Ghost in the Shell is a remake of the classic Japanese animated science fiction film of the same name and stars Scarlett Johansson as Major, a human robot hybrid who serves as a counter terrorist operative for Hanka, an omnipresent cooperation-providing cybernetic enhancements to the world at large. After a series of terrorist attacks during which the victims had their minds hacked, Major is hell-bent on tracking down the mysterious culprit, known only as Kuze. However, after digging deeper, Major soon finds that the Hanka corporation might be the true villain and that her entire past was a lie. With no one to trust, Major must uncover her lost past, find Kuze, bring justice to those who wronged her, and stop the Hanka corporation’s plans before it’s too late. I would like to preface this review by stating that I have never seen the original 1995 film; however, I do know from reviews and friends that it is considered a fantastic and influential film by many critics, many saying it is a timeless masterpiece of animation. But, in order to remain impartial, I will review this film on its own merits, few though there may be.
In my opinion, the best and worst aspects of this film are its themes, specifically what they are and how the film presents them. Ghost in the Shell tackles many different subjects, including how our memories define us, the split between a society that accepts comfortable fallacies rather than embracing harsher uncomfortable truths, how many people are forced to define themselves, and how the society we live in builds our identities, causing people to become less individual. Those are a lot of concepts to compress into one feature film, and it would be a herculean task for any movie to do so. This film avoids that process entirely by not bothering to really address any of these concepts in full. All these themes and ideas are present, but the film doesn’t seem to care, neglecting to discuss them in favor of simply relaying the plot to the audience. To further clarify what I mean by the term discussed, I’m referring to any interactions or dialogue between characters, visual clues, or just anything that would tell the audience that the people behind the film are consciously trying to relay some sort of deeper message. I only extrapolated all the complex ideas I listed earlier from just the progression of the plot and some plot specific dialogue. There is nothing else, no groundbreaking messages the character is monologuing about, no poignant visual images that make the viewer contemplate their meaning, nothing.
This film cares more about what the plot is than what the plot signifies. And that wouldn’t be so bad if this film’s predecessor didn’t do the opposite and tackle all these ideas and be a deep thoughtful movie. The original is known for using a science fiction and action to portray deeper themes about humanity, while this film uses the original to display an action science fiction backdrop. While the original anime inspired The Matrix, all this film can inspire are movie reviews decrying how subpar it is. You might be thinking that I am being irrational, and the people who want to see this film or any mainstream film just want to be entertained and don’t care about a deeper meaning within the piece. I would retort that the entire point of fiction as an art form, from the very best to the very worst is to relay ideas and messages to an audience. All mainstream fiction does this, even if it doesn’t know it. Technically that is the point of character arcs, to show a character changing because of specific circumstances and that process being a message about something.
Themes and messages are the backbone of all serious fiction. As a result, when this movie takes the original Ghost in the Shell and strips all the soul out of it until it is essentially a plot synopsis, it takes something amazing and makes it mediocre. Movies are supposed to be something more meaningful than entertainment, and this new Ghost in the Shell tries to achieve that by just retreading the plot of the original and not putting any effort into what the story represents. It is soulless and aggravating and frustratingly ok, not striving to be anything more than a plot.
Despite this criticism, I did like some things about the film, and by some I mean two. The design of the city and the way it was shot make this movie one of the most beautiful in recent memory for me. Maybe I am just a sucker for spratling neon heterotopias (multicultural mega cities), but the dirty, cramped towering metropolis, covered head to toe with looming holographic advertisements, is so appealing to me. If still images from this film were compiled in a coffee table book, I would be the first to buy it. The sound design is also great and can be very ominous at times. Other than that, this film is a huge, dirty, stinking pile of o.k, which is the worst thing a movie can be.
In contrast to these achievements, the acting is unremarkable, especially from Scarlett Johansson, who is doing an insultingly lazy, standard emotionless monotone robot voice, soulless much like both her character and the film at large. Also, there’s the fact that she is a caucasian woman playing an explicitly Asian role (not just in the original, in this they make the effort to point out how she is japanese). Many people decry this as racism on Hollywood’s part, preferring to cast a white actress over ethnic actors. I see it more as a marketing ploy, as there aren’t any mainstream Asian actresses that could draw in the crowds that the movie needed. It is safer to make a blockbuster film starring a beloved white actress than a b-list asian one, no matter how much more talented they may be. I understand the reasoning behind this move, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t cheap, lazy, and set up by a system influenced by racism.
Speaking of cheap and lazy, let’s return to the movie. The dialogue is wooden and stale, the action unimpressive and excessive, and protagonist Major is completely underdeveloped. The movie seems to think she has an emotional deficiency resulting from an identity problem, but neither I, nor the script for that matter, has a firm of understanding of the issue. The movie’s villain isn’t interesting; the hero isn’t interesting; the plot isn’t interesting. It’s a feast for the eyes but nothing more. This film is a cinematic loaf of sliced bread, serviceable, but wholly without any seasoning or dressing to make it anything more than a loaf of bread. From what I can tell from reviews of the original film, any great themes that are present are just taken from the 1995 version. If I can give this movie any lasting credit, it is that it’s lack of skill and deft as a film made me want to watch the original. It seems to me that all this new film is, is a faint shadow of what the original was, dressed up in some pretty CGI imagery. It is literally a ghost in a shell, and I will give it a C-.
By Sam Finbury