Ghost in the Shell review

The live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell is a cinematic cubic zirconia that thinks it’s a diamond. The real thing exists, and is much easier to recognize; even at its gloomy, stylish best, this version is a poser unable to hide its true nature. The 2017 Ghost in the Shell is itself a ghost, a trace of something familiar left behind that can’t quite replicate the sense of being introduced to a strange new world that feels disturbingly close to our own. Though many of the themes inherent in this story are still relevant in 2017, nearly 30 years after the Masamune Shirow manga was first published and more than 20 years after the release of the iconic anime, Ghost in the Shell fails to capitalize.

Here, Scarlett Johansson plays the Major, the leader of Section 9, a police unit focused on thwarting hackers in a future where people get cybernetic enhancements to their bodies just like they’re getting a new tattoo or piercing. The Major is the pinnacle of such enhancements: in a brief prologue set a year before the main story, we learn that while her brain is human, the rest of her is entirely synthetic and dubbed a “weapon” by the head of the company that saved her mind for usage in a mechanical form. She still has flashes of her past, a struggle that gets worse as she tries to chase down a mysterious, seemingly all-powerful hacker named Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt) whose connection to her goes deeper than expected.

This Ghost in the Shell, among other issues, suffers from feeling like the last runner in a race that long since ended. The manga and anime have been so influential to the point where films inspired by the original Ghost in the Shell have themselves inspired other artists; the obvious example, and one that’s easy to think of while watching this remake, is The Matrix. But this film, helmed respectably if unremarkably by Rupert Sanders, owes an almost equal debt to the seminal sci-fi neo-noir Blade Runner, specifically in its production design. (A lot—a lot—of the establishing shots of the city, with its larger-than-life ads, sleek skyscrapers, and futuristic transportation, feel like carbon copies from Ridley Scott’s 1982 film.) And so, from start to finish, this Ghost in the Shell is chasing ghosts of its own with no hope of success.

But the largest problem that Ghost in the Shell faces is one of its own creation: whitewashing. There’s no way to ignore this very real issue; when you adapt a memorable Japanese story and hire primarily White actors (Johansson, Pitt, Danish actor Pilou Asbæk, and the predictably wonderful Juliette Binoche, among others) as major players, you are courting controversy. Without spoiling anything, it’s safe to say that Ghost in the Shell is unable to bear the weight of that controversy in spite of, or perhaps because of, kinda-sorta injecting whitewashing into the plot. As troubling as it is to see actors like Johansson and Pitt playing characters in a firmly Asian story, it’s equally frustrating to see the handful of Asian actors among the ensemble given very little to do. (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano, as the Section 9 Chief, gets a couple of suitably badass moments in the final third. Until then, it’s as if he was cast solely because someone, possibly Sanders, thought it’d be pretty cool to have Kitano in the movie without giving him any material.) Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese story; to have so few prominent characters played by people of color, let alone Japanese actors, is a wild, baffling misstep.

It’s even more baffling when you consider that Sanders is, if nothing else, a solid director of visually arresting images. There were quite a few in his last film, the equally turgid Snow White and the Huntsman; two movies may not make a trend, but Sanders could potentially make a good movie in the future if he had a halfway decent script. The adaptation here, by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger, is as dour and humorless as the Major herself. Johansson and Pitt, in separate ways, deliver uniquely lifeless performances as two sides of the same coin. A charitable person could say these are intentional decisions—they play characters who inhabit literally robotic forms, so why not perform robotically? Certainly, in her career-best Under the Skin, Johansson was able to depict someone on the knife’s edge between humanity and soullessness. Here, she’s as out of place as her nameless alien in that film must have felt. The few times when the Major gets into true battle mode briefly recall Johansson’s work in Lucy and the Marvel movies, but largely, she’s a bland non-presence.

Notions of identity being malleable thanks to overreaching technology, and of our realities being redefined and shifted, are still achingly present. Ghost in the Shell does not feel antiquated in spite of being 30 years past its creation date, even as it finally leaps off the page into live-action form. There’s a way to adapt the Shirow manga in a way that feels fresh and alive. But this specific adaptation goes about it almost wholly incorrectly. (Binoche, as a conflicted scientist who feels close to the Major, is easily the best part; she invests her character with an almost embarrassing amount of emotion.) From its whitewashed lead to its flat retelling, Ghost in the Shell can try to act like the real thing, but it’s merely shiny and hollow.

/Film Rating: 4 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.