I still remember my first time encountering the Ghost in the Shell franchise, when Manga Entertainment sent promo tapes out to various fan clubs and organizations. We got one at Anime-X and Dragon Con and played it to the fullest. We were impressed by the animation that director Mamoru Oshii (Jin-Roh, Patlabor) had put together while adapting the manga by Masamune Shirow (Appleseed). So a bunch of us went to see the movie when it finally hit the art-house circuit, locally at the Lefont Theater. The thing was, at least for me, the movie was very pretty but the screenplay tended to get too bogged down by tech talk and story momentum came to a halt, and so the resulting film was… just ok to me.
Eventually, the franchise continued, and we got the Stand Alone Complex (one of the best science fiction series I’ve ever watched), as well as the Arise OAVs (decent) and sequel anime movie GITS 2: Innocence (terrible). There have been different iterations of Ghost In the Shell that have gone up and down the quality scale. Now we come to the American adaptation which unlike prior works is done as a live action film. How does it fare? Well…
This new movie begins in the distant future, where many people have gotten into replacing human parts with machine ones for cyber-enhancement. We a shown an injured woman being brought into a hospital. She apparently dies and her brain is transplanted into an artificial body resembling actress Scarlett Johannson (The Avengers, Lucy). Eventually she wakes up and takes her first breaths with new artificial lungs. All this happens under the watchful eyes of Dr. Ouelette (Juliet Binoche) and Mr. Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), who decides this artificial woman, the first successful one of her kind, would be a perfect weapon for the Section 9 unit of cyber-crime operations.
One year later, the artificial woman is called The Major and awaits orders from her boss Aramaki (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano) as she monitors an international business deal. When things begin to go wrong at the deal, The Major leaps into action… off a rather tall building. She runs into some very strange machinery, as do her partners Batou (Pilou Asbaek), Togusa (Chin Han) and several other members of the unit. As things progress, a shadowy figure known only as Kuze (Michael Putt) begins to manipulate events through some brutal murders that will come to affect The Major greatly.
What follows is an interesting variation of the Puppet Master storyline depicted in Oshii’s anime movie. Director Rupert Sanders clearly loved that film as did screenwriters Jamie Moss and William Wheeler. Even though the origins of the Major are different, they very much enjoyed putting her in situations similar to the original. In a macabre way, the story actually gives a plausible account for Johansson’s casting as the lead and conveys theme of corporate domination of the less powerful as well as what it means to be truly human in a computer-dominated world.
Performance wise, Johannson seems a bit off but so does The Major herself as she’s written here. Some aspects capture the anime nuances decently but at others… she’s a bit strange. I can’t quite put my finger on this one here. But sometimes I felt her and sometimes I didn’t. Batou and Aramaki are perfectly presented here and we get an awesome Beat Kitano moment before everything is through.
In retrospect, I keep thinking of different anime and manga that have been adapted for live action. Some efforts have been strong such as Speed Racer, Space Battleship Yamato, Tomorrows Joe, Ruroni Kenshin and Golgo 13 (because Sonny Chiba. F**k yeah!). Others like Attack on Titan, Gatchaman and Dragonball Evolution…. Yeah, the less said the better on those. Ghost in the Shell falls in the middle for me. Some aspects were more effective than others. If this were a flick aimed at the art huose circuit, this movie would fit right in. As a mainstream blockbuster, though, it’s not that great. I would recommend both anime veterans and casual moviegoers go and give the movie a fair viewing with an open mind, as there were elements I didn’t expect to enjoy. So yeah, it’s not the best and not the worst but a decent enough film to check out. If future live adaptations of anime are to come, a bit less of the Hollywood flavor would work well. As far as being part of the Ghost In The Shell franchise, I just think of it as another iteration different from the others and just move on.
Grade: B- / C+