Review: GHOST IN THE SHELL Deep Dives the Visual Freak Train

Rupert Sanders and Scarlett Johansson remake a Sci-Fi classic in GHOST IN THE SHELL

Contributor; Seoul, South Korea (@pierceconran)
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Review: GHOST IN THE SHELL Deep Dives the Visual Freak Train

Updating a much loved anime classic like Ghost in the Shell was never going to be an easy task. There are fans to worry about, but also a general audience - warranted by the price tag of an ambitious sci-fi production - who may not have warmed to the didactic chill of the Japanese original. Visual stylist Rupert Sanders rises to the occasion with a live action Ghost in the Shell boasting stellar set pieces and design, but which also streamlines and humanizes the original's story and themes without completely dumbing them down. Unavoidably, something is lost in the translation from Japanese anime to Hollywood commercialism, but it's a worthy effort that shouldn't give diehard purists much to scoff about.

The Major is an elite fighter in Section 9, a government counter-terrorism group funded by robotics company Hanka. She's a cyborg who's been on the team since her brain was plucked from a left-for-dead refugee and hardwired into her current form. Her agency is after a powerful and mysterious hacker who is targeting Hanka scientists but various glitches in her system are splicing strange apparitions into her sight.

The story in Hollywood's Ghost in the Shell doesn't stray far from what happens in Mamoru Oshii's film aside from a few scenes or characters being switched around, a greater focus on the evil corporation behind the affair and backstories for some of the protagonists. Whether the new elements were written for this or sourced from other iterations of Ghost in the Shell I couldn't say (I've only seen the first two Oshii films), but the memorable set pieces are all there, almost completely intact and recreated with often eye-popping technical wizardry. Among the new imagery that gets thrown into the mix are a number of bizarre and welcome tableaux, particularly when the Major goes on a cyborg headtrip when she 'deep dives' a downed robot.

Like the original, New Port City is modeled on Hong Kong rather than Tokyo. Given a kaleidoscopic makeover, the Asian city state, with its dense urban jungle and vibrant street life, becomes as much a character in the film than anyone else. Alas, what the new version does lose is the memorable Kenji Kawaii score, which did feature in some of the trailers. The new soundtrack does little more than blend in.

While Ghost in the Shell is a very faithful adaptation of the 1995 anime classic, the update is also inspired by several Hollywood sci-fi classics, most clearly Blade Runner and The Matrix. Blade Runner was of course a major influence on the original, but Sanders' take goes further, particularly in the neon-drenched design of the futuristic New Port City. The nods to The Matrix, primarily evident through the Major's balletic gun routines, are fitting, as the Wachowskis' film was itself heavily indebted to Ghost in the Shell.

Many column inches have been devoted to the whitewashing controversy surround the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the Major but there's no doubt that the role finds the star in very comfortable territory. Following her enhanced fighting machine in Lucy and eerie alien in Under the Skin, she's carved an impressive niche playing threatening woman with far richer characteristics than the average femme fatale. Ghost in the Shell is another win for Johansson as she nails the physical demands of the role and convincingly balances the robotic-ness and burgeoning emotional spectrum of a cyborg with an identity crisis.

No one else in the cast really stands out, save for Takeshi Kitano, playing the head of Section 9, who comes off more as a show of reverence to the film's Japanese origins than a well-integrated piece of the puzzle. Given the world the film takes place in, it's not far-fetched for him to speak exclusively in Japanese while everyone understands him and responds in English, but it's a little jarring all the same.

With enough meat connecting it to the original, Sanders' film may pass the test with fans, but how about the rest of the auditorium? Its impressive visual flair and strong action quotient should satisfy a number of viewers, but given the amount of titles with similar themes that have appeared in the last two decades, the new Ghost in the Shell is unlikely to have the same impact on viewers, one that goes past the 3D glasses and lodges itself into the brain as food for thought. ScarJo and Sanders have brought us a visual treat showing a great deal of reverence to its source, yet it's a shame it didn't try to push its ideas further.

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ghost in the shellmamoru oshiirupert sandersscarlett johansson

More about Ghost In The Shell (Live Action)

  • Drei

    What they tried to do was very experimental. You have the fans putting pressure on you to be faithful to the original, you have the producers putting pressure on you to make the film more mainstream so that it can sell tickets to the 99% of those who haven't seen the original. In the end the Robocop elements were there because of the pressure for the film to be mainstream, and the rest was there to please the fans of the original. Whether the film is liked or disliked, its undeniable that the production went to great lengths to please the fans, and trying to keep the film authentic. Like i said it was very experimental, and it came out hit and miss, it does have some of that ghost in the shell mood, but because it doesn't go deep enough, it feels somewhat hollow. I thought the Robocop elements, as well as the Major's origin story (which felt out of place, and blatantly tried to stir some emotion from the viewers) came off very badly. The action wasn't as impressive as it could have been. And the pacing felt a bit off. Having said all of this, i still think its a good movie. It is a unique experience, there is something special about this film, i don't know if its the visuals, the mood, or Scarlett Johansson running around in a bodysuit, but you get the feeling that you saw the sort of film that doesn't usually get shown in cinemas. I recommend go see it, Its no good to watch it on Blu Ray, this is a film that should be watching on the big screen in 3d.

  • Ard Vijn

    "You have the fans putting pressure on you to be faithful to the original"
    True, though I think fans were mostly arguing the movie didn't need to be made.

  • Łukasz Grela

    Sorry, Mr Conran but this review is far far too forgiving. Even taken on it's own it's a rather bland and unoriginal film, but when you (obviously and inevitably!) compare it to the works of Shirow, Oshii and Kamiyama... oh, boy, what a sad failure does it become. Like my friend inevitably quiped "Not much ghost in this shell". And the fact that shell is at times truly gorgeous to look at makes it even worse!

    Contrary to Mr Conran's review, I think the world and the story were dumbed down so much they are unrecognizable. In place of intricate (at times labirynthine) spy mysteries of the previous incarnations we get a very straight forward and cliche story with corporate villain so cartoonish he is very hard to take seriously. Worst of all, the original's calling card - extremely rich philosophical, metaphisical, sociological themes have been either removed alltogether or simplified and overexplained so much they lost all their complexity and originality. In the manga and anime adaptations the sheer number of thought provoking ideas and incredibly inventive worldbuilding nuances can make ones head spin, here we get almost nothing we haven't seen in Blade Runner or Robocop!

    Even the admittedly gorgeous visuals feel soulless (or ghostless if you will). Oshii's films didn't just look nice, they had a flair of true visual poetry and moment's of downright transcendent beauty and spritual contemplation. Here it's pretty but very little more. I know not every director is a poet-philosopher like Oshii but when you go out copiing his scenes almost one-to-one! you better do it well!

    It's not completely bad, Major's new origin story is at times quite moving, and I think the way they worked their way around and almost openly commented on the whitewashing controversy is quite clever and plays very well into franchises main themes. But it could have been so so much more, there is so much unused potential and so many things don't work that it's hard not to see it as a huge dissapointment.

  • Ard Vijn

    It's hard not to agree with this. The live-action GHOST IN THE SHELL is an odd film with a collection of moments where sometimes the bad ideas actually do work while the good ideas don't.

  • Zetobelt

    I've searched for GitS fans reviews. And no, they are not happy.
    Just copying some scene from differents series and movies of GitS isn't enough.
    Try to be faithful to the story, characters and 'ghost' of the story, it is.
    This isn't GitS story, is Robocop's. The characters aren't like the originals. Only Pilou Asbæk's Batou.

  • Ard Vijn

    Correct. I had fun with it but the story is entirely ROBOCOP.

  • Graham Johnson

    Hey my name is Graham and I saw the whole movie. It was a really good tribute to the original but not anywhere close to as good.

  • Joao Oliveira

    Does the shelling sequence have the non remixed Kawaii theme?

  • Ard Vijn

    I only encountered non-remixed Kawaii during the end credits, I think the shelling (you refer to the Major getting her body?) had the Clint Mansell score attached.

  • Joao Oliveira

    That is such a shame. They have shown the sequence with the dubstep-less version and it was perfect the way it was and I was really looking forward to see it in the cinema

  • Buffalo Black

    yes

  • Joao Oliveira

    That's cool. I've seen the video from the Tokyo event from last year and it left me salivating for the IMAX version.

  • roberthekilled

    Why did they change her name?! Major Mira Killian?! And not Major Motoko Kunasagi?!?!

  • Brandon Dozier

    It places a major role in the film. Basically to leave as little spoilers as possible, The Major is not who Hanka tells her she is.

  • Buffalo Black

    they explain that in the film

  • Pat

    Wow, that was surprisingly positive. I want to know what Ard Vijn thinks.

  • Ard Vijn

    It looks like GHOST IN THE SHELL...
    It sounds at times like GHOST IN THE SHELL...

    But it is FEMALE ROBOCOP.
    End of story. If you can take that, you'll have a swell time with it.

  • Ard Vijn

    Oh, rest assured I'll chime in, in about 24 hours (because I'll be seeing it in 21...).

  • God of Joy

    did you watch in 2D or 3D, recommendations?

  • Pierce Conran

    Saw it in 3D, which posed no problems. Hadn't thought about it until now, but I guess that's a plus in my book. I often find it distracting. I would recommend IMAX though. My screening wasn't but I bet it would look great.

  • Ard Vijn

    Got my IMAX 3D ticket, one of the best places in the house (evil chuckle).

  • Zetobelt

    > With enough meat connecting it to the original, Sanders' film may pass the test with fans

    I'm not so sure about that!

  • Jeremy Alexander

    There will always be a group of people that are fans of something that will never accept it in any other form, but they are a minority. A vocal one, but a tiny fraction of one. From the first trailer for Star Wars Episode 7 and Rogue One, we heard the same nonsense and those are now two of the most successful films of all time as will be the upcoming ones. I liked the original Ghost in the Shell and if this one is done well, I'll like it two. There is room for multiple adaptations of films, books, television, music, whatever. People that just hate things because they are different just miss out on a lot of life and I feel sorry for them. If the concept of this movie offends someone, then don't go see it and problem solved.

  • Zetobelt

    It doesn't matter they are "a tiny, minuscule, group of people"... They are fans, and they doesn't need your condescension. Thank you.

  • jammamon

    Yeah, I miss a lot in life because I'm not willing to let a thoughtful and groundbreaking piece of work become studio shlock. I have some kind of weird psychological disfunction and I'm deeply sorry if It causes any distress to you. NOT

  • Zetobelt

    That was "kinda" insulting. Did you pick up a lot of girls with that attitude? ;-)

  • Pierce Conran

    Let's just say that I anticipate more shoulder-shrugging than outright dislike.

  • Ard Vijn

    Surprisingly positive! Hm, seeing this tomorrow evening...

  • omnisemantic1

    What I gather from most reactions online is that it's basically a Marvel film in GITS packaging.
    I.e. it's going to be mostly "meh" for the real fans, but at least it looks awesome and is a serviceable setup.
    If it somehow manages to accumulate enough BO inertia, we could eventually get something more elaborate further down the line.
    Also, since it's GITS they could change Motoko's body with every film, so it doesn't have to be bound to Johansson (read - I still don't like her for the part lol).

  • Ard Vijn

    Hm... didn't really get a Marvel vibe while seeing it. Really liked Johansson, whatever faults the film has, she isn't one.

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