Review: Ghost in the Shell

Undoubtedly a surprise to no-one at all, the Ghost in the Shell
remake is all style and no substance.

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These days, Hollywood remakes are almost impossible to ignore. The sheer amount being churned out means rolling one’s eyes and shrugging them off is no longer viable. They’re an outright nuisance.  On the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum, a wide-eyed look of surprise in response to something that appears to be both original and good is now firmly in the minority.

A live-action Hollywood version of a Japanese anime classic (genuinely one of the greatest of all time) was always going to set the *pointless* alarm bells ringing, but when the concept is as fascinating and downright mental as Ghost in the Shell, there is at least a sprout of intrigue. Of course, one could argue that Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime was effectively transported to Hollywood in the form of 1999’s The Matrix – a fair bit of which is lifted shot for shot both literally and thematically – but when a bit of ripping off results in one of the most groundbreaking action flicks of all time, it’s a lot easier to forgive and forget.

Unfortunately, Rupert Sander’s GITS doesn’t come anywhere close to replicating the quality or success of either the original anime or its Wachowski-spawned cousin. Whereas all three film have a unique visual style, GITS suffers due to a major lack of the thought-provoking philosophical substance present in the previous films. The blurring of lines between human and machine is more prevalent now than ever, yet here the core themes of individual freedom and humanity’s insistence on playing God in the face of potential destruction are left flat and forgettable. This rather important trick was missed to the extent that, despite looking pretty, nothing conceptually satisfying can be taken from the GITS. To put it another way, nothing really happens. The saving grace is that it wisely clocks in at only 106 minutes.

A few positives do survive up on the surface. The classic opening jump and banquet action sequences – probably the highlights, which is never a good sign – are a well-worked combination of rapid tension and striking imagery (the Geisha robots in particular), backed up by a strong score. The rooftop reveal of Major Killian, however, loses its “classic” feel due to the lengthy study of how her body was created during the opening credits, rendering her fighting introduction far less impactful.

Though her casting was controversial, Scarlett Johansson puts in a decent enough shift as the Major. The overriding problem is that her character throws up a minefield of completely avoidable racial undertones when her lineage is compared to what Hanka Robotics – the organization that created her – believes an ideal specimen should look like (I won’t go into details due to spoilers, but the issue is explored in numerous other reviews).

The supporting cast, on the other hand, is a fairly wooden collection of accents thrown together seemingly for the sake of it. Pilou Asbæk, in particular, makes for an unimposing, uninspired Batou, and as much as I love Beat Takeshi, his Aramaki lacks any real gravitas to the point of bordering on comically bizarre; just one example of the bland, by-the-numbers writing and direction (though the cinematography is beautiful in places).

Set to make a rather hefty loss at the box office, Ghost in the Shell is further proof – as if we needed it – that style alone cannot hold up when built on a foundation of empty substance. If you’re making John Wick then yeah, sure, you don’t need to manufacture depth, but a shallow underbelly simply won’t work with an origin story as rich as GITS. Even if you’re a hardcore fan, I wouldn’t bother. Just plug yourself into the original and enjoy the ride.

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