heavier emphasis on action than the 1995 anime, as well, though some of its philosophical sentiments are still present and correct: the dislocation, the paranoia, the sense that information age has resulted in isolation rather than a greater sense of human connection.
In a seeming attempt to make Ghost In The Shell a broader, more multiplex-friendly movie, screenwriters Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger have a tendency to over-state some of those ideas, rather than let them simmer in the background; as a result, characters tend to talk in plot-points or philosophical ideas rather than hold natural conversations. Nevertheless, there are a handful of scenes that do hit home from a dramatic perspective; the Major’s relationship with Dr Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), who serves as a kind of surrogate mother; a small yet pivotal scene between Johansson and actress Kaori Momoi, which is perhaps the most emotional in the whole movie.
Asbæk and an underused Kitano ably provide support, while Michael Pitt is particularly creepy as the shadowy figure behind all the hacking, but this is, overwhelmingly, Johansson’s film. That she has to play a necessarily cold character reclaiming her humanity – the ghost hidden in her shell – means she spends more time posing and looking morose, but she knows how to handle herself in an action scene, and Ghost In The Shell proves once again that she has the charisma to carry the weight of a movie on her own shoulders.
For all its stunning design and music, however, Ghost In The Shell winds up feeling as though it’s caught between two stools. There’s plenty of action, certainly, but the film’s tone is closer to Blade Runner than an audience-friendly popcorn rattler like an Avengers sequel. Fans of the original manga and anime, who expect something as thought-provoking as the original, may be disappointed that the movie spends more time on gun-fu, chases and lingering shots of buildings than on fully exploring the ideas it raises.
As a live-action, glossy evocation of the original Ghost In The Shell, however, Sanders’ film is well worth seeing on the big screen. Its story isn’t quite as developed or arresting as its imagery, but the result is still an impressive exercise in design and cutting-edge CGI.
Ghost In The Shell is out in UK cinemas on the 31st March.