Ghost in the Shell
Posted April 1, 2017 by Daniel Hodgson in
Ghost in the Shell (1995) is an icon of anime, and more. 22 years ago, the film envisioned a dystopia that may be only a few decades away, according to futurists, where our bodies are replaced by machinery and our thoughts are connected through technology. Today, it is a classic of sci-fi cinema, influencing films such as The Matrix. I looked forward to the live-action remake with considerable anticipation. Leave it to Hollywood to fuck it up.
Like the original, the film centers around “the Major” (Scarlett Johansson), a cyborg soldier working for Section 9, a counter- cyber terrorism task force. The only thing that remains of her is her brain; the rest is synthetic, making her stronger and faster than her human counterparts. “She is the future,” says Dr. Oulet (Juliette Binoche), the scientist who made her. The opening pays loving attention to the transplant procedure, showing the Major’s fleshy brain bathed in blue and red lights, suggesting that the operation is cold and sinister, as hungry artificial tendrils reach out to connect it to her robotic body. The first 30 minutes, often stylish and surrealistic, promise something the rest of the film fails to deliver on.
The remake begins in earnest with the Major perched atop the roof of a high-rise, where inside an ill-fated meeting takes place between the founder (Michael Wincott) of Hanka, the company that created the Major’s body, and anonymous foreign officials who have no real bearing on the plot. As the figures discuss business, the robot geishas serving them take the participants hostage, assisted by a handful of armed intruders. The Major dives down and crashes through window a la Die Hard, removing her clothes before doing so, revealing her synthetic skin, which can turn invisible. In an action scene far better than those which follow, the major guns down several armed terrorists, but is too late. The founder is dead.
Hitting several of the same beats as the 1995 film, the story follows the Major as she tries to find out who was behind the attack and bring them to justice. Along the way, she uncovers a secret project that forces her to question her superiors, and herself. The remake swaps a new villain for the old, but the plot is otherwise much the same, with important scenes lifted straight from the original, almost shot-for-shot.
The original has seen sequels and a series in the animation format, but there is good reason to remake it once more as a live-action film, at least in theory. Ghost in the Shell is about being human, and using live flesh-and-blood actors brings that into focus, where ink-and-paint animation is merely representative, abstract. However, instead of the practical effects and real sets it should have, the remake relies heavily on computer effects and CGI backgrounds in virtually every shot, removing any sense of realness to the film, resulting in a movie that’s just a big budget cartoon all over again, defeating the purpose. Compare this to Disney, which has been experimenting with live action for years now, with its best film so far being Cinderella, which made minimal use of CGI.
Unfortunately, the live-action appeal of the project is also undermined by the film’s PG-13 rating. Ghost in the Shell is not just science fiction, it is also an action anime, occasionally (and often gratuitously) bloody. However, the violence in this iteration is without consequence; no one bleeds when they’re shot, and there’s shootin’ galore. I can’t emphasize this enough. Not. One. Drop. Of. Blood. There’s scarcely an entrance wound to be found, if any. Prick and we bleed, I say, and this movie is inhuman. Perhaps that’s the point, that it’s about how we will (and are) losing our humanity. But if that’s the case, then why is the anime upon which it is based so gory? The rating also limits the amount of detail to the Major’s often naked body, which has no nipples (Johansson wears a flesh-colored bodysuit). We are human, and we have anatomy that makes us who we are.
It is the Major herself that the movie gets most wrong. That’s not a slight on Johansson’s performance, but the character as written. Major Motoko Kusanagi, called simply “The Major” in the anime, is nothing short of a badass. Brooding, certainly, but a serious, down-to-business operative who’s the best at what she does. This version of the character, on the other hand, is a damsel in distress, getting herself captured three times, twice without a fight. Why such a severe discrepancy in her agency? Let me point out: Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman both headlined big-budget R-rated action films based on established properties (Deadpool and Logan respectively), and Keanu Reeves had one based on an original screenplay. But Scar-Jo, a bankable international star, receives only a PG-13 for her movie, even though the source material has a pre-existing worldwide fanbase. That says a lot about what Hollywood thinks, and what it thinks about us.
This movie assumes you’re an idiot. Characters explain everything, from details like what your “ghost” means, to spelling out its broader existential message. No such condescension was to be found in the source material. The movie is all pop-wow, emphasizing visuals over thought, even playing to the 3D format to make plain its superficiality. This movie is a hollow shell of the original, missing its ghost. 1.5 out of 5 stars.