Nearly 30 years after the original manga series, and over 20 years after the animated film, it’s striking how potent the world of Ghost in the Shell remains. Masamune Shirow’s creation was prescient upon release, and now, well into our current digital age, it still holds endless potential as a way of examining identity in a mechanised world.
Jamie Moss and William Wheeler play fast and loose with the original story, but as a property that’s been adapted and extended so many times the sanctity of its vision feels negotiable. They keep the core elements that made the manga and the previous film so adored, but choose their own direction at key moments in search of a more human and relatable story.
Ghost in the Shell has always been about what it means to be human, and how that is altered in a hybrid world where people increasingly rely on cybernetic enhancements. By altering Major Motoko’s (Scarlett Johansson) origin story, this new version paints her as even more of a tragic figure than before, blessed with hyperreal physical abilities but a mind tortured by its unnatural state.
It’s hard to imagine anyone better for the role than Scarlett Johansson, an actress who has come to rule the world of ambitious sci-fi with leading roles in Under the Skin, Lucy and Her. She seems to have an urge to deconstruct her star image with complex and alien roles that put her innate likeability into conflict with a challenging identity.
She shines strongest in the quietest moments, finding touching seconds of humanity in a chaotic mechanical world. She may be a cyborg, engineered to kill, but her mind and soul are all too human and she aches for an intimacy that seems beyond her reach. She plays this role indisputably well on an extravagant blockbuster canvas, and that remains part of the problem. With accusations of Hollywood whitewashing, as good as Johansson is, her casting is ultimately down to her marketability, where an Asian actress would be a more accurate but less profitable choice.
Rupert Sanders deserves immense credit for how he has realised this near-future Japan, offering kaleidoscopic fragments of a digital world that’s beginning to swallow up the real. The city is a living billboard, full of shimmering holograms and projections that create empty chaos. With the help of cinematographer Jess Hall and some stunning CGI, he offers a worthwhile new take on the visuals of Ghost in the Shell in a live-action format that is arguably more appropriate for capturing the disconnect between a human mind and a robotic body.
Ghost in the Shell becomes formulaic when it moves into action beats, offering nothing vastly different from Western cinema’s previous Ghost homage of nearly twenty years ago, The Matrix. It is still most powerful when exploring notions of what it means to be human, thanks to a reliably brilliant performance from Johansson.
Words by Tom Bond
Ghost in the Shell is released in cinemas on the 30th of March