It seems like we've been talking about the live action remake of Ghost in the Shell for a really long time. Now that it's finally here, we're not going to waste time weighing up the quality of the source material. It's proven itself in the manga iteration, as well as the cult anime film that followed. Instead, the question is this: does the remake add anything to the discourse? And as such, should you bother paying to see it or should you give it a miss?
Ghost in the Shell, in case you're not familiar, is based on a 1989 manga by Masamune Shirow. Protagonist Major Mira Killian (played here by Scarlett Johansson) is a member of Section 9, a unit of elite officers tasked with fighting cyber criminals. Major has a human brain and consciousness (a 'ghost') inside a fully cybernetic body. Her previous life is a mystery, even to herself. But when a delinquent hacker known only as Kuze (Michael Pitt) starts to infiltrate the network to which all humans are connected, a series of events are set in motion that lead Major on a classic origin chase, punctuated with shadowy memories ('glitches') from her past.
Let's start with the good: the visuals in this new version of Shirow's story are stunning. Director Rupert Sanders has crafted a really good looking film, with many rich scenes and compositions. It's literally a smorgasbord of sci-fi aesthetics. But, like the model children of celebrities, it was always going to look great, because the source material is spectacular. Many of the film's most memorable images are taken almost shot for shot from the original. It's great to look at, sure, but no points for originality here.
Moreover, this Americanised take on Ghost in the Shell feels decidedly more commercial (read: dumber) than its Japanese counterpart. Many of the same philosophical ideas are present, but you can't help but feel as though they're being fed to you with a spoon. Likewise, the mood here is less melancholy, less isolating. The eerie, disconcerting quality of the anime has been diluted, and the film feels weaker for it. The filmmakers have woven in extra content from the manga, shed a few of the more ambiguous scenes to resolve the narrative, and maximised Johansson's screen time. On the plus side, the score absolutely holds up, with composer Clint Mansell building on what came before while also bringing something fresh to the table.
Finally, let's get to the big white elephant in the room: why was Scarlett Johansson, a Caucasian woman, cast in a role that many have said should have gone to an Asian or Asian-American actor? Sadly, whitewashing is a very real problem in the film industry, where cultural whiteness (and often white actors) is inserted into films where it simply doesn't belong. Did Scarjo bring something that a Japanese actor couldn't? Quite simply, the answer is no.
Still, the sad truth is that all the controversy and talk of whitewashing in the lead up to the film may well be the most interesting about it. It may look pretty, but look any deeper and Ghost in the Shell is a bit of a fizzer.
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