The 2017 Ghost in the Shell has had the odds stacked up against it since the day the film was announced. Not only are fans up in arms about the fact that Hollywood is once again needlessly remaking a property that was perfect in its original form(s), but the casting of Scarlett Johansson in its title role has raised concerns that Asian actors are being further marginalized in favour or Caucasian celebrities. I’m not going to be talking about this in my review of the film. If you want a more in depth analysis explaining why Ghost in the Shell could be a victim of unjust “white-washing” accusations, read Alexander Mosier’s brilliant article also brought to you by Film Enthusiast. Here, I am just going to concentrate on the quality of the film itself, which I am sorry to say is pretty poor. This is an overlong, eventless, underwritten, haphazardly paced, choppy, dull, and visually unimpressive movie in its own right, never mind a botched adaptation that completely misses the point of the original 1995 anime.
North American audiences may not be familiar with Ghost in the Shell as a 1995 animated film, itself an adaptation of a popular manga about a world where most of humanity is able to acquire cybernetic enhancements, including complete “shell” bodies that connect them to a neural electronic network. Major (Scarlett Johansson) is a police officer in one such body. She works for Section 9, a public security firm that works to prevent cybercrime.
Much can be said how director Rupert Sanders and his writers have no grasp on the culture, philosophy, and ideas that the anime explored to tell its story of a dystopian future about technology run amuck. To compensate, they dumb down the story’s focus simply to show Major chasing a group of cyber criminals murdering key employees from Hanka Robotics, the company who invented the cyber technology that engulfs the world. This allows for multiple action scenes that end up driving the plot and predictable exposition scenes that reveal cliche motivations for its characters.
There’s been a lot of praise from critics and You Tube film junkies regarding the visuals in Ghost in the Shell. They must have been watching a different movie. There is an entire CGI-dependent sequence showing Major jumping off a bridge to scale a wall that would have looked dated in 1992, let alone 2017. The world of “New Port City” is a way too clean blend of elements stolen from Blade Runner, Minority Report, and The Matrix. Sure there are some neat costume designs, and Major’s camouflage outfit looks cool, but it isn’t impressive enough to recommend the film.
Furthermore, Ghost in the Shell’s setting suffers from the same problem that plagued the Star Wars prequels. Because so much of the background is CGI, the actors on set seemed to have no idea where they were or what they were reacting to. The result is that the action is disconnected from the setting, which makes the whole film feel manufactured. Like, how does any of this affect the person in that car driving along the highway in the background?
On the plus side, the acting in the film is serviceable. Scarlett Johansson brings a lot to the table given the atrocious dialogue she has to recite. Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbaek, and Takeshi Kitano all do a fine job despite having limited screen time and barely any memorable presence. Essentially the actors are let down by the script and Sanders’ direction. I blame a lot of this lack of tone, atmosphere, narrative flow, and under developed characterization on the director, since so many of these issues were glaringly apparent in his previous debacle, Snow White and the Huntsman. He was simply the wrong choice to helm this movie.
In the end, there is really nothing to recommend Ghost in the Shell on. It’s not style over substance because there’s barely any style to mention. There is definitely no substance. The performances are passable but because the characters are so dull and lifeless, it’s impossible to care about them. All this is evident without me even having to mention how the film’s screenplay completely butchers the thematic undertones and thematic implications related specifically to the film’s title. Let’s make no mistake. The original 1995 anime and 1989 manga hold a legacy as being one of the greatest science fiction works ever produced. The Wachowskis praised Ghost in the Shell as being their biggest influence over The Matrix. Dark City, Minority Report, I Robot, Ex Machina, In Time, and Avatar all hold a huge debt to Ghost in the Shell. But versions of this story have been retold and retold so many times that to remake and release Ghost in the Shell in a 2017 landscape will produce nothing less than a dated and familiar cash grab. Fortunately, no one will remember this garbage a week from now.