Ghost in the Shell (12A)
Running time 2 hr
ANIME is, broadly, a cult phenomenon in the West, and it’s not difficult to see why – putting aside the language barrier, these sprawling, perverse sagas demand effort of the viewer. The visual and thematic richness of Akira sets it lightyears apart from most non-animated movies, but even seasoned fans of world cinema are liable to struggle with its ultraviolence, its forays into the stomach-churning grotesque and, above all, its pedal-to-the-metal weirdness; 1995’s Ghost in the Shell is a film in the same vein, a kinetic, very cerebral experience which, in its evocation of a mesmerising urban dreamscape à la Blade Runner, makes spiritual odes to Euro-American sci-fi. Indeed, from a superficial standpoint, it might well have owed itself best to a live-action Hollywood reboot…
Or not. Indeed, stylistic elements aside, GITS was, through-and-through, a quintessentially Eastern picture, one that revelled in the capacity of Japanese animators and storytellers to transform the absurd into the beguiling. A new treatment courted the risk of sanitising its cyberpunk cool, of Westernising it – only a masterly filmmaker could channel the complexity of the
original (Steven Spielberg was briefly attached to the project), and even then, the studio would no doubt water down the mood and mythology which made for such a special watch. At last, we can report that the film generally meets expectations – that is to say, it never reaches the lofty heights of its predecessor, eschewing depth in favour of accessibility and gloss. Nevertheless, one glimpse at the opening sequence, which sees a brain encased in the ‘shell’ of Scarlett Johansson’s android, can only confirm that a grain of the magic is still there. Sure, there are moments of emptiness, but there are moments, also, of beauty and inspiration.
This is not, in fact, a remake of the anime – a dangerous proposition on several levels – but a reimagining, with a distinct story and universe. In the not-too-distant future, humans have, with the aid of cybernetic enhancements, begun to turn into machines; the Major (Johansson) is the first of her (its?) kind, a human mind wired into an artificial body. When a mysterious hacker launches a series of devastating attacks, the former is set on a collision-course with her cryptic past.
In many respects, the plot is a ripe source of frustration, and not due to any particular story details – rather, the screenplay takes the philosophical foundations of the ’toon and strips them of their social commentary, producing a film that is, at times, downright bland. Johansson’s performance has sustained unnecessary flak – if anything, her dead-eyed, brooding cyborg recalls her best work of late (Under the Skin, Lucy) – but this Major is easily the flattest iteration of GITS’ protagonist thus far. Despite boasting a new backstory and dialogue that harks back to the original’s politics, the character here comes across as half-cocked, another generic superhero-with-a-heavy-conscience – much like Major, then, a metallic husk in search of a soul.
Which is a shame, because the movie truly is an aesthetic masterclass. The action unfolds amid a sea of high-rises and holograms, part-Fifth Element, part-Total Recall, part-Faragesque cosmopolitan nightmare, where every robot is a potential killer and every human is a potential robot. Even where GITS’ mystery fails to grip, such set pieces as a raid on a yakuza club and a ‘spider-tank’ showdown cannot help but stun. It’s a very different, undoubtedly inferior redux, no inheritor of the anime’s gold-plated legacy, but there’s good stuff along the way.