When an adaptation from a book or manga/anime is made for the silver screen, there's always a problem in terms of how it approaches the original source material. Clearly there's going to be a certain amount of adoration towards the original work, and there's also usually healthy respect towards its fans; as such it limits the artistic freedom of the director, at least to some extent. You don't want to misrepresent the original, especially if it's a cult classic with adoring fans. Finding a balance between respecting the past and stepping forward into the future is therefore nearly always a challenge.
In the case of Ghost in the Shell, the new movie directed by Rupert Sanders, we face an even more complex and delicate situation. Inspired by the manga created by Masamune Shirow - from which several anime and animated film adaptations, beginning with the one directed by Mamoru Oshii back in 1995, have already been made - the new live-action film directed by the English director (his second film after 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman) seems to try two different things; it's both a reverent tribute to the adaptations that precede it (for example, we think that the opening in Sanders' movie is almost exactly the same as the one in Oshii's animated film), while on the other hand it tries to enrich the action by infusing it with some Western flavour (most obviously with the way it has been cast).
The original masterpiece by Shirow has always blurred the boundaries between eastern and western cultures and philosophies, mixing cyberpunk atmosphere with an intriguing reflection on the meaning of body (the shell) and soul (the ghost). Having said that, fans of the series were still concerned about this adaptation, that it might stray too far from its roots. A big part of this was the casting of the main character, played by Scarlett Johansson, who has in some quarters been called unsuitable to play the role of the iconic Motoko Kusanagi (here called Mira Killian), aka The Major.
Yet, in spite of these concerns, the performance of Johansson is perhaps one of the most interesting things about the film, and she offers a credible interpretation of The Major, where the great internal conflict that defines the character is made extraordinarily clear. Although she knows she's only a weapon, created and brought to life for purely military purposes, The Major lives with her duality, trying to reconcile her two identities as they fight each other to take the upper hand.
The human vs machine conflict is an important foundation in the film and is addressed in a fascinating way through Johansson's character, but the big issue in Ghost in the Shell is mainly the shallow way in which these themes are touched upon. Although characterised by strong personalities with clear intentions, Sanders' film - perhaps because it is forced to condense so many important themes into just two hours - constantly finds itself struggling, crushed between its intriguing and colourful cyberpunk/thriller vibe, and a deliberately slower pace. The intent of the latter was probably to help the viewer with its intricate plot, but in the end it doesn't capture the actual substance that defined Shirow's original work. The different speeds at which the film moves - a stunning and extraordinary futuristic city shown via well-paced editing, versus a heavily diluted plot - ensures a rather confused and ambiguous film, where the most important theme of the original work gets a little lost.
Although from a visual perspective Ghost in the Shell is an intriguing, almost irresistible film, offering an artistically rich vision that's soaked in cyberpunk style, its uniqueness doesn't venture beyond its artistic intent. It might look fantastic, but it's completely empty inside. Even a decent performance from Scarlett Johansson wasn't enough to make this a great adaptation, and the new film by Rupert Sanders doesn't compare all that favourably to Shirow's masterpiece. Even if it entertains by offering a series of evocative and chromatically stunning scenarios, Ghost in the Shell still struggles to satisfy, in the end leaving us with a film that might well intrigue those who don't know much about its origins, but that probably won't do much to satisfy those who know and love the original.