This latest incarnation of the Ghost in the Shell story sees Major Mira Killian (Johansson) working as an elite operative of the anti-terrorist agency Section 9. Killian, whose parents were killed in a terrorist incident has, understandably, both a personal and professional investment in her work.
Killian was also nearly lost in the attack that killed her parents, but she was saved by Hanka Robotics. They made her the ‘first of her kind’ – a human brain transplanted into a fully augmented, cybernetic body. She’s seen as the future of humanity by Hanka – but also the future of their company. The story strays some way from the anime original, but many of the core themes remain intact. Themes of self, identity, consciousness and the concept of the soul – or ‘ghost’ . . .
. . . sort of. Ghost in the Shell touches upon these themes, but only very lightly. It doesn’t stray too far from the more action oriented experience general audiences will expect – perhaps understandable, given its budget and the risks involved in selling a Japanese manga/anime adaptation to a Western audience.
That said, the action in Ghost in the Shell never overshadows the plot. It’s used thoughtfully, appropriately and the film, overall, is well paced and strikes a good balance between drama and action. Many of the action scenes are directly lifted from the anime original – most notably, the final confrontation.
It successfully weaves these scenes into its own variation of the original plot. These scenes are adequately shot but not particularly impressive, though I am thankful they remain grounded within the reality of the world and the Major’s capabilities.
Visually, Ghost in the Shell looks quite impressive – but that’s to be expected. The visuals, the world, the technology, costumes and weapons are easily the strongest components of the film. Unfortunately, the story and more importantly the characters, are its weakest.
If there’s one good aspect to the story, it’s that you don’t have to be a fan of previous incarnations of Ghost in the Shell to understand what the hell is going on. The film does a good job of explaining the world, concepts and characters to an unfamiliar audience. That said, this version of the story has little to no surprises, even for an unfamiliar audience.
But whilst the plot is sadly predictable and by the numbers (and doesn’t explore the original themes of the manga or anime to a degree some fans may desire) that wouldn’t be such an issue if the characters were better handled.
The majority of the supporting characters are poorly developed and receive little attention and screen time, which is a real shame. Especially in the case of Batou (Pilou Asbæk) who brings genuine heart and humour to his role, and plays exceptionally well against this more ‘stoic’ interpretation of the Major.
Now, it should be noted that it’s been such a long time since I saw the original anime, that my general ‘impression’ of the Major character is more likely based around the SAC series. But I don’t recall the original Major being quite so . . . bland. The plot may be playing the ‘I can’t remember my past’ angle, but that’s no excuse for the Major to be little more than a dull, blank slate.
There are brief flashes of personality, but these are too few and far between. It’s a real problem, because the Major is the character we should be connecting with, yet she remains disconnected not only from her fellow characters, but also the audience. I understand this feeling of disconnection is an important element of the plot and her character, but we needed to see more of her, of who she is once you strip the machine away – to see her ‘ghost’.
But the film sadly lacks this important connection, and it’s what the audience needs to go on this journey of self-discovery with the Major. Without it, everything falls a little flat despite the great visuals and solid, if unspectacular action.
Though not a bad film, it’s hard to recommend Ghost in the Shell, because I don’t really know who it’s aimed at. Fans of the original may be pleased to see a big budget adaptation, but may also be displeased at the changes to the story, characters and the lack of exploration of the original themes.
And I’m not sure audiences unfamiliar with the original will find much to connect with, either. The visuals are nice, the action is competent, but the story and characterisation are weak. As a result, the film is ultimately rather forgettable and bland. It’s kind of lifeless and, rather ironically, lacks an identity of its own.