• ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (2017)

    Almost three decades ago, artist and writer Masamune Shirow created the manga Kōkaku Kidōtai, or Mobile Armored Riot Police: The Ghost in the Shell (1989), posing questions of humanity, memory and self against a background of geo-politics, robotics and information technology. Though later expanded by Shirow and others across a variety of media, it was filmmaker Mamoru Oshii’s anime adaptation Ghost in the Shell (1995) that became the touchstone incarnation for most audiences. Its fluid animation, dynamic camerawork and intriguing philosophy ensured that a live-action remake was posited from the outset – one critic immediately pronounced it “the kind of film James Cameron would make if Disney ever let him”. Now, finally, that iteration is here…

    Directed by Rupert Sanders from a script by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, the new release does includes material from that wider GITS universe and so cannot be considered a straight translation of the anime; it is, though, to Oshii’s ground-breaking work that Sanders’ film will inevitably be compared. Of course the writers have altered elements of all these sources in any event, and the very first scenes demonstrate this.

    Introducing the lead character of the Major (Scarlet Johansson), an opening crawl identifies her as a one-off, a successful experiment to implant a human brain into a wholly artificial body to create the proverbial super soldier. Leaving aside the simplification of the soul/ghost and body/shell concepts, both manga and anime explicitly depict the Major as a police officer, with a body or shell that is by no means unique – a point made with great eloquence by Oshii when she glimpses an office girl with the same face. The significance of each of these changes becomes clearer as the film progresses.

    What follows, on the other hand, is a faithful, subtle and beautifully lyrical interpretation of the ‘shelling sequence’ that began the anime. As neurons grow and artificial skin flows, shots are bathed in blocks of glowing colour to an ambient soundtrack by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe that includes tantalising phrases from Kenji Kawai’s powerful and much-loved 1995 score. It turns out to be the most persuasive moment of the entire film, though closely followed by the next, which again borrows from its precursors.

    As the Major literally gate-crashes a night-time meeting in a tower block with a balletic backward dive from its roof and a swing through a window – achieved, quite clearly and logically (since the Major is not Superman), by a tether in the anime but seemingly by magic here – her thermoptic camouflage suit disrupts first the holographic advertisements decorating its exterior and then the shattered glass, all three dissolving into a slow-motion kaleidoscope. It’s a dazzling and powerful moment, and leads to a wuxia-style gunfight that nods to the 1995 anime but incorporates the robotic geisha from Oshii’s sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004).

    It is from this moment on, however, that the amendments to and departures from the primary source start to intrude and frustrate, whilst never attaining a coherence that might allow the film to stand on its own merits.

    Thus whilst Shirow and Oshii (through Kazunori Ito’s screenplay) had the Major and her team as an internal security force working mostly with other government departments but sometimes finding itself their unsuspecting puppet, the new film replaces this thematic and prescient richness with two very tired cyberpunk tropes, the unscrupulous corporation and the evil superior. Unhelpfully the latter is not even well defined, being named ‘Cutter’ in the film but ‘Secretary Cutter’ in promotional material, suggesting a governmental link, and is performed (by Peter Ferdinando) as a cliché. Such a lack of confidence is particularly disappointing in the wake of, say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), whilst if anything of Shirow’s and Ito‘s writing is relevant to today’s post-Snowden/Assange/Trump world, it must surely be this. Having the Major branded a terrorist at a later stage feels like forced relevance..

    Far more concerning is the ‘search for her past’ backstory given to the Major, or rather the fact that the character is actually deemed to need a backstory at all. Although a previous life is alluded to in the manga and the anime, in neither is where she came from anywhere near as critical as where she is going and what she might be becoming. Sanders’ film soon becomes weighed down with these questions and a pursuit of their answers that is not only uninteresting and derivative (of RoboCop (1987) and The Bourne Identity (2002), to name but two scripts) but which ought to have been redundant given the many possibilities set out by Shirow.

    With the film now forced to explore two plot points that are already depressingly familiar, it becomes less and less interesting for the viewer, not least due to the lazy and often clunkily repetitive and expositional dialogue. There is nothing here to compare to the highly effective blend of accessible meditation on life and convincing personal interplay that characterised Ito’s words, or indeed the variant but still occasionally resonant English-language version (by Taro Yoshida) with which Oshii’s film was released in the West.

    Even the crucial tech-speak sounds awkward and unreal although, having established the Major’s specialness, the film does at least forge a clear and consistent continuum that starts at humans with minimal cybernetic enhancements (including Togusa, the Major’s colleague, nicely played by Chin Han), progresses through those with extensive robotic additions and then has the Major firmly at its opposite end, but its depiction is often crude. This is seen most obviously in the nightclub scene, with various patrons sporting metal arms and jaws that seem to have been inspired by the world inhabited by Mad Max rather than the Major. Here, too, in fact, is a clue to one of the film’s other flaws. A decision was made to bring Shirow’s and Oshii’s worlds to the screen as though realised in the time they were originally made, that is the late 80s and early 90s. There are therefore no cell phones or internet, cars are deliberately dated, and so on. Wireless technology is also absent, which whilst allowing the franchise’s signature visual image of nape sockets and connecting wires does make for a disconcerting reaction from any viewer expecting a film to be of its time rather than the time of its inspiration.

    And, again, one problem leads to another, since the film as a whole adopts a hopelessly confused and over-busy styling when depicting the place in which it is set that leads – ironically – to the same loss of identity that afflicts the Major.

    The manga was located in the fictional New Port City, Japan and the anime a future Hong Kong; both were highly effective in building a sense of place. Sanders choses to be carefully non-specific about his environment in terms of its location and name, a perfectly valid choice but one that nevertheless still requires a believable vision of metropolitan life to be forged. Unfortunately he fails to do this. Almost every shot of the city, whether skyline or streetscape, is a seemingly random confusion of ideas and images, including neon, smoke, vehicles, colour, vast holographic advertisements and even giant fish ‘swimming’ between buildings. Many appear taken from filmic speculative fictions of the past forty years. There is no unity, no chance for the eye to rest and absorb the detail beyond fleeting impressions and no reality. The ‘gaps’ between production techniques – models, CGI, locations shooting – are plain and add further clutter. It is clear that Sanders must have been aiming for the dense yet permeable texture of Blade Runner (1982), but what he has ended up presenting is the frenzied and unoriginal chaos of Judge Dredd, released the same year as Oshii’s film.

    Film-making has moved on, and the material also sometimes demands a different approach. It seems clear here that taking an existing city and enhancing it just a little would have been far more productive and yielded a far better atmosphere, emulating for example the sharp clarity of the city shown in Michael Bay’s The Island (2002, underrated in this respect and co-incidentally also starring Johansson), the Tokyo glimpsed briefly in Inception (2010) or Vincenzo Natali’s Cypher (2002). Parts of the film were shot in Hong Kong, with the distinctive Jardine and Bond buildings visible, and a few shots do work – a down-angle of a canyon between buildings, an amphitheatre cemetery – but these are rarities. The wildly varied tonality of Jess Hall’s cinematography hardly helps.

    Overall Sanders’ shot choice and camera placement are uninspired and flat, another irony given it was Oshii’s importation of Western movie-making’s direction to the anime format that secured his recognition. Re-watching Oshii’s film today still reveals surprises, imagination and moments of great beauty.

    BELOW: Selective focus, deep focus, composing for the frame - Oshii's anime

    Sanders does seek to echo Oshii in his recreation of the two other action scenes from the 1995 film – the garbage truck firefight and the spider tank battle, and the results speak volumes as to the profound cognitive dissonance that plagues the film.

    Though initiated in a different way, the first duly unfolds in line with the anime, with Sanders matching Oshii almost shot for shot and once or twice achieving exactly that. The second, though, probably the most-anticipated sequence of the film from a purely visual standpoint, is a failure. Shot in low-contrast darkness that produces the opposite problem to the cityscapes – the eye now searches for anything at all that it can register – and again tied in to a storyline that itself irritates, it has none of the ferocity of the original even as Johansson adopts the exact same poses. And as the effective climax to the new film, the scene contains the final betrayal of the Shirow/Oshii/Ito original.

    Shadowing the Major throughout has been Kuze, essentially brought in from the GITS television series as a personification of the Puppet Master/Project 2501 (bizarrely rendered here as ‘2571’) from the first anime. Admittedly well realised for that purpose, with artistically-marked armour/skin, an elegant bodily artificiality that extends to his voice and a good performance from Michael Pitt beneath all of this, the bewilderment that ensues when Kuze is revealed not only to be that other well-worn SF trope, the failed prototype, but also someone with a particular link to the Major is profound. Their joint past, explained and resolved – especially in the case of the Major – in some extraordinarily mawkish scenes, is a spectacular misjudgement even if logical in the strict context of the film.

    Traducing the ending from the anime and manga in favour of a path to self-fulfilment that is all-American rather than very Japanese is the final insult, though it may provide justification, if any is required, for the casting of Johansson in what has been seen by some as an Asian part. Given all of this, it will come as no surprise that one of the most powerful and specifically relevant images of the anime, the Tree of Life from the climactic battle, is reduced to literal window dressing.

    Johansson is reasonably effective but the is under-written and trite; strikingly, her choice of and performance in Lucy (2014) now seems less like prescience in relation to a future live-action GITS and more like insurance against it going wrong. The similarly promising presence of ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano as Aramaki, the Major’s commander, also proves exasperating; in an ill-defined role, he shifts uneasily from sage-like pronouncement to heroic gunfighter and suffers a final scene that makes little sense. Pilou Asbaek as Batou, the Major’s back up, fares better but none of the other members of Section 9 make any impression.

    Deeply unsatisfactory in every sense – as a remake of the anime, as a film with any real freshness and as a mainstreamed Hollywood-ised product – Sanders’ film proves to be less than the sum of its parts. It jettisons unpardonably the nuanced discussion of life, death and what might come after that are fundamental to the anime or manga, and has no self-sustaining vision that is the maker’s own in compensation. Whilst it is possible, still, to understand the desire to make such a thing, it must be accounted a failure.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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