I’ve made it no secret that I struggle with a lot of anime, even the classic, universally acclaimed titles of the genre. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s cultural differences, but I often find myself having difficulty understanding films that, on paper at least, sound like I’d really enjoy. Case in point; 1995’s Ghost in the Shell, noted as a key influence on The Matrix no less, when I first watched it, I found it more or less incomprehensible. I saw it again a few years later with similar results, finding the material surprisingly inaccessible for such a landmark, beloved movie. Anyway, I think I’m more of an outlier here, so maybe I shouldn’t be taken too seriously when I say that one of the few positive things about this American, live-action Ghost in the Shell remake is that I didn’t find it especially confusing at all.
Considering that, it’ll likely come across to fans of the original as something of a ‘dumbed down’ version as to be blunt, this is not an especially intelligent movie at all. It’s exploration of themes of identity, surrounding what happens when a human brain (the “ghost”) is in a cybernetic body (the “shell”), are surface level at best. As a piece of sci-fi, the technology on display doesn’t feel new at all, though this may be the result of the source material being decades old at this point, but there just doesn’t seem to be much invention here at all. There are admittedly this spider-legged robot geishas that appear in an early scene that make a bit of an impression, but that’s about it. And of course, it’s naturally gone the PG-13 route to water down some of the more adult elements present in the source material as well.
One hope I did have for a big-budget live-action anime adaptation though, was that it would be visually impressive. Though there was much potential in bringing the world of Ghost in the Shell to life, director Rupert Sanders (of the completely forgettable Snow White & the Huntsman) proves to not be the man to do it. Unfortunately, the cityscapes we get now, filled with giant video advertisements and such just feel derivative of ones we’ve seen many times before, dating back to at least as early as Blade Runner. The film’s decision to never specify where it’s taking place probably added to this to be honest, it looks like it’s Japan, but intentionally never confirms this. Similarly, there are a few occasions when Sanders wholescale recreates sequences from the 1995 anime, which might make for a fun side-by-side comparison video someday but come across as needless fan service in a film that’s already managed to anger a lot of the original property’s fans.
And that seems as good a time as any to address the controversy I suppose; as I’m sure you’ve heard, Ghost in the Shell is the latest film to draw accusations of “whitewashing” by casting Scarlett Johansson in the lead. I sometimes feel that people nowadays are quick to throw accusations of racism at a film without considering the circumstances of adaptation (that’s a post for another time), but this one, well, with this one it’s fully justified. It would involve going into third act spoilers to explain why, but when a certain reveal comes along the film’s left looking completely tone-deaf to why people might have had a problem with this, and it could have been so easily avoided. It is, as they like to say nowadays, problematic. As for Johansson herself, who’s becoming something of an action specialist in recent years, she sadly looks to have taken the idea of ‘playing a robot’ a little too literally, delivering a rather stoic performance.
On the plus side, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the second-billed actor in the opening credits was Takeshi Kitano, who plays the chief of the anti-terrorist organisation Johansson’s Major works for. He unfortunately has more of a passive role, primarily delivering instructions from behind a desk (entirely in Japanese, which everyone understands). It’s cool to see him show up in a mainstream Hollywood movie, and he gets a decent amount of screen time, but aside from one short sequence near the end, he doesn’t have a great deal to do. Maybe the best that might come out of this film is if some of the studio’s intended target audience might wind up learning about some Kitano movies after seeing it. Michael Pitt gives a more effective performance as the film’s apparent villain, though his casting is as similarly hard to defend as Johansson’s.
If one can cast aside the controversy, forgive the shoddily adapted script and disheartening visuals, Ghost in the Shell’s best hope is to deliver as a passable sci-fi action movie. Unfortunately, judged purely as that it is while not awful, just another mediocre, forgettable would-be blockbuster that builds to an unsatisfactory, poorly handled action finale before hopefully teasing future instalments. This version of Ghost in the Shell I think though, will not have future beyond this one movie.