Great science fiction doesn’t always age well, but Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime classic Ghost in the Shell still feels remarkably prescient and forward-looking. That’s probably because it had so much more on its mind than its obvious cyberpunk trappings. It was the post-Blade Runner standard-bearer for stories about the eroding lines between humanity and technology, but it also touched on whether ethnic and tribal barriers might be even harder to erase, wondered if we were evolving toward a post-gender society, and considered what all that might mean for notions of identity and individualism. The film and its 2004 sequel have held up well—arguably even better than the manga that inspired them.
So it’s strange that the inevitable but long-delayed Hollywood remake, which boasts cutting-edge visual effects and America’s most bankable actress, feels so dated. There’s some novelty, I guess, in seeing some of the anime’s most memorable images rendered as seamless CG effects, and watching Scarlett Johansson play a character wearing a slinky human suit hasn’t gotten old yet. But you’d need to plug yourself into a pre-Matrix mainframe to find much else of interest here.
The bones of the plot have been ported over more or less intact: Johansson stars as Major, a woman whose brain has been plucked from a human body and installed in a sleek, super-powered humanoid form. Major works for a government security agency that has been more or less taken over by a shadowy corporation called Hanka Robotics, and soon her work puts her at odds with a seemingly superhuman hacker (Michael Pitt) who means to take down the company and anyone associated with it.
There are flashy visuals, to be sure, many of which are almost shot-for-shot reconstructions of sequences from Oshii’s film. Major’s techno-ethereal birthing from a vat of milky fluid is faithfully reproduced, as are her balletic freefalls and her habit of switching to invisibility mode to clear a roomful of heavies. (My fellow nerds of a certain age will remember that this is called thermoptic camouflage, and that it was a novel visual effect in 1995.)
As much as director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) fetishizes the franchise’s now-classic imagery, though, he and his writers (Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger) ignore everything that’s really interesting about the property, opting instead for something that’s more in line with a by-the-numbers superhero origin story.
There are more troubling problems, too, like the now-infamous choice to retain the film’s Asian setting but cast Caucasian actors in all but one of its major roles. (The script actually addresses this choice, in a stunningly tone-deaf plot twist.) Still, the international cast, which includes Japanese pop-culture legend “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, as Major’s handler, and Danish actor Pilou Asbæk, as her camera-eyed sidekick, is the film’s strongest asset, and its best moments are the quiet interludes between the slick but too-familiar action scenes. There was a time when seeing Johansson take out a clutch of sweaty mobsters while chained to a stripper pole would have been a special effect in and of itself. Now it just seems like a good time to make a popcorn run. The film’s one noteworthy stylistic contribution is a pulsing, hypnotic score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe; the visuals, though competently executed, are mostly borrowed from other, better films.
If the only goal was to purge the story of its philosophical underpinnings and still-relevant social commentary and reduce it to a forgettable action flick, Paramount’s glitzy rehash is pretty successful. And now that I think about it, maybe there’s a bleak, if entirely accidental, statement hiding beneath the CG veneer. It’s more than a little creepy, after all, that this new high-tech iteration of a story about the evolution of the soul doesn’t have one of its own.
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