Ironically enough, Ghost in the Shell is a confused soul that’s forgotten the meaning given to it by its past; trapped within a pretty facade.
Every few years or so, often after a general election, Hollywood becomes possessed by a desire to put out reboots of classic TV shows (CHiPS, Baywatch) and live-action anime/comic remakes with attractive women in as many skintight outfits as the costume department can muster. Ghost in the Shell is not in the same league of badness as something like Catwoman or Aeon Flux but it is a superficial and occasionally trite experience, compounded by the missed opportunities for genuine insight into modern life that were ripe for the picking.
Ghost in the Shell, if you were not already aware, is an adaptation of a very popular Japanese anime/manga series and the second film from director Rupert Sanders, a man who became famous for sleeping with one of his cast members several years ago and has done nothing of note since. As a remake, specifically of the 1995 anime film, it’s unadventurous and as an action film it is almost entirely flat. On the surface, it’s much nicer to look at than most films of its humdrum demeanor but every shot contains a huge amount of informational noise that adds nothing to your understanding, or actual enjoyment, of the scenes. The trick to great science fiction is making your audience believe that every design choice, every practical object, within your fictional universe has a purpose. A backstory, a reason for being there. Ghost in the Shell contains an innumerable swathe of clearly pointless holograms and doodads. Nothing about the film’s world feels cohesive; which would be interesting, considering that it paints a future made up of cultural hybridization, if the film did anything with it.
Ghost in the Shell mentions a plethora of fascinating concepts, like not feeling at home in one’s own body and the evolution of the human psyche away from an analogue existence to a digital one, and then skirts over them completely. It’s a film very often in a hurry to get to an inevitable, and conventional, conclusion. The film’s primary antagonist, established as such in the clearest terms within the film’s opening few minutes, is flavourless and never made out to have any kind of overarching motivation. It may be symptomatic of being adapted from animation but few of the characters ever give you a reason to be invested in what it is they’re attempting to do or their success in doing it. Scarlett Johansson and Pilou Asbæk’s characters, the lead detective and her partner, have enough of a chemistry to sustain the film but the rest of the supporting characters are as cookie cutter as they come. It’s as nice as ever to see Takeshi Kitano, still laying waste to bad guys at age 70, but his presence adds to the film’s most controversial talking point; the casting.
The film does little to establish its setting beyond that of Generic Hollywood Neon Future City so it’s a little confusing to see Kitano, an actor who can speak the odd word of English, being the only character speaking Japanese in the entire film. It’s one of the many nods given to the film’s origins that feel more like bromides. Whether or not the race of the lead actor should have been a moral debate is of little consequence now, it has at the very least ignited important conversations about the role of Asian actors in the American film industry, but Scarlett Johannson certainly feels miscast in the lead role. “The Major” is a character struggling with her inability to feel any kind of emotional connection to her life so it’s quite odd to see Johansson’s emotional versatility wasted on it. She’s simply too charismatic a presence to ever fully come off as a blank slate. Her character makes a spiritual journey throughout the film to self-discovery but there’s very little difference in her performance throughout the film to demonstrate that kind of progression. It becomes increasingly apparent that what the producers wanted out of this film more than anything else, which resulted in Johansson’s casting, is to make a viable franchise. It accounts for most of the noticeable plot differences between this film and the original anime. Like Ghostbusters last year, Ghost in the Shell proves that women can lead mundane CGI vomit just as well as the men but, to most people, this was never in question.
Sander’s directorial style is virtually unnoticeable except for the frequent moments of pointless slow motion that he enjoyed putting in his first film Snow White and the Huntsman. While some of the VFX designs are quite eye-catching there’s very little ingenuity in the music or editing. Ghost in the Shell has a very lukewarm pace that could have been heated up by exploring some of the story’s themes but it appears that no one involved had any desire to do so. Instead, the film seems to consider the criteria for “faithful adaptation” to mean photocopying certain iconic scenes from the 1995 anime, all of which lack the originality and skill which made them famous.
Ghost in the Shell is out now in cinemas.