How do you improve on one of the greatest anime films ever made? The groundbreaking 1995 original Ghost in the Shell, directed by Mamoru Oshii and based on a manga series by Masamune Shirow, was a masterpiece. Its influence was far-reaching – most notably on The Matrix. But Ghost in the Shell was a challenging watch. For every sH๏τ of a generously breasted naked cyborg plummeting from the top of a building, there was a scene in which characters grappled with knotty philosophical questions. What is the nature of idenтιтy when the brain is souped up with cyber-implants and the soul is reduced to a series of electrical impulses? (Incidentally, the question of why a cyborg would need a gigantic pair of knockers in the first place was left unanswered.)
The cerebral element and the languid pacing initially scared off the non-Japanese audience. The film’s cult success came later, with the video release and slow-building word of mouth. That’s not a route this live-action Hollywood remake can afford to take. To this end, director Rupert Sanders has dialled down the introspection, beefed up the action and tweaked the enigmatic plot with a Wolverine-style origins story that sees augmented cybernetic cop Major Motoko Kusanagi (Scarlett Johansson, a controversial piece of casting that drew accusations of “whitewashing” a Japanese character) delving into her own memory to learn the truth about her creation.
The result may be a more conventional film, but it’s also a more accessible one. And, crucially, it’s not so dumbed down that it loses the ghost of the original’s chilly techno-dread. Johansson dives deep into a tricky role, a character who is as much a sentient weapon as she is a human consciousness. The Danish actor Pilou Asbæk is a solid presence as the Major’s partner, Batou, delivering an unexpectedly soulful turn for a muscle-bound lunk with metal eyes.
The main selling point here is the film’s breathtaking visual impact. References include everything from Blade Runner to Chris Cunningham’s music video for Björk’s All Is Full of Love. But most of all, Sanders pays tribute to the original anime. Both take Hong Kong as inspiration, but looming over this technotropolis are giant holographic figures, as imposing as gods, extorting the people below to buy a lifestyle. Peel back the neon and artifice and there is a maze of cancerous concrete, cyborg chop shops and street dealers peddling implant upgrades. It’s a thrillingly sordid world; I can’t wait to revisit.