Ghost story

Ghost in the Shell

Directed by Rupert Sanders; starring Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt

To many fans of anime, Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 classic Ghost in the Shell holds a special place, due to its stunning visual quality and sophisticated, if incredibly convoluted, narrative. The idea of remaking it as a live-action blockbuster raises difficult questions, most importantly whether it should be done at all. For the new version, director Rupert Sanders has probably done the right thing by moving away from the original story while trying to keep the essential characters and physical texture.

Set in an un-named Asian city (although a large part of the film was made in Hong Kong; the anime was set in a futuristic version of Tokyo), the central character (Scarlett Johansson) is known mainly as Major (in the anime she is the Major, which turns out to be a crucial detail). A human mind in a high-performance android body, she works in Section 9, an anti-terrorism agency headed by Arimake (played by Beat Takeshi, who appears to be enjoying himself immensely). She was told that her original body was so badly damaged in a terrorist attack that it could not be saved, but she continues to experience ‘glitches’, apparently memory fragments. Something is wrong.

Which leads us to the performance of Johansson. There has been controversy around casting a Western actress as a Japanese – or at least Asian – character, but in the movie itself this does not come across as an issue, perhaps because there are other Western actors, including the chief villain, the wonderfully named Dr Cutter (Peter Ferninando). The problem is more that Johansson does not seem to be able to convey the emotional depth required by this troubled, lonely figure. The original character seemed to do better. Sorry, Scarlett, you’ve been out-acted by a cartoon.

Her strength is the high-tech action scenes. Aided by a skin-tight camouflage suit that effectively makes her invisible she tears through any number of bad guys. But when she is confronted by über-hacker Kuze (Michael Pitt, doing a lot with not very much), who holds crucial keys to her own past, she is reduced to puzzled stares and mumbled questions.

Eventually, the path leads her back to her origin – and the name she discovers, ‘her’ name – is that of the character in the anime. Indeed, it might be possible to read the movie as a back-story prequel to the anime.

Despite the flaws, there is much to like here. Sanders reiterates many of the famous anime scenes: the cybernetic finger-enhancements of a secretary, a massive plane slowly passing over trashed-up buildings, Major vanishing into the background as she plummets earthwards. The visual clash between the glittering city of skyscrapers and holograms, set against as the shadowy junkiness of the back alleys, works perfectly.

So even those who are not sci-fi buffs, and have never watched an anime, will find Ghost in the Shell enjoyable. It is not great, but it’s pretty good.

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