Ghost in the Shell is a ‘remake’ of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated sci-fi thriller which was the inspiration for the Wachowski’s Matrix films and itself based on a manga by Masamune Shirow. The original film spawned an animated sequel of sorts, a two season animated TV series which was effectively a very long prequel and the original film was released in a remastered ‘2.0’ version in 2008.

More recently there was a re-imagined Arise anime series using the original characters in an altered retelling which, due to my lack of awareness, I haven’t seen. I heard it was a bit pants though, so maybe I won’t bother.

I went to see the new film which stars Scarlett Johannson twice this weekend. Once with Siggy after a few beers on Saturday night and then on Sunday evening with Biggles after watching the original anime in the morning. I should have been at the gym but that’s another story.

The film is visually stunning. A veritable cinematic treat for the eyes very much true to the style of the original with great cityscapes, use of colour and abstract images in places. The makers avoid the ‘matrix style’ green computer data flows in favour of reds and yellows – anything but the original film’s signature green ‘borrowed’ by the Wachowskis – but it’s a minor thing in comparison to all the other visuals on offer.

The costumes, character styling and vehicle design match the orignal very well, although the original film includes a lot of nipples. It seems that a decision was made to remove the nipples in the remake to get down from a 15 to 12A certificate (the violence is still there if slightly less messy than the anime). Perhaps Johannson frowns so much in the film because she’s wondering where the hell her nipples went, but why would an android have nipples anyway?

Here’s a trailer for the original:

Clint Mansell does a great job with a buddy in creating the music for the new film. It sounds kind of Eighties in places while still also sounding futuristic. The soundtrack is one of the most memorable things about the original and so the new score had to be comparable.

We’re travelling into spoiler territory now and so before this ramble goes any further I recommend you see the original and the new version. You’ll be surprised how complex the shorter original anime is in comparison to the visually stunning remake.

Here’s the trailer for the new film:

Having Beat Takeshi as Aramaki the head of Section 9 is great casting and he uses the revolver rather than it being used by the almost completely human cop Togusa who plays a much lesser role in the remake. In the previous outings, Togusa is very much the token human who holds old fashioned values and the retro pistol. He is provided to the audience in previous material as the ‘normal’ guy so they have someone to associate with among all the technologically altered characters.

The political asylum and diplomatic storyline is mostly dropped in the new version. The hacker is not referred to as The Puppet Master and the conflict between Sections 6 and 9 isn’t featured. The filmmakers have taken key scenes and images from the original film, manga and TV show and built a slightly altered story around them.

The fight in the flooded area, the plane flying in the slot of sky over the city buildings, the dive from off the top of building, the robotic construction of the Major’s body, free diving in the ocean and the shoot out with the spider tank are all key scenes copied from the original.

In the original, the ghost-hacked robot is an interpreter not a geisha robot and then a second robot turns up containing the hidden ghost of the puppet master who demands political asylum rather than extradition to America. Megatech is the technology company in the original who makes and maintains the cyborgs, for some reason this is changed in the remake. Perhaps for legal reasons?

The dustbin men from the start of the original show up later in the remake as potential assassins rather than hacking relays and there’s no mention of anyone doing any ghost hacking apart from the mysterious hacker. The guy who thinks he has a wife and child because he’s the victim of a ghost-hack is a key point as it demonstrates how far technology has gone. The communal hacked brain network featured briefly in the remake is more akin to the Laughing Man story-line of the TV show than of the Puppet Master story-line of the old film.

‘There’s nothing sadder than a puppet without a ghost’ they say in the original and what they mean by ghost is more akin to our idea of a soul. The remake is at pains to explain this away quickly in the opening scenes with some pithy lines delivered by Juliette Binoche.

Batou gets his artificial eyes during the story as opposed to already having them and his basset hound is a nod to the wider canon. Glimpses of the awkward relationship between him and the Major are in the remake but there is far less philosophical dialogue and none of the poetical monologue or outward evidence from the major that she is carrying something inside her. In the remake this is very much internalized although she does comment that she’s been hallucinating or having ‘glitches’ as she puts it. Remember the glitchy cat in The Matrix? Well there’s a cat hallucination in this film which seems a rather silly nod to the other film.

The Major’s existentialist angst is shown through Johansonn’s frowning face and her quiet moments of contemplation rather than exposed through clunky lines. Show don’t tell, right? I’m sure it will upset a few fans though.

The original, despite all the futuristic stuff, seems to portray a closer near-future than the remake with its huge holograms projected across the nighttime cityscapes. However the vehicles are nicely old fashioned e.g. The Delorian (I think), and it was nice to see the briefcase machine guns and of course the Predator-like thermoptic camouflage. I’m not sure why everything isn’t wireless in this future state, but we’ll gloss over that and move along.

The smoking female scientist is taken from the wider canon, the female cockney Section 9 character is absent from the original and the character Saito, who is a pretty important team member in the TV show, makes only fleeting appearances and then finally shows off his powerful sniper skills near the end of the film.

The idea that a human is defined by their unique memories regardless of where this is stored (hardware, software, wetware) is the main concept explored by the remake through the Major’s search for her original true identity and has parallels some with Bladerunner. A scientist argues with the Major that she should be defined by her actions rather than her memories, but that doesn’t sit well with the Major. In the original there are no memory-suppressing drugs and the Major quite clearly knows her name is Motoko Kusanagi. In the remake she thinks her name is something completely different and only very late in the film discovers her real name.

In the original, Batou helps the Major dive into the torso of a ‘puppet’ holding the ghost of the Puppet Master after fighting the spider tank. The Puppet Master spills the beans about his programming and desire to meet the Major and merge with her to create a new and unique unlimited entity and bear offspring into the vast and infinite network.

The Puppet Master in the original never had a body – he was a living thinking entity created by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as ‘project 2501’ in a sea of information. The idea that the hacker was someone, who ended up with a similar cyborg body, that the Major knew before she became a cyborg is a simplification introduced in the remake to tighten the narrative arc.

The end of the remake which sees the Major remain in the physical world involves a rejection of cyberspace in favour of physical reality – something that is a strong theme in The Matrix but contradicts the original film in which the Major is physically destroyed and then rebuilt in black market child’s shell by Batou and then, after explaining that she has changed (through merging with the Puppet Master), leaves him.

I can understand why hardcore fans of the original would dislike this revisionism as it strips away one of the interesting layers of the original and replaces it with a much simpler well-trodden ‘who am I?’ trope (e.g. the Bourne trilogy). But I don’t think it should detract from the fact that the remake is very faithful in many other ways and is a beautiful bit of cinema more ‘out there’ than most of the blockbuster dross we’ll see this year.