I suppose there’s a thread of grim irony running through the neon hardwiring of Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell, a live-action reskinning of Mamoru Oshii’s seminal 1995 anime (itself adapted from Masamune Shirow’s cult 1989 manga). The property suggests that “Ghosts” are the minds and souls of individuals, extracted and preserved for rehousing in “Shells” – sleek, state-of-the-art robotic bodies. Sanders’ film has an awfully pretty shell; deliriously inventive production design buoyed by visual effects that look every cent of their $110 million price tag. But crack open the body and there’s nothing there but fistfuls of wiring. The ghost isn’t home.
Oshii’s film was shorter, but deeper. It had things to say about the nature of humanity and the rapidly accelerating development of technology. At what point, it asked, does the soul converge with the system? Transhumanists call it the “singularity” – the hypothetical confluence of man and machine. Ghost in the Shell ’17 wants to spoon-feed its audience the same cyberpunk meal, but never gives them anything to chew on.
Sanders might have convincingly borrowed the aesthetic and anarchic spirit of Oshii’s work, but the exposition-heavy screenplay, by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, fails to plumb it for anything meaningful. It once again imagines the vaguely-Asian glass-and-steel metropolis of New Port City; a soulless warren of grim slums and advertisement-festooned skyscrapers. What was once Major Motoko Kusanagi is now Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), a cybernetic squad leader in the elite government counterterrorism unit, Section 9. Responsible for Major’s next-gen innards and skin-tight, formfitting bodysuit is the robotics corporation, Hanka, and it’s snarling CEO, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando).
Let me just stop you there. Yes, you’ve probably figured out where this is going, and no, you don’t get any points for guessing that maybe Major has been told a few porkies about the origins of her brain, or that the soulless for-profit corporation might have something to do with the renegade master-hacker, Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), who’s nabbing the minds of Hanka scientists. At this point, Ghost in the Shell is a victim of its own influence. When the Wachowski’s pitched The Matrix, they declared that they wanted to create a “real” version of the anime. Hollywood has spent the last two decades grafting Ghost in the Shell’s various component parts onto every near-future dystopian sci-fi shindig released since. The bones have been picked clean. Ghost in the Shell’s own adaptation suffers because everything about it worth adapting has already been adapted.
What’s left, in the absence of a compelling story to follow, is the thrill of seeing iconic visual beats transmuted into live-action. And if Rupert Sanders has a real talent, it’s as a visualist. (His previous film was Snow White and the Huntsman, which was stale but at least looked great.) He reconstructs the anime’s big set-piece moments – the scurrying geishas, an invisible punch-up in an urban lagoon, the stomping arachnoid tank – with real finesse. And there’s a facile novelty in that, especially in such an expensive-looking production, and when so little else feels worthwhile – least of all how the various characters navigate these sequences. The action is at least shot for clarity and doesn’t fall victim to overediting, but the mechanics of each slow-motion spectacle feel as rote and predictable as the narrative.
That these graceful acrobatics are being performed by one of the most beautiful women in the world, and that she’s mostly performing them in a flesh-coloured latex stocking, certainly helps. A lot has been made of Scarlett Johansson’s casting as the Major, and while it is lamentable that Hollywood missed an open goal in not casting a Japanese actress in what is distinctly a Japanese property, you can see their logic to a certain extent. Johansson has made a career out of her beauty and her affectless, breathy tone. In Spike Jonze’s Her, she played a computer operating system that Joaquin Phoenix fell in love with; in Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, she was an extra-terrestrial sexpot; and in Luc Besson’s abysmal Lucy, she ended up being stored on a USB stick. These are all roles that required Johansson to be seductive without being emotive; Ghost in the Shell’s Major isn’t much of a character, but Johansson makes her work on that level, at least.
Nobody in this is much of a character, now that I think about it. Major’s creation and maintenance is overseen by a genius surgeon who even Juliette Binoche can’t warm up; she’s assisted in the field by a hulking goggle-eyed agent, Batou, who doesn’t give the talented Danish actor Pilou Asbaek anything to play; and her operations are overseen by the legendary “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, whose character rests entirely on the audience realising that, yes, that is indeed “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. This is a surprisingly diverse cast of talented actors who all seem to be realising, in unison, that they’re a little above the material. And probably wondering where all the Japanese people are.
It’s worth mentioning, isn’t it? I know, I know – I’m the last person you’d expect to find complaining about this kind of thing, especially after I went out of my way to defend The Great Wall against similar charges. Frankly, I’d rather not have to mention it, and given that I’m in the privileged position of not being the victim in instances of Hollywood “whitewashing” and cultural appropriation, I can sometimes be content to do that. I wanted to, here, especially in light of Johansson’s decent turn, and I would have left it alone if it wasn’t for a staggeringly tone-deaf plot twist late in the movie which makes Ghost in the Shell’s attendant controversy irritatingly unavoidable. If it were intended as a meta commentary, a subversion, or even a joke, I could have made a case for it; as it stands, the reveal literalises the very thing Western filmmaking is often accused of, and does so in a way that is so startlingly ignorant, short-sighted and thoughtless that it beggars belief.
Honestly, though, Ghost in the Shell is so utterly unmemorable that it hardly matters. It’s the most difficult kind of movie to write about and to try and articulate an opinion on; it’s exactly as proficient as it needs to be to get the job done, and neither good or terrible enough to warrant any kind of animated response. It’s just a mediocre near-future action-adventure. The travesty is that it could – and should – have been so much more. Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell is not a niche cultural curiosity; outside of otaku fandom, it’s arguably the most widely-known and well-regarded example of Japanese visual inventiveness and storytelling panache. That Sanders’ version is divorced from that distinct Asian sensibility, that it missed a gift-wrapped opportunity to cast an Asian in an iconic Asian role, and that it ultimately treats its refusal to do that with such callous smugness and disregard, is a major (ahem) disappointment. But what can I say? It’s a movie about a sleek and shiny exterior without very much on the inside. Mostly, Ghost in the Shell performs exactly as advertised.