by Benjamín Harguindey
Ghost in the Shell has been many things in the past 30 years: a manga (three volumes), an anime (two seasons), a 1995 animated film (followed by a sequel in 2004) and any number of made-for-TV flicks and “original video animations”. The phenomenon has never been transmuted into a live action film though. How does the 2017 incarnation fare?
Directed by Rupert Sanders, the film is more or less a remake of the 1995 film helmed by Mamoru Oshii. This was the movie that originally sparked the craze for ‘Ghost in the Shell’, one of those mammoth properties (created by Masamune Shirow) that caught the West’s obsession with anime during the 90s, comparable to and perhaps outdone only by Evangelion. It wasn’t just a question of anime looking different enough to be interesting – it carried the alluring promise of violence and innuendo, and was capable of dealing with adult subject matter while looking cool.
On that note the 2017 version is rather disappointing – a watered-down, boilerplate rendition of a cult classic. It also joins the growing ranks of movies adapting 90s animated films into live-action, almost as if the update was a necessary rite of passage. And as I write this I wonder what am I comparing this to – which of the dozens of incarnations that have sprung over three decades, like so many heads on a hydra? The 2017 version isn’t an usurper to the throne so much as one more iteration of the shape-shifting, retcon of a mess that is the Ghost in the Shell canon.
There are many version of the one myth, and they all star Major Motoko Kusanagi, here renamed Mira Killian and played by Scarlett Johansson. In the vaguely nearby future mankind has warmed up to cybernetic enhancements and there is nary a person on Earth that isn’t a cyborg to some degree. The Major is either a woman in a a synthetic body, or a robot with a woman’s brain – the cause of much angst for the character. She’s an agent of Section 9, an organization that fights cyber-terrorism, and they’re out to hunt the elusive hacker Kuze (Michael Pitt).
Section 9 is headed by Chief Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano); other agents include the amicable badass Batou (Pilou Asbaek), who has a big bro relationship with the Major, and Togusa (Chin Han), who remains proudly 100% human. Much hubbub was raised over the casting, always a point of contention when adapting anime, because characters are drawn without any real-life referents or their features present certain racial ambiguity.
The fact of the matter is that Scarlett Johansson is one of the few bona fide action heroines who are at the top of their game right now – she talks the talk, walks the walk and has a more than apt track record in both action and sci-fi. If nothing else, look no further than her work in Under the Skin (2013), in which he inhabits a body that isn’t hers, and Lucy (2014), in which her mind transcends the confines of the physical plain. She’s made it a career of being awed by her own body.
The rest of the cast is spot-on. Kitano only has to play himself and stay on his own peculiar wavelength of detached seriousness (emphasized by the fact that he’s the only character speaking Japanese, even when everybody else answers back in English). Pitt is great at playing the tragic bishonen. And Asbaek is as good a Batou as we’re gonna get without the benefit of Ron Perlman and a time machine.
The final key player is Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), who oversees the daily maintenance of the Major’s robotic body, including the erasure of suspicious “glitches” in her memory. The Major’s existential conflict is a bit more grounded this time around, taking the form of the familiar twists and turns of the action thriller while sidestepping the hazy mysticism cultivated by the 1995 flick. The resolution feels particularly like a cop out, a trite superhero coda that shoehorns some fortune cookie wisdom in its parting monologue as our hero jumps into action one more time, their faith in their franchise renewed.
No prizes for bemoaning vanilla-flavored Ghost in the Shell though. The movie is a slice of decent PG-13 entertainment, and for all of its disappointing compromises it manages to retain the character of the Major at its heart. It’s not a character-driven blockbuster like Logan, but it does feel like all the sound and fury is there to both serve her plight as much as it’s there to intrigue us. The movie also boasts a great cast, lavish cyberpunk visuals and a more than expert arrangement of action sequences, many of which pay due homage.
Ultimately it’s hard to imagine this movie putting a dent in the history of cinema like its 1995 counterpart did, or indeed to stand out in the years (months?) to come as anything other than serviceable entertainment. But you want to savor popcorn flicks like this in order to remove the bad taste from the crummier ones.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).