The original animated adaption of Ghost in the Shell, and the manga on which it was based, represent one of the most influential and significant works of not just anime or even the cyberpunk subgenre, but the entirety of science fiction. Amongst its fans and followers, it’s held up as a true classic and a masterpiece of the genre. So, of course, it had to get remade. It was basically inevitable, a matter of “when”, not “if. And turns out “when” was this past month. Its safe to say that with such vaunted material, Rupert Sanders and everyone else involved in this fresh live action take on Ghost in the Shell had an insanely huge legacy to live up to. And this is even before you go into the maelstrom of controversy that surrounded this adaptation based on people’s frustrations with the apparent whitewashing of so much of the film’s cast.
As far as the whitewashing thing goes, that’s a whole issue in its own right, especially given the way Ghost in the Shell attempts to…I dunno, address it? I think? And, I’m willing to bet there’s a far few folks out there who think that Ghost in the Shell’s somewhat underwhelming critical reception is solely, or at least largely, due to that controversy surrounding it. Well, dear reader, allow me to try and set your mind at ease by assuring you that, whitewashing or not, Ghost in the Shell still wasn’t all that great anyway.
It’s certainly not for lack of trying though, at least in the visual and aesthetics department. I’m always a sucker for truly classic cyberpunk, and Ghost in The Shell brings the film’s world to life in a truly breath-taking way. Everything from the set design, to the costumes, and to the visual effects looks truly stunning and fantastic, with some particular stand-outs often coming from the film’s many different cyborgs and robots, which are incredibly detailed and look fantastic on screen. Regardless of its other deficiencies, the sheer spectacle of its visuals isn’t something Ghost in the Shell can be faulted on.
With that said, there is a fine line between fidelity to source material and loving homage and just straight up copying, and Ghost in the Shell often seems far more content to just replicate and reproduce iconic imagery from the original animated film than to put forward anything genuinely new or interesting visually. There are entire scenes and any number of iconic shots and imagery from the original film that are duplicated to an incredible degree in Ghost in the Shell, and while its neat to see them in live action, it was far more disappointing that this new film really just seemed content with riding the legacy of its forbearer instead of trying to do something genuinely new or different, which is weird given how ground-breaking Ghost in the Shell was in its own time. All the repetition of imagery really undercuts Ghost in the Shell and makes it feel more like a cheap copy than something new in its own right.
But its not just the excessive cribbing of imagery that makes Ghost in the Shell a cheap copy as much as it is its willingness to take everything Ghost in the Shell is on its surface without paying much of any heed to anything below the surface. Slick, stylish, and yet ultimately empty action sequences are often substituted in place of scenes with something more meaningful to say. This extends to the plot and story, both of which have been arranged and changed to turn this iteration of Ghost in the Shell into a frustratingly brainless and ultimately pointless tale of discovering one’s true self that is horribly over-simplified and that doesn’t really seem to have anything greater to say beyond its surface details.
I mean, not to turn this review into a endless comparison between this and the original, but part of what made that original film such a landmark film was its examination of themes and ideas greater than itself through its story and characters, which were less important as fully rounded characters than they were as symbols and analogues for the film’s grander ideas. This new Ghost in the Shell, by contrast, seems to simply make everything about the Major (Johansson) as a character, but fails to actually make her a compelling and well-rounded enough character for the story to really function on that level, sacrificing a great deal of thematic nuance in the process. That’s not to say that a Ghost in the Shell movie couldn’t be character-driven while also thoughtful and intelligent, but it does require a strong, compelling character in the first place, and some kind of larger thematic thread that ties into that character, and Ghost in the Shell lacks both.
The general lack of nuance and intelligence is unfortunately also present in the film’s plot, which once again forgoes the ambiguous and more open nature of its predecessor in favor of an entirely too familiar and overwrought action sci-fi plot. While it’s not necessarily the worse executed script I’ve seen in a film recently, it is staggeringly unambitious and unintelligent given the source material. Its ultimately just a tired exercise of plugging in one plot point after another in the right places that are deemed to make us “engage” with the story or characters, but falls flat given that there’s nothing to truly engage with.
Beyond all that, there’s really not a whole lot more to say. Again, for all its apparent visual ambition, so much of Ghost in the Shell is just a flat-line, especially in its performances. There are certainly no truly bad performances, and Michael Pitt’s performance as rogue cyborg Kuze was weirdly compelling in its own way, but there was really nothing particularly standout or that did much of anything to elevate the already underwhelming material.