What makes us, well, us? Is it our bodies? Our minds? The intangible soul, or ghost, within? This is the focus of Ghost in the Shell, set in a future world where humans are heavily augmented and able to upgrade any part of themselves. More pertinently, it is a world where “Major” (Scarlett Johansson) is the first of a new breed of synthetic human: a shell, fused to the brain of a human being.
The original anime was a masterpiece of invention – beautiful and haunting; a work of art so mesmeric and memorable that it famously inspired the likes of Luc Besson, James Cameron and the Wachowskis. That in itself leads to an interesting consideration: could The Matrix have been made without Ghost in the Shell? And then, if The Matrix hadn’t so significantly altered the movie-landscape, would this live action version of the classic have been possible? Of course, many would ask if it was indeed necessary for an Americanised remake. Possibly not but, to borrow from Agent Smith, it was inevitable.
So let’s address the virtual elephant in the room: is this a worthy rendition? Before we get to that, it’s worth remembering what exactly set the original apart? Straight off, there’s the aesthetics. As much about innovative action as it was an expression of visual poetry, it was that rarest of beasts: an action movie not afraid to pause for moments of contemplation. In this way it is akin to Blade Runner, itself elevated by its willingness to savour its environments amidst the magic of Vangelis’s intoxicating score. Ghost in the Shell achieved a similar synthesis of sound and sight.
And here we arrive at the first of the crucial differences between progenitor and offspring: the remake doesn’t allow itself the same amount of leeway to sit and breathe a little in between scenes. A shame, especially considering the original had a shorter running time. Amazing how much can be communicated within a few quiet moments. It’s a dynamic that still largely eludes Hollywood. It does touch on the wider themes and, thankfully, with a degree of subtlety, but it comes across a bit like a learned student quoting the master; essentially the same, but lacking a little in its insight.
That’s not to say it’s an empty vessel, though. This 2017 iteration is great visually; a beautiful movie in its own right, with several excellent action sequences. It sets this standard early, in a scene that elicits more than a few tingles up the spine, featuring a grotesquely magnificent spider-geisha-bot (yes, you read that right).
It could be argued too that this live-action version is more focused in its story trajectory, even though it is honed by way of well-worn Hollywood plot beats. But, crucially, this never comes across as a major problem, because it is handled with a care and quality that makes it a worthy film in its own right. Throughout, it treats its predecessor with a healthy amount of respect, to the degree where several scenes are realised almost note-for-note. That’s not to say it’s a lazy copy, however. Instead, it uses these to pay homage and to act as catalysts for its own take on the tale.
It’s easy to forget, when looking back through rose-tinted spectacles, how exposition-heavy the original’s dialogue was. This isn’t so much a criticism as an observation: it was more concerned with its central musings and very much a direct philosophical conversation with the audience. Though Ghost in the Shell 2017 touches on the broader points of this discussion, it doesn’t actually stop to ponder them at any great length. This is both a strength and a weakness, making for a lean and perhaps more accessible piece of entertainment but, on the flip side, never quite translating the source’s deeper layers.
Of course, trying to do so would be a task in itself. Ghost In The Shell and Akira remain the two most widely celebrated anime classics … at least in the Western world. If one were to do a “deep dive” into these, it could be said that the former deals with the inexorable infiltration of technology on our society, while the latter is a parable for Hiroshima’s legacy and the scar it left on Japan’s collective psyche. How could such distinctly Japanese concerns be wholly translated for a Western audience?
While it is a fair criticism that this is a white-washed version of a Japanese masterpiece, the film doesn’t turn a blind eye to the original’s setting, giving us a modern take on an integrated future Tokyo. And it does at least feature the incomparable “Beat” Takeshi Kitano (if you’ve never seen Zatoichi, then make it a priority to look it up).
Overall, Ghost in the Shell succeeds in its mission, bringing us stunning visuals, electrifying bursts of action and a taut script that acknowledges its source material whilst forging its own path.