Soulless 'Ghost in the Shell' haunted by ghost of the original

Scarlett Johansson's cyberthriller is a visually stunning shell of the classic anime.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
4 min read
Paramount Pictures

How any times have you seen this scene? A futuristic hacker lies in a lab, plugged into a virtual world where her cyberspace self suddenly comes under attack. "Get her out of there!" yells her partner as her real body convulses under the virtual assault -- before the cable is yanked out of her head and she returns gasping to reality.

Get ready to see that scene yet again in the new sci-fi action movie "Ghost in the Shell." The film is an adaptation of the seminal manga and 1995 anime film -- but for some reason draws only superficially on its iconic source material, choosing instead to assemble a jumble of sci-fi cliches from other films.

Directed by Rupert Sanders, the live-action "Ghost in the Shell" opens strongly. Horrifically scarred cyborg yakuza and obscenely scuttling doll-droids explode into a kinetic shootout with an invisible cybercop. It's as exhilaratingly delirious as it sounds, full of visually startling action, establishing a world rendered thrillingly alien by technology.

Watch this: Ghost in the Shell trailer

Scarlett Johansson is cybercop Major Mira Killian, the brain of a tragic orphan cybernetically implanted into a lissome robot body. Sprayed into a nearly nude bodysuit, she roams the futuristic city trying to work out what it means to be human, either by staring soulfully into people's eyes or acrobatically kicking them in the head.

The film's visuals are incredible, tumbling through a city of towering holograms and eye-popping neon. Street hustlers peddle 3D-printed mech-enhancements to teeming crowds of fabulously designed city dwellers, while behind closed doors huddled part-humans jack into virtual worlds in dramatically lit dens of techno-iniquity.

Through this dystopian miasma the Major and her team of multinational asskickers pursue a mysterious cybercriminal. The criminal is hacking enhanced cyberbrains, exposing the dangers of a world in which the line between man and machine are blurred -- meanwhile causing the Major to question her own existence.

Enlarge Image

Sumptuous but austere visuals are the main draw of the live action "Ghost in the Shell".

Paramount Pictures

In exploring the implications of a world accelerating into the future, the original anime was cryptic, compelling, thought-provoking and subversive. The remake keeps the striking visuals but chops out most of the fascinating essence, leaving you with a film drawing more from decades of dystopian cliche -- much of it inspired by the original manga and anime -- than from its own truly innovative source material. There's so much here we've seen before: A snarling corporate bad guy. A shootout in a cybergoth nightclub. Bullet-time punch-ups. A villain lifted wholesale from "Blade Runner."

Oh, and the 1990s called -- they want their cyberpunk hacking sequence back.

Even while painstakingly re-creating whole sequences of the anime, the filmmakers miss the point of what gave those moments their heart. Take the title sequence: The anime opened with a human assembled from machine parts as a wistful choral chant filled our ears. The juxtaposition of cold, inhuman technology with that most human of endeavors, music, made the sequence unforgettably haunting, intriguing, unsettling -- just like the anime itself.

The live-action remake artfully re-creates the visuals of this shelling sequence. But the high-tech visuals are paired with matching austere electronic music. We lose the atmospheric contrast between disquieting technology and affecting humanity that made the original sequence so spine-tingling.

Watch this: How they built Scarlett Johansson's shell in 'Ghost in the Shell'

At the heart of the original film is a scene in which the Major and her hulking sidekick Batou discuss the themes of the story, questioning what it means to be human in an increasingly technological world and raising all manner of thought-provoking philosophical and existential questions. During this conversation they happen to be sitting on a boat.

When revisiting that scene, Sanders, et al., decided the important bit was the boat.

It's a shame the remake loses much of the humanity of the anime, as there is a lot of good stuff on show. Aside from the sumptuous production design, another highlight is the casting of heavyweight Japanese auteur "Beat" Takeshi Kitano. He seems to have wandered in from another movie, slouched in a chair and refused to move, anchoring proceedings with his simmering presence.

Kitano leads the conspicuously international cast, American stars mingling with Danish, British and yes, Japanese actors. Critics of the film accused the filmmakers of "whitewashing" in casting Johansson, a white actor, as the Major, originally a Japanese character. You might argue that this is an American adaptation of the story, and so there's nothing wrong with casting an American in the lead role. But the film shoots itself in the foot in that regard by telling a story that explicitly presents the stealing and rewriting of identity as a horrifying violation.

Rewriting someone's identity is literally the bad guy's fiendish plot -- how did the filmmakers not notice they've done the exact thing in real life that they depict as a horrific crime in their story?

Still, the whole thing looks fantastic, Scarlett Johansson is breathily enigmatic as the troubled cyborg, and there's enough philosophical questioning to elevate it above a mere bullet fest. If only it wasn't so haunted by the ghost of the original.

"Ghost in the Shell" is in theaters in the UK on 30 March and US on 31 March.

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