Ghost in the Shell – Film Review

After watching (and loving) the anime film, I thought I’d check out this recent Hollywood remake with Scarlett Johansson. It was pretty much what I had expected: watchable with a few arresting visual moments and a decent lead performance, but all in all a dumbed down and hollow take on the original.

Like the 1995 version, this story is set in the future in which the line between the humans and machines is increasingly blurred, and cybernetic enhancements are as common as facials. Major Mira (Johansson) represents a bold new step: after her body is damaged in a terrorist attack that kills her parents, her mind is transplanted into an artificial body by Hanka Robotics. The striking opening sequence of the film, in which Mira’s body is created, is one of the few moments the remake approaches the eerie, unsettling beauty of the original. Reborn as this blend of the synthetic and organic, the Major is put to work as an agent in Section 9, the government’s anti-terrorist division. She has no memories of her past, and lately she’s been experiencing hallucinations which are dismissed by her Hanka designer Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) as mere glitches. But when her job puts Mira on the trail of Kuze, a terrorist hunted by her section, she is prompted to search the truth behind her existence.

While the filmmakers are of course not obligated to slavishly follow the original story, the fundamental changes made to the Major strip away much of its power, and go beyond the casting controversy (more on that later). In the 1995 anime, the Major’s ruminations and doubts about her identity and memories had a philosophical importance, rather than plot importance, whereas in the remake they pretty much are the plot. Which inevitably shrinks the scope of the story from Big Questions to one individual story of self-discovery, with some stale “big bad corporations are bad” commentary thrown in. One repeated message is “memories don’t define us, actions do”, which for my money was explored much better with Wolverine’s arc in X2: X-Men United and feels rather tacked on here.

This approach still could have worked if the movie was populated with interesting characters and relationships, but aside from Johansson’s solid work as Mira no one really stands out. Juliette Binoche, who can’t help but radiate warmth even in a big throwaway blockbuster, comes closest as Dr. Ouelet, whose relationship with Mira has a shade of mother/daughter. But the film doesn’t linger enough on it, or the Major’s relationship with her fellow operative Batou, who at least can tease a smile out of her.

So instead of story, characters or themes, Ghost in the Shell puts its money on the visuals and action, and the results are mixed. Many dazzling images and sequences from the original are recreated or referenced here, sometimes successfully like the aforementioned opening. With others, you get a feeling that the filmmakers referenced a visual without grasping the reason for why it was effective in the first place. The biggest disappointment is that the detailed, lived-in futuristic metropolis, which was a character of its own in the anime, here is just an excuse to throw some garish CGI onscreen.

Mild spoilers ahead

Yeah I can understand the criticisms about casting Johansson instead of a Japanese actress. At the same time, I understand that movie business is business and this film would probably never get made without a bankable star, and the number of internationally bankable Japanese female action stars is zero. The filmmakers had to know they’d cop whitewashing criticism, so their decision to make race change an actual part of the story is rather baffling. As far as I can see, the only reason to make Mira’s original form a Japanese girl called Motoko Kusanagi was to reference the Major’s name from the anime.

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