Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell
Ghost in the Shell
Directed by Rupert Sanders
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han and Juliette Binoche
On UK Digital Download July 24th, 2017
Watch on iTunes

by Richard Hamer

As a live-action adaptation of a critically acclaimed, animated classic, Ghost in the Shell has some terribly big shoes to fill. With slow-moving, metaphysical content that almost defies adaptation, and a rapid fan-base keen to see few changes, Ghost in the Shell feels like a project calculated to fail. How can it possibly live up to the original?

Of course, it is important when writing a critique like this to, at some point, separate the movie from its inspiration: Constant comparison not only prevents us evaluating Ghost in the Shell on its own merits, but also assumes the original as some unassailable masterpiece, rather than a real film with real flaws (my take: while I fully appreciate the impact of the ’95 original, I find it to be an often dreary, characterless movie by a director – Mamoru Oshii – who specialises in making dreary, characterless movies). What matters with Ghost in the Shell isn’t simply whether it has ‘changed stuff’, nor even whether those changes are ‘better’ or ‘worse’: What matters is that they have a depth, and an identity of their own.

Sadly, they do not. Ghost in the Shell has little richness to its world beyond the purely visual. While its urban sprawl impresses, with its rain-washed streets and towering, holographic advertisements, the society within is barely textured; the implications of a world of cybernetic enhancement, of brains that can be hacked and human beings that can be upgraded, is thoroughly underexplored. Scarlet Johansson’s Major mulls over the worth of memories when memories can be so readily rewritten, but does so with little conviction. Overlong intro text, and painfully on-the-nose dialogue abound in a movie that seems to have little idea on how to present its themes, other than directly to camera.

So what remains is a serviceable sci-fi thriller; one that fails to surprise, but does at least manage to excite. Action sequences are brief but punchy, and efforts have been made to improve on the original’s somewhat cold storytelling by really personalising the jeopardy. And when it chooses to recreate set-pieces from the anime, such as the Spider Tank battle or the camouflage chase sequence, it does so with aplomb. Taken purely as an action movie, Ghost in the Shell succeeds, for the most part.

But of course, one cannot talk about Ghost in the Shell without touching on the accusations of white-washing that have plagued it since its announcement. Now, while the presence of Johansson in the lead role had little effect on my enjoyment (that I am both a) white and b) not hugely enamoured with the source material is likely relevant here), I can absolutely appreciate that for many it might. What did bother me is how they addressed it: That they chose to make the entire cast international (with English, Danish, and Singaporean characters, instead of the purely Japanese make-up of the original) is a small thing, but positive. On the other hand, that the casting of the Major as a white woman ends up being central to the plot – in a way that I shan’t spoil – is a horribly clumsy attempt to lampshade its own white-washing that, depending on your outlook, is either embarrassing, offensive, or both.

All of which makes Ghost in the Shell an awkward film to sum up. It is not the equal of the original at all, but it retains enough of its visual identity to elevate a generic movie into a somewhat memorable one. But there is just too much – for the lack of a better term – distracting weirdness here that prevents you ever really settling in: whether it’s the controversial casting, the stilted performances or just the fond memories of a better film, Ghost in the Shell is an OK movie, haunted by its myriad imperfections.


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