A few weeks after the release of Beauty and the Beast, and before the future releases of Akira and Aladdin, the release of Ghost in the Shell this week appears like a perfect time to question the incessant need from cinema audiences to see animated movies turned into live action adaptations, whilst reflecting on a trend which dangerously threatens to normalise the future of cinema similarly to the proliferation of mostly identical comic books adaptations.
This Ghost in the Shell adaptation is a prime example of the lack of creativity currently reigning over Hollywood. Since the release of Mamoru Oshii’s first and second anime, respectively in 1995 and 2004, there has been talks about live action adaptations which became somewhat more concrete when DreamWorks bought the rights to the manga in 2008. Since then many attempts were made but nothing really happened, until now…
In the near future, Major (Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind: a human who is cyber-enhanced to be a perfect soldier devoted to stopping the world's most dangerous criminals. When terrorism reaches a new level that includes the ability to hack into people's minds and control them, Major is uniquely qualified to stop it. As she prepares to face a new enemy, Major discovers that she has been lied to, and her life was not saved. Instead, it was stolen.
Ghost in the Shell is based on a manga created by Masamune Shirow made famous by the two aforementioned cult anime directed by one of the greatest directors of the genre. Since these two movies, Ghost in the Shell has also mutated into an enthralling TV series (which could appear as another example of lack of creativity similar to the current trend of adapting movies into TV series, if this practice was not very common in Japan), a new series of OAVs, Ghost in the Shell: Arise, and the new movie directed by Kazuya Nomura. In short, the Ghost in the Shell: Arise is incredibly rich to the point of federating fans from cyber-punk to otakus through aficionados of metaphysical reflexion.
So what about this new adaptation?
Let’s start by the positive aspects. It is clear from the beginning that the team behind the movie has made excruciating efforts to transcribe as faithfully as possible all the visual elements of the previous iterations. Avi Arad - (ex-chief creative officer at Marvel and producer of, among others, Iron Man and Spider-Man) - and his team clearly want audiences to like their adaptation and they have tried to be as respectful as they could to the source material. As a result, all the characters, weapons, vehicles, settings, etc. look identical to the anime. As a good technician with no real vision, Rupert Sanders, whose previous and first feature, Snow White and the Huntsman was also clearly influenced by another anime master’s masterpiece, Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, does a very good job at creating visual postcards which will stick into people’s head. In doing so he also carefully avoids to add anything original, or worth reflecting upon, to this new adaption (very similarly to his Snow White iteration) leading to one of the most frustrating issues of the movie.
Apart from some creative liberties, taken mainly with the Kuze and Cutter’s characters, fans of the anime will most likely just wait for familiar scenes from the Oshii’s anime to crop up from time-to-time to the point of, thanks to the current level of CGI technologies, being exact reproductions of entire shots without an ounce of originality to differentiate this new product from its predecessors.
This is where this adaptation fails completely. In striving to duplicate too much Oshii’s aesthetic landmarks, Sanders is also too faithful and he makes this an obsolete product. Cinema, in particular American cinema, didn’t wait to draw inspiration from Ghost in the Shell since its release in 1995. The Matrix in 1999 was an early example (when the Wachowskis were pitching it to their producers, they famously played them a DVD of Ghost in the Shell and reportedly said: "We wanna do that for real") and since then Hollywood has regularly digested the imagery created by Oshii (Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report for instance). By not considering how these codes have evolved over the past 20 years, Arad and his team go completely against the fundamental principle behind Ghost in the Shell and differentiates it from the brilliant avant-gardism of Oshii’s work. As a result, Ghost in the Shell appears, especially at the end, very artificial in its desire to close the various narrative arcs, while paving the way for not so hypothetical sequels. This finishes to assimilate this new adaptation to superheroes origin stories with a clear ambition to become a franchise easily digested by current audiences that are used to digest mass produced entertainment.
It also appears quickly in the movie that in order to satisfy the spectators, the screenplay chooses to water down, or even erase, much of Oshii’s metaphysical questioning, mixing the intrigues of the first anime and the second season of the series and adding a cliché story about memories. A choice that will surely appeal to spectators looking for mainstream entertainment, but which will terribly frustrate those who hoped to find some of the philosophical implications of Ghost in the Shell or, even better, new ones. This definitely makes the final product much closer to a cyberpunk version of Robocop than a reinterpretation of the brilliant work of Oshii.
What to retain of this new adaptation then? Spectators who have not been exposed to the previous material will most certainly enjoy this Ghost in the Shell for dummies whilst fans of the anime will most likely rejoice at the succession of familiar scenes reproduced shot-by-shot. Some, like me, will look at this with polite boredom whilst grieving the slow death of challenging cinema...
Ghost in the Shell for dummies