The original 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell is a strange and beautiful film. It’s been a source of narrative and visual inspiration for everything from The Matrix to Ex Machina. It is an incredibly prescient film about technology, identity and cyber-terrorism. It is contemplative, poetic, action-packed and, above all, philosophically intriguing. I bring all of this up to highlight how the remake of Ghost in the Shell not only manages to be absolutely none of these things, but is, even on its own terms, unutterably dull.
Set in a nameless city at some point in the future (yes, it really is that vague), anyone who’s anyone has cyber-enhancements like Wi-Fi chips in their brains and funky Geisha robot servants. But Scarlett Johansson’s Major is the first of her kind: her human brain has been transplanted into an entirely synthetic body. As a kick-ass cyber detective, she has all the benefits of both a human and a robot, as her brain has been wiped of all knowledge of her former life. Yet her efficiency appears to be hampered by visions she can’t explain, visions that her superiors claim are just “glitches.”
The philosophic introspection of the original anime has been completely excised, presumably to make the film ‘easy to follow’ (read: dumbed-down) for American audiences. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—indeed, it makes the new film more streamlined and plot-focused – but what’s left is a couple of borrowed visual moments yoked to a run-of-the-mill amnesiac revenge thriller that’s as predictable as it is uninspired.
You’d at least expect the film to be well-directed to compensate but, despite a promising opening sequence visualising the creation of Major, director Rupert Sanders mostly fails to deliver. His last film, Snow White and the Huntsman, was visually stunning as well as surprisingly good fun, especially during the action sequences. Yet here all the action sequences are either uninspired or incomprehensible. You’re never given a reason to care about the characters: their motivations are never explained, and there’s never any peril because bits of people are easily replaced by synthetic parts.
The city feels like a backdrop rather than a lived-in place, the production design is distractingly complex, and the CGI is pretty ropey during key sequences. Elsewhere, thematic ideas are made eye-rollingly obvious with on-the-nose dialogue about “ghosts” and “shells,” until they’re dropped because even the film gets bored of them, and characters either mumble clichéd platitudes or look sad for most of the running time.
And this is where we get onto the casting, which is the film’s most serious failing. When the remake of Ghost in the Shell was first announced, it was mired in controversy over the alleged “whitewashing” of casting Johansson as the lead role in an essentially Japanese story. There were even reports that a visual effects company had been hired to digitally manipulate actors’ faces to make them appear “more Asian.” After all this trouble, you’d expect Johansson’s performance to be nothing short of outstanding—yet it’s surprisingly mediocre. There are any number of Asian actresses who could’ve played the role just as well, if not better (Karen Fukuhara, from Suicide Squad, would’ve been my personal choice). Johansson looks more than a little incongruous as a lone white face surrounded by Asian extras, and the film chooses to deal with this in a third-act twist which is both obnoxiously nonsensical and astoundingly racially insensitive.
To be honest, this level of unthinking idiocy is perhaps to be expected in a film that’s so poorly executed that the title literally appears twice in the opening credits. The film isn’t entertainingly bad, nor is there anything about it which warrants recommendation—it is simply mind-numbingly boring, and far too forgettable to get cross about.