Now, if I had never heard of "Ghost in the Shell," I would think that the new film from Rupert Sanders, about a cyborg woman named Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johanssen), was a perfectly typical sci-fi action thriller. The story, involving a corrupt technology company, a killer on the loose, and the Major looking for answers about her past, is mediocre but serviceable. The hologram infested Asian cityscapes look like a variation on the ones from "Blade Runner," and the stylish action sequences are similar to what you'd expect from "Resident Evil" or "John Wick." It's only the effects work used to realize the robots and cyborgs that stand out. Sanders knows how to deliver some striking images, if nothing else.
The trouble is, of course, that I'm very, very familiar with the "Ghost in the Shell" universe, enough to realize that Sanders is too. And as a fan of the property, the choices that he makes with this new film adaptation often border on the bizarre. He more or less relays an original story, but then uses existing pieces of the anime films and television series to tell it, including several extremely faithful recreations of shots and scenes from the original 1995 "Ghost in the Shell" film. And I don't mean just once or twice, but at least a dozen instances of directly lifting images from the original. Of course, that just made the problems with the new film more obvious.
The story is dumbed down, which I expected to some extent, as "Ghost in the Shell" is notorious for its heady existential and philosophical storylines about the blurring of the lines between man and machine. Mira questions her existence in about the most basic and straightforward terms possible, by searching for a past she doesn't remember. However, the way the film contrives to give her satisfying answers is pretty dodgy, especially as it puts some racial identity issues uncomfortably at the forefront of the story - which the film would have probably been better off ignoring because it fails to deal with them in any meaningful way. Johanssen's performance is decent enough, but the character of the Major feels compromised and diminished.
What the film does get right, however, are several of the side characters, namely the Major's partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek), a much more relatable human figure who makes an excellent secondary protagonist, and Chief Aramaki (Beat Takeshi), who runs the militarized security force that the pair work for. Takeshi is allowed to be a proper badass while never obligated to utter a single word in English. The main villain Kuze (Michael Pitt), is also given a few good moments, but is otherwise underdeveloped. He's a very odd choice of villain when you look at the other franchise favorites that "Ghost in the Shell" had to choose from. I suspect he would have been more successful if he'd been an entirely original creation.
Again, I want to emphasize that a newcomer to this material likely wouldn't have the same reaction to the film. However, this feels like a movie made for the fans, as it includes so much that only the fans would notice and appreciate. The filmmakers were clearly concerned with fidelity to their source material, but only up to a point. Similar to Zack Snyder's "Watchman," all the little details and homages are perfect, but the larger work is lacking. And it's very difficult to enjoy the things that the film did right, like the beautiful update on the opening sequence, when the fundamental themes are so mishandled. It's frustrating to see so much misplaced ambition, so many good intentions that ultimately came to naught.
The live action "Ghost in the Shell" isn't the disaster I was preparing myself for, but it is a significant disappointment nonetheless, and there's plenty of blame to go around. As Hollywood continues to run into trouble adapting Japanese media, I have to wonder how feasible similar projects are going to be in the future. In some ways, "Ghost in the Shell" had every advantage and everything going for it - big stars, a big budget, and director with his heart in the right place. But in many ways, they was the reason for the film's downfall too.