'Ghost in the Shell' stares down its critics

CNET Magazine: Director Rupert Sanders discusses the challenges of bringing anime to life and why he cast Scarlett Johansson as the cyborg Major Kusanagi.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
5 min read

You might not recognize Rupert Sanders' name, but you know his work.

He's directed and won awards for some of the most eye-grabbing commercials to hit television.

Fans of first-person video game Halo 3: ODST probably remember "The Life." Filmed with tight closeups, rapid cuts and quick action shots, the 150-second ad shows a young soldier through enlistment, training and battle. In contrast, an ad for online recruiting pioneer Monster.com looks like a fairy tale with quaint villagers, a subterranean bicycle that spins the Earth -- and a 10-foot-tall guy with humongous thighs.

You can spot Sanders' distinctive eye in his first movie, "Snow White and the Huntsman," which Roger Ebert called a film of "visual wonderments." The director "is clearly familiar with establishing memorable places," Ebert wrote in his 2012 review.

Sanders, 46, gets to reveal new wonders in his second film, "Ghost in the Shell," a live-action version of the 1995 anime famous for its own stunning visuals. The movie hit theaters Friday.

Set in 2029 Japan, the story follows cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi and her elite cybercrime-fighting task force. She's played in the movie by Scarlett Johansson, a casting decision that outraged fans who accused the filmmakers of whitewashing the beloved series.

The film has a monumental task as it tries to step out from the shadow of the anime classic. Ultimately, the spirit of the original "Ghost in the Shell" haunts Sanders' film even though the new film looks fantastic and Johansson is "breathily enigmatic," says CNET's Rich Trenholm. On opening day, "Ghost in the Shell" faced lukewarm reviews, averaging at 53% on Metacritic.

The issues with the cast's whitewashing and played-out approach to technology aren't meshing well with critics online.


Scarlett Johansson plays the Major in "Ghost in the Shell," in theaters March 31, 2017.

Paramount Pictures

Sanders spoke with CNET about the dangers of technology, translating "Ghost in the Shell" to live action and his casting choice. Here's an edited transcript of their conversation.

Given the story's fan base and cultural impact, how did you decide to approach a live-action version?

When you take something from anime to cinema, there's a very different journey. The original is very cerebral. And its pace is not only very anime, it's Japanese. It has a kind of stillness and quietness to it, and it has space to it. In modern cinema, the expectations are different.

The challenge was how much of the anime style can you introduce in cinema. You can't really shoot "Tom and Jerry" straight up, transpose it straight to live action. You have to find a way of translating it that feels both relevant and reverent of the original.

I wanted to do it justice. It's a cherished part of my visual evolution growing up, and I really wanted to make sure that [the movie] could be the same. That it could be as remarkable now in the cinema as it was in the mid-'90s when it was first released upon the world.

Jasin Boland

We obviously have to talk about your decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusanagi. Many fans say you've whitewashed an essentially Japanese story.

I stick behind my decision to cast the actress I felt was best in the role. I feel that she channeled the Major better than anyone else I could have thought of. She was my first choice and remains my first choice. She's the best actress of my generation and her generation, and the person I felt most embodied the physicality and the ability to inhabit that role.

The world we've created is a parallel world. It's a global world. "Ghost in the Shell" inhabits a very multicultural, multiethnic and diverse landscape. I think it's very authentic.

You're quoted as saying "casting is all about finding a character within the actor off the screen, as much as on the screen." What of the Major did you see in Johansson?
She's incredibly intuitive, and she's got both a toughness and a softness that I really feel the Major has. It was a character she could understand and relate to. There's something in her, from her work in "Lost in Translation" to "Under the Skin" to "Lucy." She has that kind of punk/cyberpunk aesthetic to her.


Director Rupert Sanders on the set of "Ghost in the Shell."

Jasin Boland

It's really a coming-of-age [story about] an android becoming human, or at least the struggle of being both. And I think she handled that dualism perfectly.

At its core, "Ghost in the Shell" is about AI and what makes a person human and not a machine. Did that affect your view of technology?

Part of what we're trying to say in this film is that humanity at some stage is gonna be absorbed more and more in technology. The important thing is that we figure out a way that humanity is needed by technology rather than the other way around. I think technology will evolve beyond us and [when that happens], what's the need for us? We're greedy, we're wasteful, we are destroying the environment that they would need to survive.

Our film is much more about the hope that humanity will prevail amongst a technological revolution.


Scene from the anime, 'Ghost in the Shell' (1995)

Production I.G.

That's a pretty dark image of the future. How do you see tech today?

We are very trusting of technology. We give so much of our location, of our desires, of our thoughts into these devices that, ultimately, we trust. You already see kids in their strollers flicking through iPads as though they're software designers. And one of the questions of our film is, "Can you trust?"

I put black tape over my [computer's] camera. I'm not very paranoid, but I think that you do sometimes look at that black obelisk on your desk and go, "Damn, what does that thing know about me?"


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Mark Mann

Does the movie introduce any technologies of its own?

We had [to keep] elements of its stories, but really invent something that translated better to the scale of cinema. I've coined the word "soligram," which is basically solid holograms that can exist as three-dimensional representations of characters. [It's] a kind of augmented world where whatever we could imagine is visible within the space -- and every person has their own vision of that city or that world.

Unlike most people in Hollywood, you're not on social media much. Why is that?

People definitely spend too much time on social media. I think it becomes antisocial media. You see groups of people sitting around each other, on their devices talking to someone else or looking at what someone else is posting instead of actually doing things that might be more memorable. I think people start to assume things they've seen as memory. You know, "Is that me or was that something I saw online?"

Watch this: Ghost in the Shell trailer

This story appears in the spring 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.

First published, March 25 at 5:30 a.m. PT.
Update, March 31 at 9:05 a.m. PT: To include reviews and reception of "Ghost in the Shell" on opening day.