There is a sequence lasting over three minutes in the original Ghost in the Shell, the 1995 Japanese film that has come to be known as one of the greatest animé films of all time, in which nothing relating to the plot happens. Rather, we glide through the film’s stunning cyberpunk environment, a futuristic Japanese city based on contemporary Hong Kong. It’s a wonderful exploration of space that gives the audience a prolonged moment of thought, a context in which they can contemplate the profound ideas that the film has raised. In a recent interview with tech reviewers CNET, Rupert Sanders, the director of the remake, notes the “stillness and quietness” of the original film. Then he delivers the killer blow – “In modern cinema, the expectations are different.”
Sanders’ musings on his film are a stark betrayal of its glaring lack of ambition: it is quite obviously meant to pander to audience expectations. And while the original film is by no means perfect – it is possible he had the film’s exposition-heavy finale in mind when he made the comments – the remake lacks its brilliant sense of restraint.
The premise is largely left untouched. Set in a future in which consciousness can link directly into a vast digital mainframe, Scarlett Johansson plays the Major, a counter-cyberterrorist field commander who is the first person to have her human brain placed into a wholly-bionic body. When a shadowy presence starts to murder key figures in the cybernetic enhancement company that created her body, Major is set on a journey that reveals disturbing truths about her former identity.
The film’s greatest achievement is its stunning rendering of its futuristic setting. There is a great deal of beauty to be found in the wires, neon signs and huge electronic advertisements of the future, and Sanders exploits his environment brilliantly. It is credit to Johansson’s performance that she is never overshadowed by the CGI in constant flux around her.
Much has been said about the controversial choice to cast Johansson in a role that has always been Japanese. Within the film, the whitewashing becomes all the more problematic. It is difficult to explain why without getting into spoiler territory, but suffice to say that any ideas of a self divorced from racial and gender identities which the film may raise are a long way from being realised, not least by the filmmakers themselves. In one scene, a main character raises an eyebrow at a transgender person in a public toilet – given that both individuals are cyborgs, this seems like deeply-misguided writing. The scene is indicative of the film’s failure to fully grasp the themes that are constantly lurking beneath its shiny surface.
Interesting ideas are addressed, but shoved down the audience’s throats through a series of ridiculous speeches. This is a film that simply lacks any subtlety. Even the iconic, eerie soundtrack of the original is replaced with obligatory strings, de-tuned beeps and bops and preposterous electronic foghorns.
Ghost in the Shell boasts glorious visuals and significantly ups the action of the original. Ultimately, however, what lies beneath the surface is too obvious – there’s not even a ghost in this shell.