Anime to live action adaptations have a troubled history. Unless I’m forgetting something, I don’t believe there has ever been a successful or well-done adaptation of an anime movie or television show. Of the most recent ventures, Dragonball: Evolution and Speed Racer were both critical and box office failures, and that’s putting it nicely.
Ghost in the Shell, then, had quite the mountain to climb to overcome past grievances and honor both the original anime movie while introducing the story to non-anime audiences. While it’s not perfect by any means, struggling to go as deep as the original, it still keeps the soul of the movie rather than settling for a shell, but also knows when to be its own thing. The end result is a satisfying science fiction that many people will enjoy.
Directed by Rupert Sanders, Ghost in the Shell is about Major (Scarlett Johansson), a human brain implanted into a cyborg body created to be a perfect soldier to fight dangerous criminals. However, a terrorist named Kuze is specifically targeting Hanka Robotics, the company that created her. It’s up to her to find and stop him before he kills more people.
To be honest, I haven’t seen the original for some time and could only remember bits and pieces of the story and plot. I remember, however, the visuals and the art that resembled a gritty, futuristic world similar to Blade Runner. Regarding that, Sanders hit the ball out of the park, mimicking much of the aesthetic and feel of the anime.
The cinematography and lighting is gorgeous, mixing both dark contrasts and bright colors. For the most part, they mix in the green screen and special effects seamlessly with the wonderful camera work, but not fully. Too often the CGI looks fake or unpolished. Some of the futuristic cityscapes look like they hadn’t been fully rendered or were made back in 1999.
Some of the writing is a little rough with a by-the-numbers first act that slogs along. The dialogue, at times, comes across as cheesy and too on-the-nose. However, by the second act, the story kicks into gear and becomes more intriguing and less black and white. The writing sharpens fast and makes you forget all about the first act’s flaws. As things progress, less does the story follow the hero versus the villain story and transforms into a story about identity and discovery. A change that flows well and makes for a more intriguing story.
With that transition from hero adventure into identity, the story is able to touch on themes that it could have easily ignored. It raises questions about technological abuse and how far we are willing to go to push the next stage of human evolution, and what that might do to the human identity. Of course, the original digs deeper into these themes and does a better job of it, but in my mind, Sanders get credit for not simply ignoring it entirely.
The character progression of the protagonists and antagonists is where it shines the most. Understanding the motivations behind the villains, something lacking in many today’s science fiction movies, and forcing the protagonist to grapple with it is refreshing. But also, seeing the Major change from cold and calculating to warm and affectionate in her relationships creates an emotionally gripping and personal story.
For her part, Scarlett Johansson provides a solid performance. There is no doubt she’s proven herself as a solid action hero as both the Black Widow in countless Marvel movies but also her lead role in the film Lucy. I applaud her subtle mannerisms she employed, including the way she walked and how over time her character expressed more emotion.
If you’ve been following Ghost in the Shell, you know about the controversy surrounding casting Scarlett Johansson, criticizing it as “whitewashing”. While I’ll not wade into that entirely, I will say parts of the plot addresses this issue head on in a way that is both meta and self-preaching. I’ll not say much else for fear of spoilers. Some might find this plot point even more offensive and others may interpret it as an excellent social critique on current issues. Either way, the movie addresses it and personally I find that more admirable than, again, not presenting anything at all.
Chances are all you want is to watch a good science fiction movie or see your favorite anime as a live action on the big screen. It’s not a home run and does have some issues, but, overall, Ghost in the Shell gives you exactly what you want, paying close homage to the original, providing plenty of action and adventure, and telling a solid story with good characters. This is undoubtedly the first well-done anime adaptation to date and hopefully, fingers crossed, it won’t be the last.
Photos courtesy of: Paramount Pictures.