Director: Rupert Sanders
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano
Do you ever find yourself stiff-necked only to realise with horror and contempt for yourself that it’s because you’ve been craning to read your smartphone for too long? The Ghost In The Shell live action remake takes this mild stunting of our natural evolution and expands on it the way science fiction often enjoys. Taking something pervasive in the present and forwarding it to its logical conclusion. This, one assumes, is the explanation behind the appalling posture maintained by the Major (Scarlett Johansson); a state of the art cyborg who lumbers stiltedly throughout, as though a corrupted memory file has convinced her that she has to permanently stoop to avoid a low ceiling. I got neck-ache just watching her.
The need for corrective programming courses all through this film, which has been dogged with conceptual problems since it’s very announcement (you’ll be aware, I’m going to assume, of the whitewashing controversy of Johansson’s casting so I won’t waste paragraphs rehashing all that). That Hollywood is a craven remake factory isn’t exactly news, but the transplanting of Masamune Shirow’s beloved and hugely influential cyberpunk classic into this hollow body is a particular irony given the material in question, which – at it’s best – probes longingly into questions of identity and originality, concepts that Sanders’ film approaches with bumbling hypocrisy.
Sanders was an inauspicious candidate to realise a task this big, his only prior feature film as director being the extraordinarily atrocious Snow White And The Huntsman. In terms of his own personal development Ghost In The Shell is a step up and an advancement, but to cinema-going audiences (let alone fans of the material) it’s hard to call this anything other than an abject failure.
We open with the Major being established; a human brain contained within a cyborg body, property of Hanka Robotics and on loan to counter terrorism agency Section 9. It’s the future and synthetic upgrades for humans are commonplace. This has given rise to a new form of ‘hacking’ (do people in the real word actually call themselves ‘hackers’ anymore?) in which a person’s thoughts and memories are commodities to be stolen and traded. One such ‘hacker’, Kuze (Michael Carmen[?] Pitt) has revealed himself to Section 9. It’s up to the Major and the rest of the squad to find him and stop him.
Sanders is so acutely indebted to Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime that he goes to extreme lengths to emulate entire sequences, in effect recalling the total redundancy of Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. In a technical sense some of this is moderately impressive. Animation isn’t confined to the same physics as reality, so there are times when the dogged insistence at replication encourages a perverse, dwindling respect. Yet Sanders’ film (written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger) is also eager to define itself as a separate entity. It’s the same awkward cross-purpose confusion that collapses most high-profile remakes.
In order to do so, much of the plot of the anime is jettisoned in favour of, essentially, an origin story that’s told backwards, as the Major’s search for Kuze becomes a search for her own true identity. This approach means that all of the existential talking points that Ghost In The Shell comes equipped with are left unacknowledged; intriguing data files for another time. This movie would prefer to simply burrow deep into excusing its own existence.
Credit where it’s due then, Ghost In The Shell confronts it’s harshest criticism head-on, building the whitewashing of its central character into it’s very story. However, it becomes so fixated on this diegetic approach that it overrules all other concerns. Nevertheless, this does put us onto a temporarily engaging course. A mid-film scene in which the Major encounters her own mother is (by miles) the best it has to offer because, in this moment, all pretense to any other motive is dropped. For the first and last time a scene is played for exactly what it is. It’s the only shard of emotion you’re likely to find here and – rather crushingly – the second scene with the mother, much later, cancels it out by being (by miles) the film’s worst. Uncomfortable doesn’t even come close.
Much of the rest of the time is spent nodding so heavily at the previous film that ‘new’ audiences will probably be left with more questions than answers (why does the Major go diving? why is this obviously where she’ll be?), or skirting gracelessly around anything resembling a worthwhile avenue of discourse. While Johansson puts effort into the role, Sanders ensures that nothing much registers beyond a surface level.
Part of the problem, perhaps, is that time has simply overtaken him. In 1995 Ghost In The Shell was modestly revolutionary, inspiring a great number of popular titles (The Matrix being the most prominent and memorable). In 2017, Ghost In The Shell is dogged by its own legacy. Much of the visual dynamism has been diluted through theft or homage. Sanders’ most overt aesthetic change is actually retrograde, as he steals from Blade Runner in order to erect his vision of the future. But it’s a shitty, pixellated version of Ridley Scott’s future; cluttered, tacky and unimaginative. Ghost In The Shell comes to look, itself, like a copy of a copy of a copy. You can practically hear the nuance and existential provocations being deleted with every script change.
By the end the reason for this becomes clear. Where previously the story was a rather procedural way of getting to the philosophical meat of Shirow’s manga, Sanders’ Ghost In The Shell has only one clear objective in mind; establishing a franchise. This movie’s primary function is to set up the possibility of the next one. It’s a moronic, inherently unsatisfying approach which Hollywood would do well to abandon. It turns the film itself into pure function. All too ironically, what’s critically missing here is a little soul.