By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
The iconic anime film Ghost in the Shell gets the slicked-up Hollywood treatment (at a cost of $120 million), and like previous U.S. adaptations of Japanese movies, the contemplative, existential material is completely stripped of its deeper meaning, leaving a listless vessel that is alternatively filled with tired clichés and formulaic plotting.
Set in Japan at an unspecified time in the future, the story still centres on the Major (Scarlett Johansson), an elite officer who works for Section 9, a powerful enforcement agency who only answer to the Prime Minister. Run by the stoic Aramaki (Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano), the Major works alongside her trusted colleagues Batou (Pilou Asbaek) and Togusa (Chin Han), protecting society, but more importantly the Hanka Corporation, who manufacture the agency’s implant software and technology, from criminal cyber-attacks.
The Major herself is a state-of-the-art prototype; a human brain placed within a highly advanced, human-like ‘shell’, and she is looked upon by others in two ways. To Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), who headed Project 2571, the Major is a human who happens to inhabit an artificial body, her mind and soul (or ‘ghost’) still present, making her a unique individual. To Hanka CEO Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), this hybrid is an expensive weapon, owned by the company for any use they see fit.
When various Hanka engineers are murdered, orchestrated by a mysterious hacker known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), the Major and her fellow officers are lead down a labyrinthine, digitally manipulated path, one which will slowly uncover the agent’s own past, which briefly appear before her as technical glitches.
While the very basic premise of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 original (based on the manga by Masamune Shirow) remains, there have been substantial changes to both plot and character, which have been streamlined and simplified to become more accessible for a mainstream audience. Gone are the ethereal ruminations on what it is that truly makes us human, and the pertinent examination of the human race’s obsession with technology, and wanting to be as connected and reliant on it as possible. The prescient investigation into the moral argument of government surveillance is also largely jettisoned, a pity as it is a topic that is incredibly relevant today. There are also considerable story elements and scenes borrowed from Oshii’s 2004 sequel, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.
Instead, screenwriters Jamie Moss (Street Kings) and William Wheeler (The Hoax / Queen of Katwe) replace all the thoughtful subject matter with a tiresomely standard conspiracy plot, surrounded by the kind of overly familiar corporate villainy we’ve seen a hundred times before. The duo definitely veer towards Blade Runner and Robocop territory, but can’t come close to matching those films’ imagination and personality. The attempt to ground the film by giving the Major an origins story backfires, over-explaining what should be a reflective and spiritual journey of discovery. The gallery of supporting characters are rudimentary and under-developed, pushed aside so the film-makers can concentrate on the overwhelming production design and visual effects.
Johansson, who caused quite a bit of controversy when she was cast as the Major (a famously Japanese character), delivers a rather misjudged performance, playing the part a little too robotically. More Robocop than replicant, Johansson doesn’t have a strong script to fall back on, whether it be the sharp, satirical edge of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film, or the weighty, humanistic core of Ridley Scott’s influential 1982 sci-fi classic. As such, she comes across as completely hollow. Talented Japanese performers who could have brought the Major to convincing life are Rinko Kikuchi (the Oscar-nominated actress of Pacific Rim and Babel fame), Fumi Nikaido (for anyone who has seen Sion Sono’s insanely unforgettable Why Don’t You Play in Hell? would heartily agree), Sakura Ando (absolutely brilliant in 100 Yen Love and 0.5mm), and Nana Komatsu (who was imposing in The World of Kanako and Destruction Babies).
Oscar winner Binoche (The English Patient / Godzilla) is wasted, as is Japanese superstar/director Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano (Hana-bi / Zatoichi / Outrage), who oddly appears disconnected from the rest of the cast. Asbaek, who was so wonderful in Tobias Lindholm’s series of films R (2010), A Hijacking (2012), and A War (2015), is given little to do here, and Togusa, an integral character in the original films, is almost an extra this time around. Only Kaori Momoi (Sukiyaki Western Django / Love and Honour / Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald / Kagemusha), as Hairi, offers any kind of genuine emotion, and proves to be the stand out member of the cast.
Rupert Sanders, whose only other feature film credit is the totally uninspiring Snow White and the Huntsman, seems a strange choice for a project that requires a singular, intelligent touch. Sanders relies heavily on images from other movies, and any shot that impresses is merely an imitation of something we have witnessed before, whether it be from the 1995 animated version, Blade Runner, Judge Dredd, or The Fifth Element. He also gives the whole endeavour a decidedly artificial look, and whether this is intentional or not is hard to say, but it has the sheen of a brand new video game rather than the tangible qualities of an involving motion picture. By concentrating on the dazzling surface instead of a fluid, compelling story, the pace lags noticeably at several stages, a mistake Oshii never made. Kenji Kawai’s incredible music score is sorely missed, although we do get the main theme played over the end credits.
The praise of course goes to the numerous technicians and artists who have meticulously crammed the screen with advanced cityscapes and abundant technology. Elaborate almost to the point of distraction, the production threatens to cross over into Star Wars prequel-like overkill, but thankfully it never reaches that kind of plastic oppression. The best way to appreciate their work is in 3D, which will have you looking at all parts of the screen.
I can’t believe I’m saying this yet again, after Beauty and the Beast and Power Rangers, but those who are unfamiliar with 1995 film and its 2004 follow-up may get a kick out of Ghost in the Shell 2017, as it offers a number of superficial sensory pleasures that will lightly entertain. But for those who are fans of Mamoru Oshii’s landmark efforts (and there are many), this will be seen as a complete misfire, totally discarding all the details that made them so memorable and influential in the first place.
Major: This is Major, I’m on site.
Major: There’s a microbox up here. Someone’s scanning data traffic. Let’s see what’s worth this kind of surveillance. Accessing hotel security network. Got it, thirty-third floor. Someone contact the president’s staff, someone’s watching him.