Hollywood’s track record of anime live-action adaptations have been consistent in one key aspect: not entirely grasping or understanding the source material. Through abominations like Dragonball Evolution, they’ve shown an ineptitude for what made the source so beloved in the first place, completely missing the point or not giving it the attention it really deserved. Though admirable efforts have been made in the past, with the Wachowski’s Speed Racer coming the closest to ever getting it right, it seemed like Ghost In The Shell would be too tremendous of a task to really adapt into a big-budget film, considering its deep philosophical themes that underpin the manga and anime. However, credit is given where its due, and I’m pleasantly surprised to say Speed Racer is no longer the closest anymore.
THIS REVIEW IS SPOILER-FREE
Ghost In The Shell, directed by Rupert Sanders and starring Scarlett Johansson, takes place in a futuristic world where cybernetic technology has been developed to create synthetic beings that house the memories and conscience of a prior deceased human. Johansson takes the lead role as the iconic anime protagonist, the Major, an enhanced soldier who is struggling to come to grips with her identity and place in society. When the threat of a cyber-terrorist called Kuze enters the picture, the Major begins a descent into the true intentions of her creation and who she once was in a prior life as a human.
Based on the manga by Masamune Shirow, Ghost In The Shell is an exploration of several philosophical themes that seemed almost impossible to condense into a big-budget two hour film, but thankfully this adaptation does a stellar job at finding the right balance of all these ideas while simplifying them enough without losing sight of what made the source so compelling. Visually, this is one of the most faithful representations of a world I’ve ever seen put on film. The city, a maze of holographic advertising and CG-marketing, places the Ghost In The Shell universe in a refreshingly vivid and kinetic live-action space. Director Rupert Sanders injects the film with a stunning, well-realized style that favours the intricacies of its finer details over the more bleak, larger-than-life setting of its 1995 anime adaptation counterpart.
While there was an understandably fair amount of criticism geared towards Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of the Major (who is featured in the anime as a Japanese woman), the film manages to give a hefty emotional weight to her character that was unexpected and unique for itself, differentiating this live-action adaptation while paying a surprisingly thoughtful, respectful homage to the identity of the Japanese Major, Motoko Kusanagi. Johansson is fantastic in her role, and despite the intentionally emotionless and stoic persona of the Major, manages to give her a subtle likability that shines through her conflicted feelings of being.
The film mostly does a good job of recreating the iconic scenes from the 1995 Mamoru Oshii anime film, but falters when it tries to outdo them, typically adding a type of glossy Hollywood flare to them that feels completely misplaced within the gritty setting and tone that the film attempts to build. As a result, a couple of the action sequences feel more inorganic than they should, completely removed from the rest of the film when it becomes heavily reliant on slow-motion effects. Nonetheless, they are well directed enough to get a pass, particularly the opening action set piece; a marvellously stylish slice of sci-fi/action akin to The Matrix or Blade Runner. Clint Mansell’s score for the film is beautiful and subtle, creeping its way into scenes while raising the excitement and tension. It may not be as potent or breathtaking as the 1995 anime adaptation’s score by Kenji Kawaii, but it certainly measures up to the tremendous task on several occasions, especially in the spectacularly recreated opening creation sequence.
Verdict: Ghost In The Shell may very well be the best anime to live-action adaptation Hollywood has produced thus far. Thanks to Rupert Sanders’ keen eye for visual marvel, the world and characters of the universe are fully realized and are offered a ton of depth and development, borrowing more than just what he 1995 anime film offered, yet never quite reaching that same raised bar. Thanks to Johannson’s grounded and well-rounded performance as the Major, the film successfully captures the spirit of what made its manga source material great, and does so with care and precision rarely seen for adaptations anymore.