Led by a resolute Scarlett Johansson, Rupert Sanders' pulse-quickening, formally stunning live-action take on the manga classic both honors and streamlines its source.
In “Ghost in the Shell,” the mind and soul of a brilliant original being are extracted, preserved, and rehoused in a sleek, expensively built, technologically advanced new body, enhancing her original abilities at some cost to her identity. That’s the premise, of course, of the cult manga created by Masamune Shirow in 1989, but it’s also an apt enough description of what has happened with director Rupert Sanders’ fast, flashy, frequently ravishing live-action transmutation.
Spectacularly honoring the spirit and aesthetic of Mamoru Oshii’s beloved animated adaptations without resorting wholly to slavish cosplay, this is smart, hard-lacquered entertainment that may just trump the original films for galloping storytelling momentum and sheer, coruscating visual excitement — even if a measure of their eerie, melancholic spirit hasn’t quite carried over to the immaculate new carapace. Box office returns should be muscular, minting what could be one of the more enticing franchises in a multiplex landscape riddled with robotic do-overs.
“We cling to memories as if they define us, but they don’t. What we do is what defines us.” This line, from a script efficient enough to belie its multi-handed development, is repeated in the film as a guiding mantra for Major Mira Killian, the hybrid human-android cyberterrorism fighter here incarnated as a suitably otherworldly Scarlett Johansson. But the line seems a wily nod by the writers to the fan pushback that an American remake of the Japanese source material was inevitably going to receive when first announced, even before the controversy generated by Johansson’s casting in a role perceived by many as Asian-specific. (In a significant departure from the source, the issue of the character’s cultural appropriation is given a tacit script workaround here that is both rather clever and unlikely to quell debate.)
Sanders, stepping up his game considerably from 2012’s gorgeous but inert “Snow White and the Huntsman,” throws in a few painstaking replicas of shots and images from the 1995 animated version of “Ghost in the Shell” to appease the devoted, but is largely content to let this telling move to its own rhythm — a driving, furious one that brings the complex proceedings in at a snappy 107 minutes. (That may be half an hour longer than the animated original, yet it somehow feels the more restless film.)
From a fleeting shot of clattering, spider-like cyborg fingers to an extended garbage-truck chase, stray images and set pieces from the animated films cleanly compress Shirow’s version of events and structure them, arguably, more along Western lines. This is a world world that, for all its recognizable visual cues, is very much its own iridescent creation, thanks to dazzling design work from Jan Roelfs and costume duo Kurt and Bart. There’s a pleasingly multinational slant to it, too, with an ensemble that runs the gamut from Johansson to Juliette Binoche, and from Danish rising star Pilou Asbaek to veteran Japanese actor-auteur “Beat” Takeshi Kitano — whose own directorial taste for lavishly choreographed carnage gets a respectful wink or two here.
As in the earlier films, the setting is “New Port City,” a kind of composite Asian megalopolis evoking, by turns, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and “Blade Runner’s” Los Angeles, in a so-close-and-yet-so-far future. Major is a highly valued squad commander in elite government counterterrorism unit Section 9, enabled by state-of-the-art robotics corporation Hanka, which is responsible for Major’s own formidable cyborg transformation.
Her creation is detailed here in a series of exquisite introductory images, with skin fused and forged in dripping baths of blood red and milk white (beautiful nightmare fuel reminiscent of Johansson’s more lo-fi deconstruction in “Under the Skin.”) Overseeing the process is genius surgeon Ouélet (a warm, wistful Binoche, bringing more pathos to the role than the script strictly demands), who monitors Major’s activity with something like a mother’s concern. Less sympathetically invested in her wellbeing is Hanka CEO Cutter (Peter Ferdinando): “I don’t think of her as a machine,” he barks. “She’s a weapon, and the future of my company.”
That future, however, is looking a little cloudy at the film’s outset. Mysterious, highly skilled hacker Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt) is on the warpath against Hanka and its scientists, ghost-hacking other cyber-enhanced bodies in a ruthless attempt to sabotage its line of artificial intelligence. Working principally alongside hulking but tender-hearted team member Batou (a winning Asbaek), Major’s simple mission to track him down gets trickier as her own internal technology begins to falter and glitch; through this fragmentation come hints of an unrecognized personal history.
To reveal more would be to enter spoiler terrain even for well-versed “Ghost”-watchers. Suffice it to say that writers Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger have collectively distinguished the new film from its predecessors with a fleshier focus on backstory that yields surprising emotional rewards amid the onslaught of eye candy. Raven-bobbed and brandishing a still-waters stare, Johansson, who also starred in Luc Besson’s 2014 “Lucy,” by now has form in bringing humanity to not-quite-human characters. As the casting discussion rages on, it’s hard to deny that her Major fuses her most internalized and most ass-kicking modes of performance to ideal effect.
Still, it’s as spectacle that “Ghost in the Shell” operates principally and most effectively, as one glittering digital marvel succeeds another, beginning with the most stunningly demented shootout of the lot: rogue robot geisha violently intercepting a corporate conference, disrupted in turn by Major’s team, culminating in a splatterfest of bullets and porcelain. Working from sternly jokeless material, Sanders and his crew save the wit for such formal flourishes. Roelfs’ production design, matching sprawling dystopian squalor to fluorescent, holographic flights of fancy, abounds in playful details within details; Kurt and Bart’s wardrobe of synthetic-chic kimonos and tectonic-plate bodysuits ensure not even a morgue body sheet goes without some subtle fabulousness.
Cinematographer Jess Hall and an army of cartwheeling VFX artists render this universe in the glossiest, glassiest strokes possible. Perhaps the only ones holding back are composers Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe, whose stylish, techno-ominous score is mostly content to skulk in the background, only daring to reference Kenji Kawai’s unshakeable theme for the 1995 film over the closing credits. It’s perhaps the one area where this otherwise exhilarating re-imagination could have dared to plunder its source a little more greedily.