The Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell isn’t just one of the most acclaimed science-fiction cartoons ever made, it’s one of the most acclaimed science-fiction films, full stop. Conceptually and visually breathtaking, Mamoru Oshii’s cyberpunk detective flick bridged the gap between analogue blockbusters and digital ones, between Blade Runner and The Terminator, with their cyborgs and androids, and The Matrix and Avatar, with their body-swaps and virtual realities. The makers of The Matrix, in particular, were happy to acknowledge that they were following in Oshii’s future-noir footsteps.
The question is, then, is it worth bothering with a belated live-action version? Considering that the cartoon is now a cult classic, and that several other films have taken its innovations and run with them, can a mega-budget Hollywood remake have anything of its own to offer? The answer to both questions is a definite yes.
The core concepts are no longer as jaw-dropping as they were 22 years ago
It’s true that the core concepts are no longer as jaw-dropping as they were 22 years ago. Back in 1995, it was much weirder to see a world in which everyone was plugged into a network so that they could communicate and access information at the speed of thought. But the plotting has been updated and expanded deftly. Sacrilegious as may be to say it, the original anime Ghost in the Shell always felt as if it would have benefited from an extra half-hour’s running time. There were all sorts of characters and bureaucratic organisations which were introduced at exhausting length, only to vanish without trace. At 80 minutes, it came across as the opening chapter of a sprawling saga, rather than a complete story. In contrast, the new film, scripted by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger (and, reportedly, many others), explores and resolves its ideas satisfyingly - which is not to say that it won’t lead to a sequel or three.
Scarlett Johansson plays a woman who was so grievously injured in a terrorist attack that only her brain could be saved. Fortunately for her, it was then transferred to a smooth, shiny, manufactured body which happened to be the same shape as Scarlett Johansson’s. If that weren’t enough of an upgrade, her state-of-the-art chassis comes with built-in super strength and camouflaging technology. (The parallels with Robocop, and with Frankenstein, are more explicit than they were in the anime.) Left with only a few murky memories of her previous life, the woman is code-named the Major and recruited by the Government’s heavily armed anti-terrorism response squad, Section 9.
A year later, the very scientists who built this bionic woman are being assassinated. Their own robots are being reprogrammed and turned against them by a mysterious hacker (Michael Pitt) who bears a distinct resemblance to Julian Assange, as portrayed in The Fifth Estate. Together with her ragtag teammates, the Major investigates by dropping into sleazy back-alley bars and sending her consciousness zipping through cyberspace, uncovering the secrets of her own past along the way.
Doom and gloom
The new Ghost in the Shell is a lot more coherent than the old one. Both a nightmarish body horror-movie and a hard-boiled conspiracy thriller, it slots in plenty of images and scenes from the anime, while forging a narrative of its own (something which another film adapted from a 1990s cartoon, Beauty and the Beast, woefully failed to do). Perhaps the writers have gone too far in spelling out their themes. Some of the clunky expositional dialogue will have purists wincing, and they’ll certainly roll their eyes when one character explains the title: “Your body – your shell – may be synthetic, but your soul – your ghost – is still in it.” But it’s probably for the best that the film’s story is reasonably straightforward when the spectacle and atmosphere it conjures up are so extraordinary.
I was afraid I was going to have a panic attack
It’s all set in one overcrowded Hong Kong-like metropolis. Any space that isn’t taken up by skyscrapers is taken up by skyscraper-sized holograms which loom like indifferent deities over the dark streets. There are road markings which change as you drive towards them, there are monstrous people with metal arms who could have wandered in from Judge Dredd (the comic strip, that is, not either of the films), and there are grimy, rubbish-strewn neighbourhoods in the shadow of gleaming glass corporate tower blocks. It’s a city which is defined by artificiality: you never know if you’re talking to a human, a cyborg, a robot or a hologram. And yet, paradoxically, this elaborately designed and detailed dystopia seems disturbingly real. I saw the film in 3D on an Imax screen, and there were times when it was so vertiginous and oppressive that I was afraid I was going to have a panic attack.
Be warned, though: anyone who is irritated by the doom and gloom in DC’s recent superhero outings will be infuriated by Ghost in the Shell, which is often grim and portentous enough to make Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice look like The Lego Batman Movie. Its director, after all, is Rupert Sanders. His debut, Snow White and the Huntsman, took a whimsical fairy tale and made it into a particularly dour episode of Game of Thrones, and he hasn’t lightened up since then.
Another striking aspect of his vision is how multi-ethnic it is. The cast includes a French woman (Juliette Binoche) as the harried, maternal doctor who brought the Major back to life, a Danish man (Pilou Asbaek) as the Major’s tough and loyal sidekick, and a Japanese man (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano) as her commanding officer. Johansson’s casting was controversial, because her character has been changed from Asian to Caucasian, but in the context of the diverse society presented by the film, it works. It’s also undeniable that, having starred in Lucy, Under the Skin and The Avengers, Johansson is the obvious choice to play a troubled, not-quite-mortal fighting machine, even if her jerky, robotic gait takes some getting used to.
The other characters have more personality than their animated counterparts did, but they are still too sketchy to register as individuals you can care about. They are essentially walking, talking action figures, and their stylish blankness makes Ghost in the Shell easier to admire than to love. The film could have had slightly more humour and humanity beneath its surface: more of a ghost in its shell, in other words. But what a stunning shell it is.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.