This same scenario keeps repeating itself throughout film history: something of substance made for more artistic than commercial reasons is co-opted by the Hollywood machine and re-produced in a watered-down fashion deemed more suitable for the slack-jawed masses. The purists cry foul, the newbies watch and move on and the money people nervously count the ticket sales, clinging to the old axiom about never underestimating the stupidity of the general public.
Paramount, DreamWorks, producer Avi Arad, director Rupert Sanders and Scarlett Johansson are the latest to fall into this trap, attempting to bring new life to Mamoru Oshii’s Matrix-influencing 1995 anime adaptation of the Ghost in the Shell manga despite not actually having anything new to say beyond a faint attempt at vaguely feminist commentary (issues of consent and agency are addressed).
The story, in their hands, involves a futuristic cyborg policewoman named Major (Johansson) tracking down a hacker only to stumble upon the truth of her existence. It’s more Blade Runner than Oshii’s original ever was, subtracting identity concerns and boiler-plate “corporations are evil!” villains for the original’s prescient AI commentary. Plus, the skyline of the Tokyo-like city Major occupies is now dotted with oppressive LCD screens (of which there were but a few in the 1995 original) and giant hologram projections of humans performing various tasks. In fact, whenever you get bored with the movie and its characters you can at least look in the background and wonder, “What in the world are those holograms up to now?”
One time it’s a woman lifting weights. Another time it’s a little girl releasing a flower into the air while an adult nods approvingly.
If Ghost in the Shell was a good movie those background accoutrements would simply be a bonus. Instead, they feel like self-indulgent eye candy, probably internally justified as necessary to establishing universe and tone but actually betray a filmmaking team’s true higher priority of making something that looks “fucking cool” (as Gareth Edwards recently disdainfully described that which plagues modern blockbuster directing). To be fair, everything about Ghost in the Shell does actually look pretty cool, but [spoiler alert] near the end when Major triumphantly claims to finally understand her true purpose you just don’t really care nor do you even fully understand how exactly her existence has been changed by her journey. Sure, she’s now more self-aware, but she’s still going to keep doing exactly what she was doing?
The failure, of course, lies in the script, but it also falls to Johansson, whose “I’m an emotionless robot” shtick has never looked more tired or played out. As an actress, she looks about as lost as her actual character, adopting a constant hunched over stance which is meant to strike an aggressive, non-humanoid profile, but actually looks more comical than anything else. The drama she’s been handed is analogous to that of someone undergoing an identity crisis upon learning they were adopted, since Major discovers the corporation which took her brain and put it into a cyborg body lied to her about who she was as a human. Thus, she is a character in search of not just the truth but also a crucial sense of belonging. One can see why Johansson might have found that kind of character journey too tempting to pass up, but something went wrong from scripting to directing to performing, leaving us to wonder if ScarJo might need to get back to playing actual people with emotions again.
Thus, the fact that Johansson is possibly the wrong ethnicity for the character is less egregious than her directionless performance, although the whitewashing controversy is hard to ignore during a finale which almost literally puts a white face on an Asian body.
The rest of the cast comprising Major’s police unit Section 9 or their corporate overlords does little to stand out. Pilou Asbaek is perfectly Ron Perlman-like as Major’s partner Batou. As the Section 9 boss, “Beat” Takeshi Kitanowho manages to seem suitably badass despite rarely ever leaving his chair and sporting a hairdo which most resembles an anvil. Juliette Binoche does the best she can as Major’s mother figure, i.e., the one who didn’t birth her as a human but did create her as a cyborg. Michael Pitt at least looks and sounds kind of cool as the nominal villain hacker Kuze. However, other than Batou none of them leave much of an impression.
Speaking of impression (and terrible segues)…
A back-to-back marathon of the new Ghost in the Shell followed by the 1995 original (which is currently on Hulu, btw) reveals just how many scenes in the new film are nearly shot-for-shot remakes. With the benefit of 2017 technology, many of these remade scenes inevitably look better. For example, Major’s nighttime deep sea dive is more gorgeous than ever, and the brutality of her invisible fist fight in a standing pool of water is far more visceral now.
That does at least give this Ghost in the Shell some genuine entertainment value as a feast for the eyes.
In totality, this new film is basically a remake of the original with a different sequence of events and entirely new ending. The storyline has definitely been streamlined. Artistic flourishes like wordless montages of action scenes or Major aimlessly wandering the city have either been excised entirely or scaled back. However, this new take on the story assumes we’re all idiots (I lost count of the number of times the meaning of the title “Ghost” – which refers to the soul – “in the Shell” – which refers to the cyborg body – is explained to us), and is in a rush to tie everything up in a nice bow. It comes off as something which has been upgraded at the cost of losing much of what made it so special in the first place. Thus, this new Ghost in the Shell is watchable, but perhaps only in that “when it inevitably pops up on HBO Now for months on end” kind of way.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Ghost in the Shell is exactly what you’d expect from a Hollywood remake of a beloved foreign movie: bigger, dumber and destined to leave no real lasting impression on those who view it.