Everyone involved in the live action remake of the Japanese anime classic Ghost in the Shell dove head first into a no-win situation. On one hand, the original by Mamoru Oshii has influenced a generation of action filmmakers, so it likely would feel derivative of the movies inspired by the original. On the other hand, casting one of the world’s biggest movie stars in Scarlett Johansson in the lead role sparked an outcry of controversy with accusations of whitewashing the Japanese origins of the story. Despite all of the outrage and indifference that surrounded Rupert Sanders’ live action version of Ghost in the Shell, nobody actually knew what to expect until the finished film was shown. It is, in the slightest of terms possible, a mixed bag of a movie, featuring lavishly colorful visuals and a number of misguided decisions that only amplify the controversy that surrounded its casting.
In many regards, this live action remake is faithful to a fault with the source material. At times it’s as if Sanders is simply replicating the most iconic moments from the original, but that also translates into the film’s plotting which can range from dull to bewildering.
In the future, the line between man and machine has been blurred by technological advancements that modify the human body. These advances are handled by Hanka Robotics, a company run by their CEO Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) and research headed by Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche). Hanka has just revived Major (Johansson) in the first ever procedure to put a human brain into a cybernetic body – the brain and consciousness of Major being known is the ghost and her new body being the shell. Though they say they’ve preserved her consciousness and memories, Major has trouble recalling her life prior to being placed in her shell. This technological breakthrough isn’t going to be used for the betterment of humanity. As Cutter tells Dr. Ouelet, “She’s not a machine. She’s a weapon.”
A year later and Major is part of a special task force headed by Aramaki (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano), who answers personally to the Prime Minister. With her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk), Major is tasked with investigating a string of people who have been cerebrally hacked by Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), a mysterious being living underground. Their investigation isn’t just dangerous, it’s something that could reach up into the corridors of power of Hanka Robotics as well as unlocking the mystery of Major’s obscured past.
Ghost in the Shell does look magnificent for the most part. Rupert Sanders and cinematographer Jess Hall create a visually lush world that is colorful and often striking. The production design is equally magnificent, with sets both physical and digital that look unique and textured. Though sparse, the action sequences are clear and easy to follow. However, there’s one ghastly fight sequence that is overwhelming with its strobe light qualities that it should come with a warning for anyone with epilepsy. The best sequence in Ghost in the Shell has Major going into the mainframe of a hacked robot. The damaged memory leaves the figures surrounding Major as slowly fading away as she explores the scene.
The visual splendor of Ghost in the Shell can only carry the film so far as the screenplay adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s classic manga by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger can’t get the story to move with any momentum. It leans so heavily on the central mystery that it never really becomes clear who is after who and what they’re all after. Mainly, the film tries to retain most of the story beats of the original but that also means it retains some of the more confusing aspects of its plotting.
All of which brings us to the most unfortunate aspect of Ghost in the Shell – its blatant whitewashing. The film constantly reminds the audience of this issue through some baffling decisions. Scarlett Johansson and Danish co-star Pilou Asbæk wander the streets of the city that is designed like a Japanese metropolis, surrounded by Asian extras in traditional Japanese garb with Japanese text scrawled on the walls. Even more distracting is the fact that Takeshi Kitano delivers all of his lines in Japanese while Johansson replies to him in English. The aforementioned issues pale in comparison to the fact that Johansson’s Major is revealed to have been a Japanese girl named Motoko before being killed and reborn as a cybernetic being. Major tracks down her mother (Kaori Momoi) who weeps over her deceased daughter. The film ends with the mother hugging the cybernetic daughter with the visage of Johansson, as if this moment is supposed to symbolize a forgiveness for the casting choices made. I truly wish I didn’t have to dwell on this aspect of the film but there’s nothing within the movie to assuage these concerns and it constantly brings attention to this self-inflected wound over and over again in the worst ways possible.
Scarlett Johansson is more than capable of leading an action film but the stiffness of her performance in Ghost in the Shell mirrors the stiffness of the film as a whole. As much as the camera loves to linger on Johansson in the skin-tight body suit she spends most of the film in, there’s nothing underneath the surface in this hollowed mechanized remake. Ghost in the Shell has such a vibrant look to it that it’d be easy to forgive its plotting and acting issues if not for the fumbling way it handles its issues of racial and cultural appropriation. The original Ghost in the Shell changed action filmmaking and inspired countless artists. This remake is almost good but not quite there. It’s just firing blanks where it matters most.