Top marks for the outfit.
Long before it ever saw the inside of a theatre, Ghost in the Shell faced significant challenges, some inherent (converting a futuristic anime world into “real life”), some decision based (casting Scarlett Johansson in an Asian role) and some rooted in the fact that many of the anime’s core concepts and ideas had been used in numerous other movies.
It has been a long road to be sure, one that started with heavy hitters like Steven Spielberg and Disney, and ended with Rupert Sanders, whose only other full-length feature directorial credit was for 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman, at the helm. It’s time to find out how resilient Masamune Shirow‘s vision can be.
Sometime in the near future, science is finally able to meld a human mind and a fully synthetic body with The Major (Johansson) as the program’s first success story. Her existence is the result of a cyber terrorist attack that left her mind intact but her body ruined. That operation was not without cost, however, as Major now works for Hanka Robotics, the company that saved her.
Major serves as a top operative in Section 9, an elite anti-terrorism unit. Her augmentations allow her to do things no human can do, and her fellow agents, while not as advanced, also have their own set of upgrades to fight crime. Their current mission is trying to track down a dangerous hacker named Kuze, who is believed to be behind the murder of numerous Hanka personnel.
As Major and her team track Kuze, she begins to learn more about the life she had before the attack and what role this terrorist may have played in it. As she travels this road of self-discovery she must also figure out why the Hanka scientists are being targeted, prevent any more from being killed and determine where her loyalties truly lie.
For all the hand wringing and blowback surrounding the casting of Johansson, she does a good job in the lead role, both emotionally and physically where her years as Black Widow have helped sculpt her into a believable action star. As in that role, Major isn’t exactly a superhero; she’s been augmented to be faster and stronger than a human, but there are limitations.
There are some good supporting performances as well, most notably Pilou Asbaek (best known for his role as Euron Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) as Batou, Major’s trusted No. 2, and Takeshi Kitano as the unflappable chief of Section 9, Aramaki. Kuze is also effectively portrayed by Michael Pitt, particularly his physical work.
Visually, Ghost in the Shell is impressive. Sure, there’s the odd green screen that looks wonky — the fishing scene with Major and Batou stands out in that regard — but for the most part everything looks crisp and does a good job of bringing the anime to life, including some nearly shot-for-shot lifts. With a healthy dose of action as well, Ghost is a strong showcase piece for powerful 4k TVs.
More than two decades have passed since the original animated film was released and many of the unique aspects of the fiction have been plucked and used in other movies, which robs this retelling of a lot of the wonder that accompanied the anime. For example, the “machine with a soul” angle has been used multiple times and expanded to move beyond what’s touched on here.
Minus that freshness, the plot, and even the action, ends up feeling like stuff you’ve seen before — because, well, you’ve seen this stuff before. There’s nothing that sticks out as particularly bad or poorly done, but it hits the same note of despondency for so long that it starts to have a numbing effect after a while. A change in the tone, such as a little humour or even a more philosophical angle, would’ve helped.
THE BONUS FEATURES
Three extras are incorporated into the Blu-ray, led by a lengthy “making of” piece that delves into all different aspects of the production, including the source material’s themes, the challenges of moving the anime into the physical world and more. It’s a quality in-depth look that should be of particular interest to longtime fans. Closer looks at Section 9 and the Ghost story are solid as well.
As a visual spectacle, Ghost in the Shell is a winner with the various set pieces given enough time to be fully appreciated. As a story it has lost some of its lustre after so many other sci-fi films cherry picked and expanded on its once-unique ideas.