“Ghost in the Shell” is no doubt one of the most popular franchises in anime history. The manga by Masamune Shirow has spawned not only one of the most beloved anime films ever made (and subsequent sequels/spinoffs), but also a TV series that spanned more than 50 episodes. With all of the work based on the manga that’s been done already, it was a bit of a surprise (though maybe it shouldn’t have been) that an American studio would want to take a stab at bringing it to the big screen again. Anime is something of a niche market after all, so a big-budget adaptation of even one of the most popular franchises would be a major gamble. However, the strong possibility of a flop didn’t worry Paramount, who has presented us with a $110+ million, live-action “Ghost in the Shell” film in attempt to please not only the fans, but also those who’ve never heard of it before.
Taking place in the near future, technology has advanced to the point where humans can upgrade themselves with cybernetics to give themselves superior abilities. The company responsible for this, Hanka Robotics, has also been working on creating an android with a human brain, a project that was finally accomplished when Milla Killian (Scarlet Johansson), whose body was apparently damaged beyond repair in an attack, has her brain placed inside a mechanical body. Afterward, she becomes a Major for Section 9, a counter-terrorism unit led by Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano). Along with her partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek), she helps to stop an attack on Hanka executives, eventually learning that the attack was a hack executed by someone named Kuze (Michael Pitt). As the Major continues her investigation, she comes to learn the truth of who Kuze really is, a revelation that not only explains recent events, but also comes to explain a lot about her past, a mysterious part of her life that might not have happened the way she remembers it.
As much a gamble as a film like this is, there isn’t really any reason a live-action “Ghost in the Shell” film couldn’t work. Granted, this particular rendition would be an uphill struggle from the very start, what with it being oft-trod territory and the fact that the film is an American adaptation (which might rub anime purests the wrong way), but the material should easily be able to accommodate a live-action version. That being said, the project is primarily going to hinge on how well that material is adapted, and that’s where this latest adaptation begins to falter almost from the very start.
One of the things that made the original animated film such a stand-out work was its intricate plot that holds back just enough to prevent itself from reaching the level of convolution to deliver a compelling and engrossing tale. What we get with Rupert Sanders’ film is an adaptation that feels as though it’s been dumbed down for audiences, telling a story that is obvious and predictable just about every step of the way, even for those who aren’t familiar with these characters and their world. I suppose this shouldn’t come as any surprise given that the writers have little to no experience with material like this. Jamie Moss (“Street Kings”), William Wheeler (“Queen of Katwe”), and Ehren Kruger (“Transformers 2-4”) clearly got a little in over their heads when trying to come up with a suitable way to tell this story, leaving behind the intricacies of the incredible source material and chopping it up to the point where they hoped American audiences would be able to follow along.
Because of this, the final product comes across as quite cold, mechanical, uninvolving, and emotionless. You can hardly blame the actors though, as they are given practically nothing to work with here, leaving talented performances like Scarlett Johansson, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, and Takeshi Kitano to do their best with what they have. Unfortunately, all they have is a film that looks visually stunning, but has practically nothing below the surface to engage the viewer in any capacity, even on a simple entertainment level.
This is basically a project that was already falling apart at its most fundamental level from the start. As mentioned, there is some rich material to draw upon here, and dumbing it down for an audience isn’t going to do it any favors. Then again, it could have simply been the writers’ lack of experience with material like this that led to them churning out a sub-par screenplay. In other words, the complexity of the material might have been a little too much for them. However it happened, this latest attempt to bring back “Ghost in the Shell” doesn’t begin to do justice to the original source, instead leaving us with a forgettable sci-fi romp that looks pretty, but has very little else going for it.
“Ghost in the Shell” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.85:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality. The image is perfectly sharp and clear throughout the presentation, which does a great job of showing off the film’s most accomplished element: its stunning visuals. Likewise, the Dolby Atmos Audio is fantastic, giving you all of the dialogue, score, and sound effects in excellent quality. Overall, it would appear that the film has received the very best treatment possible, leaving you with an unbeatable experience.
Hard-Wired Humanity: Making Ghost in the Shell (30 Minutes): An intriguing featurette that delves into the development of the film, its themes, and its characters.
Section 9: Cyber Defenders (11 Minutes): A featurette that explores Section 9 and its members.
Man & Machine: The Ghost Philosophy (11 Minutes): A featurette that examines the idea of a person’s essence (their “ghost”).
Rupert Sanders’ “Ghost in the Shell” may boast some great visuals, but under the surface there’s little to be found thanks to a screenplay that dumbs down the story and fails to take advantage of the incredible source material, leaving behind an obvious and predictable adaptation that doesn’t connect on even the most basic of levels. With all of the problems that the film was facing when it was first announced, it becomes more than a little ironic that its biggest downfall ended up being something as fundamental as the writing, an element that was ultimately overlooked in favor of something as shallow as the CGI effects.