Ghost in the Shell review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
It’s been over twenty years since Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell redefined animation and sci-fi filmmaking. It became a major influence on the cyberpunk genre, serving as a key inspiration for The Matrix. But after so many years of expanding science fiction into unique and original directions, Rupert Sanders’ live-action remake of Oshii’s animated classic comes off more as a love letter than an extension of the franchise. He spends most of the movie proving how well he understands this cyberpunk universe from the depths of cyborg technology to which breed of dog one of the heroes prefers. The multiple writers, however, have dumbed down a world that was once brimming with endless ideas about culture, technology and psychology.
The story is posed to be a much easier tale of lost identity to make the world a little more accessible for newcomers. Scarlett Johansson plays Major, the first woman to have her brain transplanted into a fully robotic body. Johansson is a strong enough choice for such a role given her curiosity and fear of her body in Under the Skin. Her character vaguely remembers her past before having her gray matter scooped into a robot, appearing as blips in her digital vision. There’s no time to look into her past, however, as her robotic skills are farmed out to the government organization Section 9. While she wonders about her visions, she’s sent on missions where she can smash through glass in invisibility camo to shoot at robotic geishas.
This version of Ghost in the Shell attempts to be more character based than focussing on the heavier themes. I get that; average action-seeking audiences would probably squirm if their robotic shootouts ceased for long talks about humanity’s evolving reliance on technology. It’s also a more interesting route as few of the Ghost in the Shell movies/series have deeply explored the origins of the characters. I didn’t need an explanation for how Batou acquired his bottlecap robot eyes, but it didn’t hurt to include it in the script.
Even when divorcing from the fact that this iteration will be a dumbed down Ghost in the Shell, I still found myself being let down by this plot. The movie seems to be in such a rush to sprint towards the next flashy and stylish action scenes that the dialogue is dumbed down for time. We’re never given much time to sympathize with Major’s plight because her dialogue is so base and to the point in between firing guns. Her key mission of uncovering a terrorist hacker not only coincides with her past all-too-conveniently, but the villain she tracks down appears as a reject from A.I. Artificial Intelligence with a Max Headroom sputter.
Where the film excels best is Rupert Sanders’ faithfulness to the world of Ghost in the Shell, proving his fandom through the visuals. Several iconic shots from the original film are replicated almost shot for shot, from the watery fight down an alley to the battle with a spider tank. Even the most minute of details are adhered to as when the forensics cyborgs have to open up their eyes sockets to properly monitor diagnostics. I’m thankful that he only borrows the visuals of the previous film and not the exact same plot. I could only imagine how watered down the dialogue of the Puppet Master would be if he were filtered through this simple script.
There is the issue of whitewashing the character of the Major which becomes all the more apparent and odd when they reveal her brain to actually be that of Motoko Kusanagi. It could be considered either extremely insensitive or weirdly genius that the evil plan of the true villains in the picture are enacting whitewashing. I personally found it just to be odd, even if the choice makes sense from the scheme of a dastardly evil corporation. Whether that corporation is the one in the film or the one behind the film is up to the viewer. The whitewashing wouldn’t be such a big deal if the race swapping weren’t applied to the rest of the core cast. The only Japanese actor who actually speaks Japanese in the film is Beat Takeshi as chief Aramaki. Takeshi reminds me once again why he’s a damn fine action actor, even in his old age when given big white hair for this role.
I was never bored by Ghost in the Shell or all that appalled by the reworking of the material. At the same time, I never felt as though I learned anything new about its world which seems ripe for more exploration past its dominating cityscapes that dwarf Blade Runner. All this potential with fantastic action sequences and beautiful world building feels wasted on such a familiar and tiresome script of one woman searching for her past. I’ve seen this story so many times that top-notch CGI and the right atmosphere can only go so far in masking such a simplistic script. The good news is that the Ghost in the Shell animated franchise is far from dead, which makes me a little more hopeful that others will rediscover through the anime versions through this picture. Those that do will be pleasantly surprised that plethora of animated films/series explore far more than could ever be covered in a big-budget, low-intelligence Hollywood blockbuster.