Remaking a classic movie is never an easy task. Making the jump from animation to live action just increases the difficulty. When the movie that you’re remaking is a seminal work that has changed the face of sci-fi action movies ever since it was first released you’re giving yourself one hell of a mountain to climb! This is exactly what the team behind the live action version of Ghost in the Shell have attempted, and I’m sorry to say, that just like robotic main character, what they have created looks stunning on the outside, but is fairly lifeless underneath.
As I mentioned above; the original Ghost in the Shell anime is something that has inspired and influenced sci-fi ever since it first hit screens back in 1995. Taking the ideas and themes that have been around since Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the animated movie told the tale of a woman who was mostly a machine, but still a person at her core, mixing stunning visuals with deep questions about the increasingly thin line between machines and humans, as well as the nature of consciousness and the soul.
A perfect example is the Matrix, which would not exist in remotely the same fashion that it does without Ghost in the Shell having come first. This leads me to the core problem with the new version: it feels derivative. Much like the John Carter movie a few years back, this film is based on something that came well before it’s subsequent offspring, but since those “children” are massive touchstones of modern movie and pop culture it finds itself scrambling for relevance. What this film needs is a new take on the questions it is asking, but instead it recycles those that we are already used to.
In spite of all that Ghost in the Shell is still generally a visually interesting movie, but unfortunately that is about as far as it goes. The movie as a whole lacks emotional depth. This is a pity as the themes that should be being explored are only getting more relevant as technology continues to advance. The script sets up a few interesting questions, but never really follows up on them, eschewing exploration of character for wooden dialogue interspersed with fairly standard action scenes. In general the direction seems to lack any real punch or visual flair. It seems to be making too much of an effort to ape the style of the anime rather than branching out to create something new.
The cast all do their best with what they are given, it’s just that generally what they are given is not particularly good. Scarlett Johansson does a good robotic persona, but is undercut by the fact that she has done so many versions of the “mysterious person” that are so much better. Watch her in Under the Skin or Captain America: Civil War, or listen to her in Her, to see/hear her do this sort of role so much more justice than she’s allowed to here. Unfortunately I have to say that the rest of the cast are pretty much background within the film, which again, I put down to the script and direction more than their acting efforts. All I can say is that when I think back over the film I can’t really remember any moments that don’t revolve around Johansson.
There is also the spectre of the regular white-washing accusations that this film has received throughout its production that hang over it. Unfortunately the film does fall into that particular trap in several places, not through any malicious or domineering intent, but just because of very odd plot and design choices. For example; Johansson’s character could happily be a white female if she was working in a city that was manly multi-cultural, but, the majority of the population appears to be of Asian descent, so she stands out like a sore thumb, which is distinctly noticeable for someone who is meant to be stealthy. I understand that this movie needed a bankable name to sell, but there were a lot of ways to go about that without angering so many people.
So we are left with a film that can’t decide if it wants to be a remake of the anime, something new or a retread of themes that we have seen done much better in lots of other movies. It is still very pretty and vaguely entertaining in places but it is a pity that it is nothing more as the source material has so many interesting places that this movie could have explored.