Ghost In The Shell

First, we have to talk about whitewashing. Given the controversy, it’s what you think about walking into the cinema.

I’m certainly in the school that thinks it would have been great to have a Japanese lead – but I can also understand why they didn’t go that way. It’s a big budget movie with a ridiculous amount of CGI. Financing its $110m cost would have been challenging with an unknown actress. And what’s more, Scarlett Johansson looks a lot like the Major from the manga – who has blue eyes.

Casting controversy notwithstanding, the film constantly reflects its Japanese origins. There are kanji everywhere, there are noodle shops and geisha doll robots, and above all there is the magnificent Beat Takeshi, who delivers nearly all his lines in Japanese because it’s the future and everyone understands him perfectly. Despite the Hollywood remake, this particular slice of pop culture is very much made in Japan.

It would be great if Hollywood was substantially more diverse – but what gets greenlit also reflects what we, the audience watch, and who is thereby a bankable star. So in one sense, it’s as much our fault as the filmmakers’, surely? And hey – the Rock is the highest paid actor in Hollywood, and Fast 8 has mostly non-white stars in Vin Diesel’s team. We’re getting somewhere – slowly.

And while we’re talking diversity, let’s not forget how rare it still is to have a lead female character in a big budget action film. Here ScarJo isn’t the one female Avenger, possessing no superpowers – she’s the apex predator.

So, was it worth all the controversy? Well, whether or not Ghost In The Shell represents a valuable use of 90-odd minutes of your time depends what you’re looking for.

If you like Blade Runner, Total Recall and other movies based on Philip K. Dick’s books, there’s plenty of that sort of stuff here, to the point of derivativeness. The porous line between human and cyborg or android, the deceptiveness of memory, the huge corporation that wants to build robotic humans – it’s all been thrown in a blender and served up with utter sincerity, as though these ideas were minty fresh.

Add in cyberpunk visionary William Gibson’s Neuromancer idea of “jacking in” your body to a network, and the now-near-ubiquitous sci-fi trope of body augmentation, and this is a future we’ve seen a lot of in the past. 

The Tyrell Corporation equivalent is called Hanka Robotics here, and in the gorgeous credits sequence we see them assembling a new body (shell) for Scarlett Johansson’s brain (ghost – or soul might be a better translation – they also use that term).

Major Mira Killian is the first of her kind, and her phenomenal physical abilities make her the best agent in the mysterious Section 9, an elite anti-terrorist bureau in whatever future society this is. Takeshi is her boss.

I’m going to leave the plot right there because there isn’t much of it. Oh, I’m sure that technically it fits the proper beats of the three-act structure, but really, this is all stuff we’ve seen before, except that it’s Scarlett Johansson doing it. She’s perfectly good in this. Not great, because there isn’t really much scope for greatness here, but I can’t fault her performance. She’s intense when she’s required to be intense, which is almost all of the time. 

Among the other actors, Juliette Binoche’s take on Astroboy’s scientist/parental figure Dr Tenma is particularly strong, while Pilou Asbæk makes a fine offsider for major as Batou, and provides most of the minimal humanity on offer throughout this hyper stylised story.

What keeps Ghost In The Shell from being just a mash-up of earlier, better sci-fi movies is the stunning production design, especially in 3D, which is how I saw it. Inspired by the anime’s use of Hong Kong as the visual template for a high-tech, high-density and yet physically dilapidated Asian harbourside city, director Rupert Sanders’ team many of their shot there, and then sweated over every frame of this film. It shows.

At times it’s almost overwhelmingly sumptuous, as with the incredible Yakuza nightclub set, and elsewhere it’s barely evolved, as in a pivotal scene set in an astonishing circular apartment building that really exists in HK. The result feels like a European arthouse movie with a surprisingly high budget rather than the somewhat boilerplate Hollywood cyberthriller it is.

At just 106 minutes, the movie is tight enough to be engrossing, and while it’s almost entirely emotionally unengaging, there’s enough happening visually to make it worthy of a recommendation. Hong Kong looks incredible – Causeway Bay’s famous circular footbridge features at a pivotal moment, and the constant shots of the city’s overbearing housing estates with their bulging air-conditioners show the grit amidst the gloss. 

If you like neon-drenched futuristic movies, this offers a more intriguing vision than most – it really does feel like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner world moved forward another 50 years.

I know almost nothing about the earlier manga and anime versions, so I’ve no idea how faithful this live action version is. Perhaps the ideas on offer felt less reheated back in those iterations? I could imagine a sequel that’s significantly better than this if it employed a more inventive narrative – here’s hoping.

I’m glad I saw Ghost In The Shell, but it’s by no means a great film. Instead, it feels like yet another chapter in Hollywood’s programme of rehashing every cultural property that’s got a loyal audience who might go and see it. But just as the title refers to something fabricated that has the essence of humanity transplanted into it, let’s say that this shell, as pretty as it is, could have used quite a bit more ghost in it.

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