Ghost in the Shell review
Remaking a beloved film always invites plenty of criticism. But remaking an iconic Japanese animation 22 years later with a white lead is just asking for trouble.
It’s fair to say that Ghost in the Shell has undergone more than its fair share of criticism before even reaching cinemas. But is it a worthy remake, or should you just re-watch the original?
Release date and tickets
Ghost in the Shell is out in UK cinemas from 30 March 2017, and the US from 31 March 2017, with most other countries getting the film the same weekend.
If you want to book tickets right now in the UK, you can do so from Cineworld, Odeon, and Vue. Plus, check out our guide to buying cheap cinema tickets for some tips on how to save money and get your tickets at the best possible price.
If you've never seen the original animation, you can grab it on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon or pick up the original comic. And if you're looking for more viewing inspiration, you might want to try our top ten sci-fi films ever.
Ghost in the Shell review
In case you haven’t seen the original, the new Ghost in the Shell is an adaption of a 1989 manga, most famously turned into a Japanese animated film in 1995.
More than 20 years on, that film is still heralded as best anime films of all time, celebrated for its cyberpunk aesthetic, beautiful animation, and complex themes. Can this live-action Hollywood remake live up to that pedigree? In a word: no.
Scarlett Johansson takes on the titular role, Major Mira Killian. She’s a cyborg, her human brain encased in an entirely synthetic body, created by the Hanka corporation and working for the secretive government agency Section 9 to fight cyber-terrorists in a world where high-tech implants are commonplace.
In this case, the terrorist threat is Kuze (Michael Pitt), a mysterious figure who’s been hacking into the cybernetic implants of senior Hanka employees for reasons unknown.
Watching the Major’s back are her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the scientist who saved her life by building her new mechanical body.
In case you haven’t noticed, for a film based on a story set in Japan, none of those main cast members are Japanese - or even Asian at all. Unsurprisingly, that’s ruffled a few feathers in an age when Hollywood whitewashing is under increasing scrutiny.
To be clear, not everyone is white. Takeshi Kitano takes on a fairly prominent role as the gruff head of Section 9 who refuses to speak anything but Japanese, while the rest of the unit is a fairly diverse bunch. There are also plenty of Asian actors among the extras, one of the few overt signs that the film is set in Japan.
The film also attempts to tackle the whitewashing controversy head on with a narrative explanation of why Johansson’s character is white, though we suspect this will irritate more people than it appeases.
Still, setting aside the race controversy, the cast is perfectly able. Johansson doesn’t get much to do as the intentionally blank-faced Major, but Pitt brings some much-needed character to Kuze, and Binoche adds a touch of warmth to every scene she’s in.
The problem is that as fine as the actors are, they’re let down at every turn by a script that bogs them down in exposition and blunt, on-the-nose dialogue. Everything is made literal, nothing is left up to interpretation, and the cast are left stumbling through scenes trying to make sense of it all.
It’s the sign of a film terrified of the idea that someone somewhere might ever suffer momentary confusion or uncertainty. “We preserved your ghost by putting it in this shell,” Binoche’s doctor tells the Major after bringing her to life in the opening sequence, as if the producers were terrified that even the title was too complex for the average audience member.
That literal mindedness, driven by a colossal underestimation of audience intelligence, runs throughout the film. It only serves the purpose of slowing dialogue scenes to a crawl, getting in the way of proper character development, and telegraphing every major plot twist 20 minutes ahead of time.
Along the way, almost all of the philosophical intrigue of the source material is stripped away. The questions around A.I. and the nature of life are dropped in favour of a conspiracy theory about the Major’s creation - there are some half-hearted gestures at questions around memory and the self, but it’s mostly shallow and forgettable stuff.
What the film does provide in spades is visual flair - it would be hard to argue that this isn’t one of the most visually arresting blockbusters of the year so far. CGI merges (almost) flawlessly with physical effects, bringing to life a glossier take on Blade Runner’s grungy dystopia.
Tellingly, the visuals are at their best when director Rupert Sanders steps out of the anime’s shadow to offer his own creations. The iconic spider tank and camouflaged water fight look great, but can’t hold a candle to the insectile robotic geishas or corporate holograms towering above the city skyline.
A skirmish between the Major and a handful of goons with stun rods is a clear highlight, the darkened scene cut through with arcing bursts of electric blue light. Moments like this hint at a more compelling, smothered beneath the weight of a script that won’t give the film - or characters - space to breathe.
Ghost in the Shell isn’t exactly a bad film, but it’s hard to recommend. Anyone who’s a fan of the original will likely find this a disappointment, while anyone who hasn’t seen the anime would be better off watching that instead. The visuals are phenomenal (and almost justify a cinema trip by themselves) but there’s not much else to love here.