Led by a resolute Scarlett Johansson, Rupert Sanders’ pulse-quickening, formally stunning live-action take on the manga classic both honors and streamlines its source.
In “Ghost in the Shell,” the mind and soul of a brilliant original being are extracted, preserved, and rehoused in a sleek, expensively built, technologically advanced new body, enhancing her original abilities at some cost to her identity. That’s the premise, of course, of the cult manga created by Masamune Shirow in 1989, but it’s also an apt enough description of what has happened with director Rupert Sanders’ fast, flashy, frequently ravishing live-action transmutation.
Spectacularly honoring the spirit and aesthetic of Mamoru Oshii’s beloved animated adaptations without resorting wholly to slavish cosplay, this is smart, hard-lacquered entertainment that may just trump the original films for galloping storytelling momentum and sheer, coruscating visual excitement — even if a measure of their eerie, melancholic spirit hasn’t quite carried over to the immaculate new carapace. Box office returns should be muscular, minting what could be one of the more enticing franchises in a multiplex landscape riddled with robotic do-overs.
“We cling to memories as if they define us, but they don’t. What we do is what defines us.” This line, from a script efficient enough to belie its multi-handed development, is repeated in the film as a guiding mantra for The Major, the hybrid human-android cyberterrorism fighter here incarnated as a suitably otherworldly Scarlett Johansson. But the line seems a wily nod on the writers’ part to the fan pushback an American remake of the Japanese source material was inevitably going to receive when first announced, even before the controversy generated by Johansson’s casting in a role perceived by many as Asian-specific. (In a significant departure from the source, the issue of the character’s cultural appropriation is given a tacit script workaround here that is both rather clever and unlikely to quell debate.)
Sanders, stepping up his game considerably from 2012’s gorgeous but inert “Snow White and the Huntsman,” throws in a few painstaking replicas of shots and images from the 1995 film to appease the devoted, but is largely content to let this telling move to its own rhythm — a driving, furious one that brings the complex proceedings in at a snappy 107 minutes. (That may be half an hour longer than the animated original, yet it somehow feels the more restless film.)
From a fleeting shot of clattering, spider-like cyborg fingers to an extended garbage-truck chase, stray images and set pieces from the animated films have been compiled and collaged into a cleanly compressed version of Shirow’s events that is arguably structured more along Western lines — and into a story world that, for all its recognizable visual cues, is very much its own iridescent creation, thanks to dazzling design work from Jan Roelfs and costume duo Kurt and Bart. There’s a pleasingly multinational slant to it too, with an ensemble that runs the gamut from Johansson to Juliette Binoche, and from Danish rising star Pilou Asbaek to veteran Japanese actor-auteur “Beat” Takeshi Kitano — whose own directorial taste for lavishly choreographed carnage gets a respectful wink or two here.