A few weeks ago, I reviewed the 1995 adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, after my first viewing of the film, as a prelude to this. From the moment it was announced, there were concerns over this film over whether or not it would stay loyal to the spirit of Ghost in the Shell, the casting of Scarlett Johansson and the incredibly generic trailers not helping matters. However, I wanted to give the film the benefit of the doubt. When I was watching the original film, I thought there were a few elements that could be expanded upon with a longer run time (although I have to admit, I’ve not watched any of the other anime films or the TV series) and expansions could help to justify this remake. However, the initial fears of this film were correct. Whilst there are some attempts to replicate the depth of the original Ghost in the Shell, it’s ultimately a hollow, bland experience.
The film focuses on Major Mira Killian, a woman whose brain has been transferred into a cybernetic body following a terrorist attack that killed her family, who is recruited into Section 9, an anti-terrorist arm of the Japanese military. After a series of attacks focusing on Hanka Robotics, the organisation that created the Major’s body, by an entity known as Kuze, questions start to be raised in the Major regarding the true nature of her past and her relationship with Hanka, especially as more information regarding Kuze comes to life. On paper, with an intelligent script, this plot has the potential to follow on the thematic weight of the original Ghost in the Shell, exploring ideas regarding how technology and memory interact with each other and the commodification of people by corporations but the execution of these ideas is really generic. Instead of creating something unique from these ideas, this film just follows the story beats established in films like RoboCop. There is nothing in here that hasn’t been done better in dozens of other films and TV shows. Part of this could be the influence that the original Ghost in the Shell has had on sci-fi since it was released making it so any new version of it would not have the same weight, but a better script would recognise this and work to create something different that we haven’t seen whilst still staying true to Ghost in the Shell, and the most controversial element of the film could have been that. The issue of whitewashing has been prevalent since the casting of Scarlett Johansson was announced. There were calls for a Japanese actress to play the character and feelings that the casting was based more on marketing that creating an effective film. However, the casting of Scarlett Johansson could have created a new string of thematic elements in the film, in much the same way that the original explored themes of the fluidity of gender and questions of humanity, this version could have explored the fluidity of race in a technological aid, even working in the marketing criticism of the casting to create strong elements of satire. Instead, these elements get nothing more that lip service.
On a performance level, the film is a mixed bag. Scarlett Johansson as the Major does a great job showing the inhuman, robotic nature of the character and the growing fascination she has with being truly human, along with the anger she faces as she finds out more about her. This does work to the detriment of the film though as moments that should have been more emotionally powerful, Johansson plays like other scenes with the character which, again, does work for certain scenes (such as this films version of the diving scene from the original) but not for others. As Batou, Pilou Asbæk does a strong job showing the personality of the character and the relationship he has with the Major. His performance is probably the element that comes the closest to matching the original, although we didn’t need the backstory of how he got his robotic eyes. “Beat” Takeshi Kitano meanwhile makes for a strong, authoritative character as Chief Aramaki. The choice to have him speak only in Japanese adds a more mysterious, threatening quality to the character, whilst also showing a strong tactical mind. Michael Pitt as Kuze makes for a strong villain meanwhile, with the CG work done on him helping to create a strong physical presence whilst his line delivery, coupled with the modulation of his voice, creates an element of sympathy, even if we don’t get to fully experience the character once the backstory is revealed. Juliette Binoche gives a strong turn as Doctor Ouelet, the scientist who created the Major’s body, giving the character a motherly, caring aspect that contrasts well with the rest of the characters. The other characters though are pretty forgettable. Togusa, one of the most interesting characters from the first film, is sidelined for this film, only getting one line reflecting his character, if you missed that line you wouldn’t even know Togusa was in this version (plus it’s a waste of the talents of Chin Han). Meanwhile, Peter Ferdinando as Cutter, the head of Hanka, is a pretty generic villain, the stereotypical evil businessman, again just watch RoboCop for a more interesting version of this character. All the other characters are completely one-note, nothing you’ll remember once the film has ended.
The technical side of the film is where the film shines though. As generic as the plot is, Rupert Sanders is a solid director and he does a good job of replicating the style of the original Ghost in the Shell. The production design is excellent, whilst the general air of everything are all things we’ve seen before, the way it’s executed here is excellent and helps to keep you engaged. Part of this is helped through how many elements of the film were done in-camera, such as the geisha robots, which adds an air of authenticity to the world of the film. Good work is done replicating a number of key scenes from the original film in live action, such as the creation of the shell for the Major, the fight in the water with Major in thermoptic camouflage and the spider tank, the direction and effects used for these scenes being excellent, although the latter ones feel more like window dressing than having anything to do with the plot. Another one of the areas where the film is strong is the music, which isn’t really surprising as it’s a Clint Mansell score, incorporating the style of Mansell and the original films score, including the choral score from the opening of the original film in this versions closing credits.
Overall, this version of Ghost in the Shell is just disappointing. Whilst the film is visually incredible, there isn’t any real weight to the story, all the thematic depth the film could, and should, have had is tossed aside in service of a story we’ve seen done to death dozens of times before. This film is the definition of looking pretty and saying nothing and it’s a shame that a film that was originally a pioneer in cyberpunk and influenced a generation of sci-fi has now become a generic slog.
My Rating: 2/5