Rupert Sanders' remake of Mamoru Oshii's influential anime Ghost in the Shell is disappointing, but what did they expect anyway? The earlier film's ideas about virtual reality, machine intelligence, and the internet have been digested and absorbed and transmuted by nearly every intelligent science fiction film in the past twenty years, from the Wachowski brothers' (now sisters) The Matrix to Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report (his Dreamworks Studios helped produce this picture) to Cameron's Avatar to Spike Jonze Her to Alex Garland's Ex Machina to Paul WS Anderson's Resident Evil movies, not to mention various episodes of Dr. Who, Legion, and Black Mirror (the latter two arguably being the most inventive science-fiction series at the moment)--and that's only titles I can remember. Oshii's film has been remade several times over, through various interesting and even inspired iterations; Sanders is covering ground that's been thoroughly strip-mined, though one wonders if the subject has been well and truly exhausted (Black Mirror suggests maybe not).
Sanders is in an unenviable position--he has to live up to the standards set by a decades old-classic, negotiate the minefield of American and Japanese sensitivities (stumbling right over the most obvious one by casting a Caucasian in what is usually thought of as a Japanese role), tell a complex yet stubbornly undramatic story, and still somehow make his $110 million budget back. The resulting script (officially credited to writers Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, though at least four others are said to have contributed) pulls in several different directions at once: an action thriller, a philosophical epic, a political awakening drama--multitasking mightily like the Wachowski's The Matrix only with less flair (not that I'm a big fan of The Matrix, which emphasized the virtual at the expense of the real).
Some of the effects seem half-hearted: the (fictional) city's skyline is dotted with wan and unconvincing giant holograms that add nothing to the overall look, if anything make the picture look cheap (the budget may seem huge but for an SFX-heavy project it's on the small side, and you see the lack most prominently here). The action sequences are decent if uninspired, the music score forgettable, the production design vivid only towards the latter half, when the holograms give way to desolate ruins and abandoned buildings set presumably in actual Hong Kong (in effect the remake improves the closer it gets to the original's look).
Oshii's film was never known for its voice performances--it had bigger fish to fry--allowing the remake's cast to shine: Juliette Binoche brings a furtive sense of humanity to the tiny supporting role of cybernetic designer Dr. Ouelet; Takeshi Kitano plays Chief Daisuke Aramaki with understated grit and style (Confronting a trio of assassins he quips: "Never send a rabbit to kill a fox!"). As the eponymous 'ghost' (the human consciousness--soul if you like--inhabiting a technologically upgraded body) Major Mira Killian (later Motoko Kusanagi), Scarlett Johansson is suitably robotic, with just the merest whisper of an anguished soul (it's the whispered suggestion that makes her performance intriguing). Her finest moment occurs in a specially added scene, where Mira attempts human contact with a prostitute (Adwoa Aboah). The wonder of the girl's shy glance, her faintly freckled face--Johansson makes us see her through Mira's eyes, and we marvel at her unenhanced beauty.
Perhaps the film's most valuable function as part of the Ghost franchise (aside from the original manga there's a sequel, a 2.0, even a TV show) is to mark the distance between itself and the original. You see the difference early on, in the opening sequence: the spurt of violence, the disrobing, the breathless leap off a building, the various twists and turns in the action--where Sanders strains to ape the moves found in the original, Oshii executes intricate action setpieces with seemingly effortless grace, as if to say "Yes I can be a master at staging and shooting violence--but this isn't my true self, this isn't the real focus of my art."
Oshii's film didn't come out of a vacuum: he took the question asked in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner ("What makes a human human?") melded it to the question asked in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey ("What will the next step in evolution look like?")--both queries first posed by Mary Holy Mother of all Science Fiction in her novel Frankenstein, repeated in various films and novels ever since.
Arguably the key moment in the 1995 film occurs early on, when Motoko muses over a can of San Miguel Pale Pilsen:* "There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure, I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others--but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny...." It's a litany of barely comprehensible ideas but the way Oshii presents them--Mokoto's serenely wide-eyed face framed full-on, the world sliding hypnotically past her--you feel the hairs on your arms and back of your neck rise, as if you were listening to the pronouncement of some primeval spell, a key to unlocking the universe.
It's this glacial yet mesmerizing pace Oshii has developed--and Sanders apparently has no idea exists--that I submit gives the film its subliminal power. Call Motoko's soliloquy the genre's version of The Lord's Prayer: tautologies expressed as simple statements, recited fervently in the hope of divine (or technological) intervention. Oshii's Ghost comes across as a kind of scientific bible, a narrative that reveals to the cyberpunk world in alternate ways its origins, its articles of faith, its ultimate destiny. Sanders' reduces Shirow's ambitious manga into a revolutionary action flick where Mira is freed from the clutches of corporate conspiracy and allowed contact with her real family. A worthwhile cause I'm sure, only it isn't the same film--or rather it isn't a film that's working on the same level.
* (Ostensibly set in the imaginary 'New Port City,' Oshii decided to base the look and feel of the city on Hong Kong, down to the prominently displayed cans of San Miguel, the city's most popular beer (still is apparently)--and, incidentally, a Filipino export)
First published in Businessworld, 4.6.17