Hollywood remakes of foreign films are usually met with a chorus of loud groans from fans of the original, and with good reason. Sure, we sometimes get a Departed or a Magnificent Seven out of American remakes, but for the most part, the expectation is that Hollywood will do whatever it can to de-fang the original, dumbing it down into something inoffensive and tailored for mass-market appeal. When it comes to Hollywood’s latest attempt to adapt a foreign property, in this case, Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime opus Ghost in the Shell, this expectation has been met. This version of Ghost in the Shell is more or less exactly what fans of the original feared it would be when the project was first announced: a hollow, glitzy, superficial remake with all of the depth, intrigue, and artistry surgically removed. For casual moviegoers, Ghost in the Shell‘s biggest offense will be that it’s largely forgettable, another shiny but ultimately meaningless bauble to spend a few hours watching, but fans of the original (this critic included) will probably leave the theater depressed and angered.
Ghost in the Shell takes place in a not-too-distant future where advances in cybernetics have made human augmentation a reality, and almost everyone is now sporting some kind of cyborg enhancements. The main character is The Major, a member of an elite counter-terrorist unit that deals with new forms of crime unique to the cybernetic age. While in the original full-body cyborgs aren’t unheard of, the remake has Scarlett Johansson’s version of The Major as the first of her kind. When executives of Hanka Robotics, the company behind the cybernetics revolution, are murdered in a series of attacks, Major and the rest of her unit must find the culprit. However, the investigation turns out to be more complicated than Major anticipated, and she begins to question her past and origins.
The initial fear that the Hollywood remake would take this complex, nuanced moral conundrum and either remove it or simplify it has, unfortunately, been entirely realized.
The original Ghost in the Shell, which was based off a comic by Masamune Shirow, is a deeply-layered work, mixing political intrigue with the philosophical quandaries of posthumanism, the movement towards the augmentation of human bodies with cybernetics. The Major, in the midst of her duties, finds herself questioning her own authenticity as a human being. In a world where memories can be hacked and re-written, and AI is growing more and more advanced, our certainty at our own authenticity as human beings grow uncertain. If all the things we use to define ourselves, such as memory, personality, and our bodies, are now subject to change, what guarantee do we have of our own humanity? And furthermore, what does “humanity” even mean? Does a lump of gray matter you’ve never seen inside a titanium skull really make you “real,” where an artificial consciousness is “false”?
The initial fear that the Hollywood remake would take this complex, nuanced moral conundrum and either remove it or simplify it has, unfortunately, been entirely realized. Directed by Rupert Sanders, this Ghost in the Shell is entirely more shallow than its source material. Deep questions about the nature of the self have been replaced with fortune-cookie wisdom; “It’s what you do that defines you” intones Johansson in the final moments of the film, perched dramatically on a rooftop just to make sure you remember the same line from Batman Begins. By the same coin, the original’s fascination with political intrigue has also been left behind in favor of a one-dimensional evil corporate baddie and a revenge plot.
We’re also led through all this on a leash, with careful exposition and bland dialogue loudly explaining every motivation and plot turn. The bad guy sees The Major as a weapon, and we know that because one of his very first lines of dialogue is “I see her as a weapon.” It rarely, if ever, puts any trust in its audience’s ability to simply follow plot and character cues, much less political intrigue, investigation, or philosophical musings.
The only thing that ties the remake back to the original beyond character names and the basic premise of cyborg anti-terrorist agents is the imagery. Sanders cribs numerous visuals from Oshii’s original film, as well as a few from its sequel, Innocence. But even this doesn’t feel quite right. For all of its visual callbacks to the original, the remake feels far more artificial and manufactured than its inspiration, with a glossy aesthetic that frequently feels fake and chintzy. The images never feel natural or believable, less because of the fantastic backdrops and more because everything feels airbrushed and digitally composited to within an inch of its life. The final action sequence, again ripped from the original, features enough sub-par CGI and green-screens to make it feel painfully “video game-y,” even by recent Hollywood standards. In an odd way, this live-action remake of an animated movie feels more like a “cartoon” than the film that inspired it.
For all its fantastic aesthetic properties, it still feels somehow dull, lifeless. Even when cribbing shots from the original movie, there’s an essential quality that’s missing, a visual poetry, a certain atmosphere. Instead, we have something far more glossy, superficial and hollow. Once in a while there will be a striking shot, perhaps one that evokes pleasant memories of browsing Rekall, but they’re few and far between.
By the standards of Hollywood blockbusters, Ghost in the Shell feels unremarkable.
And then there’s the race issue. Oh yes, you didn’t think we’d forget that, did you? Since the film was announced, there’s been a continual outcry against the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role, despite the character traditionally being portrayed as Asian. While it would have been one thing if the remake had simply made The Major Caucasian and left it at that, a third-act twist takes the film to a different and far more troubling place. Without giving anything away, the issue of The Major’s race is foregrounded in the narrative in a way that feels like a horribly misguided attempt to address and even rectify the accusations of “whitewashing” the lead character. It doesn’t even remotely work, and will probably necessitate an entire piece to explore. Suffice to say, the only ghost in this thing is the specter of racial erasure.
By the standards of Hollywood blockbusters, Ghost in the Shell feels unremarkable. Perhaps the visuals may find some footing in the viewer’s memory, but the writing is so surface, so mired in cliche, so terrified of confusing or challenging the audience that it will fail to make an impression on most. As an adaptation, Ghost in the Shell serves best as an example of why projects like this should be avoided in the first place. Hollywood isn’t incapable of depth, of artistry, of nuance, mind you. But that’s what we needed here, and it sure as heck isn’t what we got.