Rupert Sanders’ 2017 live action remake of revered 90’s anime Ghost in the Shell seems destined to go down in history solely for the controversy that preceded its release. The whitewashing debacle has evoked a sizeable debate in the pop culture sphere about the lack of Asian American representation in Hollywood, made all the more understandable as Asian Americans made up the largest portion of cinema goers in the US last year.
The controversy was made more complicated by the original author of the Manga claiming to have never envisaged the lead character as Japanese and complimenting the film’s casting decisions – leaving an ethical tug of war far more engrossing than the film it was backlashing against.
While watching Ghost in the Shell, my mind didn’t wander back to the original 1995 anime. In fact, the only version I’ve seen is a horrendously dubbed version that I’ve blocked out of my memory, to the extent that I felt like I was seeing this story from a fresh perspective. Instead of focusing on the controversial context surrounding the film, my intention was to see this as a fresh science fiction film, taking the kinetic creation of futuristic anime and making it feel tangible when transformed in to live action.
The only problem is, Ghost in the Shell doesn’t recall the visual style of anime, so much as it is visually derivative of countless other science fiction films. The original anime was a genre trailblazer, going on to inspire countless films including The Matrix. This remake feels at least two decades late to the party as it haemorrhages a soulless, bubblegum visual style defined by cityscapes that look less like Blade Runner and more like the deliberately unrealistic future of Back to the Future 2, with a plethora of oversized projected 3D adverts taking up the majority of the city reminiscent of Marty McFly being attacked by an advert for Jaws (“It still looks fake!”).
For a narrative about human consciousness, the film is ironically detached, favouring an unrealistic aesthetic over exploring the humanity that is inherent in the story. This deliberate visual choice, or the prioritising of style over substance, wouldn’t be a problem if the futuristic world it created was anything approaching tangible or visually sumptuous. Instead, the film is disgustingly garish, painting a portrait of a future Tokyo that will never materialise – a playground of oversized adverts and people with impractical cosmetic surgery.
As for its insight into the human condition, the film falls short of the mark, failing to understand why an entire generation was enamoured by the source material in the first place. The closest it gets to pathos is the awkward third act, deviating from the anime in how it attempts to have its cake and eat it about the white washing saga, with toe curlingly cringeworthy results.
At the opening of the film, there is a creation sequence that with a hundred million dollar budget fails to achieve the otherworldly wonder of a similar sequence that opened Scarlett Johannson’s significantly superior 2013 sci fi Under the Skin. This comparison stretches further, as despite being one of the most ambitious art films of the decade, Jonathan Glazer’s film still displayed a unique, hitherto untapped insight in to the human condition, which is not detected in a single frame of this megabudget mediocrity.
Of course, the film’s faults lie squarely with the director, for managing to assemble a talented cast to help depict one of the most resonant science fiction tales from modern pop culture – only to focus entirely on the pretty visuals. Sanders’ background directing commercials could be blamed, if it weren’t for the fact the Jonathan Glazer is also a prominent commercial director, and he still managed to direct Johannson in a boundary pushing masterpiece of the genre.
It isn’t that the cast are wasted exactly; Johansson as always is electric to watch and almost manages to sell the material she’s working with, even as she’s constantly overshadowed by the nagging realisation that this is the most minor effort in her recent sci-fi oeuvre. The perennially excellent Pilou Asbæk, starring alongside Johansson for the second time after his brief appearance in the gloriously bonkers Lucy, manages to inject some personality in to an inexplicably dull side character; he’s always a welcome screen presence and seeing a thankless role handed to a talented actor with some natural charisma instead of some Jai Courtney clone is always a plus.
Finally and inarguably the most memorable thing about this ill conceived cash grab is Takeshi Kitano, who seems to have casually strolled in from a different, more badass, film altogether; he doesn’t even speak the same language as anybody else onscreen, causing for awkward conversations where he speaks Japanese, somebody speaks English in response, yet both parties appear to understand each other. I don’t have anything constructive to say about this trope, other than that it may be my biggest movie pet peeve.
Ghost in the Shell feels like a hangover from a different era of big budget cinema. By depicting a patently unrealistic future in such a soulless way, it feels less like a remake of a revered classic so much as it feels like The Fifth Element without the joy, Blade Runner without the artistry or Total Recall without the self awareness and loveable campiness. The author of the manga may have given this remake the seal of approval, but its generic nature seems to act to the detriment of the ambitious, head spinning wonder he originally envisaged for this tale. It’s a Major disappointment.