The two most undesirable things in the entertainment world might be; adapting a best-selling novel to a screenplay or re-making a classic film into a modern version. I don’t envy either task but I have tremendous respect for those who poke the sleeping giant.
When the anime classic, “Ghost in the Shell” released in 1995, it set a new standard not only in animation as a whole, but for film-making as well.
Given its sci-fi genre, “Ghost” resists the pigeon-hole of being a period piece, and that says a lot about how far ahead of the curve the anime jumped. It has become a yardstick by which many projects are compared.
Films like “Ghost” often impact people at a young age, it certainly left a huge impression on me, even in the subtitled version. That kind of experience can be the motivation that drives someone to bring that deep, inner passion into a modern work of art.
Anyone that attempts a revival of a classic film faces two demons of criticism that are diametrically opposed. One believes the original work should be honored to the tiniest detail, often panning any changes, including the choice of casting. The other looks for the new work to be different, surprising, and somehow improved, even though they can be vague on how that should be accomplished.
In the end, I paraphrase James Cameron, “Every film should have the ability to stand on it own, even if the audience has never seen the related works.”
I tip my hat to Rupert Sanders and the team that dared to craft such an iconic work of art. This new version brings the classic to life with both subtlety and panache. Some might look at many of the re-created scenes and see an uninspired vision, but I say it takes extraordinary skill to make so many shots look as if the anime itself was somehow charged and rendered into holographic photo-realism.
The original work spawned a television series called “Stand Alone Complex” that followed the continued adventures of The Major and her Section 9 Team. The modern film crew deftly draws on elements of this series (and other sequels) to bring greater depth to both the story and the central character. We watch The Major grapple with the unknown past of her inner ghost, and fight internally with the questions of her own existence. Maybe this isn’t technically bringing something new to the table, but how it was blended into the fabric of the film was well executed.
If there was one thing the original anime excelled at it was lush, detailed backgrounds. The overgrown, overcrowded, tech-heavy city-scapes of the anime reach forward with full force, and kudos to cinematography for shooting the angles that not only immersed you in the Major’s world, but made you feel as though you may drown under its sheer scale.
Many have criticized the casting of Scarlett Johanssen in the lead role as cheap Hollywood merchandising. To some extent that might be true, but when was the last time we saw any major film released without star power of some kind? Some say the lead should have been an oriental actress. Possibly, but if you look at side-by-side stills of the anime and new film, Johanssen nails the image. This is a point I’ve always wondered, why clamor for the oriental casting when most anime women don’t look oriental in the slightest?
There are many other ways the film pays proper homage to its roots. The geisha robots and various holographic advertisements throughout the city promote the Asian lineage. The sole member of the Section 9 Team that values his un-augmented human form is clearly oriental. I also loved how they showcased his loyalty to his old-fashioned revolver. Takeshi Kitano brings the oriental mojo in truckloads as the Section 9 Director. No matter if he is behind a desk deflecting veiled threats or wielding a large caliber pistol like a futuristic Dirty Harry, he never fails to make an imposing presence.
Juliet Binoche also adds depth to both the story and the emotional connection as Dr.Ouelet. So proud of the achievement the Major represents in technology, but also caring as if she were a parent. Dr. Ouelet is torn by the sacrifices made to reach the success of the Major, but is unaware of the adversary they inadvertently created in the process.
I congratulate Scarlett Johanssen on a performance that while action-driven, delivers on several levels. She is hi-intensity under combat conditions, fearless and skilled in every facet of her programmed training. The effects of her invisibility screen are top notch, but its her times away from danger that are most revealing. She walks with mechanical method, and is expressionless despite her inner torment, yet in those moments of personal reflection, the hints of her human ghost come near to the surface. The more she discovers, the more she begins to find the worth in herself, and the closer she slowly becomes to her stoic partner, Batou.
Pilou Asbaek rises to the role of the Major’s closest version of a friend. Batou never fails to have the Major’s back, even if he is picking up her broken pieces. I’m very glad the film adds the back story of how he came to have the cybernetic eyes.
All told, I think “Ghost in the Shell-2017” does its ancestor proud. Is it an exact recreation of the original? No. Is it a significantly different rendition? I would say no, because the material drawn from sequels and Stand Alone Complex was already related, and not written strictly for this film. Is it a worthy execution of the character and the world she lives in? Yes!
Like other remakes, I recommend watching the original AFTER you see the new film. Give the new work a chance to test and challenge your imagination and memory. Most of all, look at the latest version with the innocent eyes of the Major and her quest for knowledge. This is a dark and dazzling motion picture in its own right, and I get the feeling we haven’t seen the last of The Major and Section 9. At least I hope so, because she is an equal-opportunity ass-kicker and I look forward to seeing her in action once again.
-T. August Green