Review: Ghost in the Shell

ghostintheshell-poster1995’s Ghost in the Shell is one of the nineties’ somewhat impenetrable, nigh-inexplicable-how-it-got-that-way, gateway anime. By turns stylish, violent, and deeply philosophical, its cyberpunk aesthetic and its long, static conversations became a byline for a generation. It’s not a surprise that it would eventually find itself Westernised, but did it have to be this way? Throw away your cautious optimism and dive naked off a building, because Ghost in the Shell 2017 has nothing new to offer you, and so much to take away.

In the future, Hanka Corporation produces the first ever melding of a human brain with a synthetic body: “Major” (Scarlett Johansson, Sing). Bereft of memory, Major works for Section 9, killing people for the government while her body is on loan from the corporation. After hacked robots start murdering members of Hanka, Major has to track down master hacker “Kuze” (Michael Pitt, Criminal) and shut him down. 

Based on Masamune Shirow’s manga, but more accurately based on Mamoru Oshii’s two anime films based on that same manga, Ghost in the Shell frequently cribs shots and scenes from across both of those movies. They look impressive, a combination of Hong Kong’s naturally interesting architecture and a talented staff working from long-established design blueprints.

Director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) has an eye for replication of visuals but, working from a script written separately by Jamie Moss (Street Kings), William Wheeler (Queen of Katwe) and Ehren Kruger (Transformers: Age of Extinction), he can’t give them meaning. Whatever message Ghost in the Shell has to impart, we’re not able to hear it through all of the noise jamming the signal. Deriving its scenes from a mixture of everything from a bastardised version of its namesakes to a mishmash of every other science fiction movie from Blade Runner to The Matrix (which was itself heavily inspired by Ghost in the Shell), Ghost in the Shell never has pretensions of originality, but it could at least be apologetic about it.

Much has been made of the role of Major being played by a white woman. As an adaptation, there would have been ways around this — after all, a person in a robot body does not have to have a strict cultural heritage. Somehow the script’s “workaround” is to literally write the whitewashing into the movie, which is not optimal. What could have been a non-issue, at the most an uncomfortable subtext, becomes the text itself. It would be irresponsible to ignore it, and so it can’t be ignored. Even if Johansson is a name actress, in this she’s not good at all. Delivering her words without affect, her Major never allows the audience to ruminate upon her humanity, because she never seems human. Playing off an indifferent ensemble, not least of which is an unfortunately made-up Pilou Asbæk (The Great Wall) and a thoroughly unsympathetic Juliette Binoche, no one gives the impression of caring about the final product.

The one bright spot in the acting department is “Beat” Takeshi Kitano as Chief Aramaki, who doesn’t even have to speak English in the role. Playing up to Kitano’s gangster reputation in his native Japan, Kitano gets some of the best understated action, and an old-fashioned pistol. Even this comes at a cost: Aramaki’s position (and the Prime Minister he reports to) underline’s the film’s disgustingly apolitical nature. There’s a place called the Lawless Zone, where dissidents go to stay. What they’re protesting and why the government hates them we never know. There’s a pull between private corporations and governmental bodies buried deep in the script, but Ghost in the Shell does not showcase a society.

Ghost in the Shell is a movie that could have been a clean sweep, but the only elements that work are those that are directly taken from the 1995 and 2004 iterations, and even they are twisted into meaninglessness. Ghost in the Shell is not so well thought-out that it could be construed as “baby’s first existential philosophy”, but rather “every basic science-fiction concept ever watered down into a slurry”. In a world with easy access to Oshii’s anime, Shirow’s manga, and countless other spinoffs besides, there’s no reason or excuse to consume Sanders’ interpretation of Ghost in the Shell.

Ghost in the Shell opened in Australian cinemas on March 30, 2017.

Directed by: Rupert Sanders.

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Takeshi Kitano and Juliette Binoche.