Director: Rupert Sanders
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Chin Han and Michael Pitt
Release Date: Out Now
The remake of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime classic feels as though it was sunk before it even had a chance to put on its swimming trunks. Die-hard otaku screamed bloody murder over the remake, stating it to be perfectly indicative of Hollywood’s standard practice of white-washing the cast. Many Twitter users pledged to avoid seeing it, as a staunch act of protest.
The fact that the original film didn’t particularly lend itself well to an action-packed remake was almost a minor issue and had a tendency to be overshadowed in all the fuss.
It may come as a surprise then to find that, thanks to an admirably understated subtext, the use of a white actress from New York could arguably be justified. It is no small irony that the shady organisation, Hanka Robotics, aims to create perfection and the result is the globally recognised Hollywood star and sex-symbol, Scarlett Johansson.
Her primary function may be to snap the necks of terrorists like so many pieces of cold Toblerone, but there is an undeniable fascination with her body that goes far beyond technological advancement. Complementing the theme is a largely unnecessary attempted rape scene, a trippy sequence that terrifyingly epitomizes most women’s fears on a night out and constant requests for the Major’s consent before her ‘software’ is tampered with.
These moments are always coupled with the Major being disassembled, repaired or upgraded. However, for every one of these scenes, there is a correspondent sequence in which she strips down to her skin suit and performs alluring yet lethal gymnastics. Every single time, the action slows right down so that we can fully appreciate her flawless physique and seemingly constructed sensuality.
It’s a genuinely interesting take on the story, exploring the artificial nature of the ‘perfect’ female body and how the pressure to maintain this body stems from external, usually male, sources. It’s no coincidence either that this all hinges on technology, considering the often damaging effects the media, social or otherwise, can have on one’s perception of self.
This level of intrigue makes it all the more frustrating when that subtext falters without revelation and everything devolves into a cliché-heavy mess of cliff-notes based on the original manga series. Timid action and dull exposition are inexpertly knotted together by a plot that, in a mind-boggling twist, is both dumber and more convoluted than the 1995 version.
The odd selection of Rupert Sanders as director of such a meditative film should have raised this particular alarm bell. His most notable film prior to this was the “edgy” reimagining of the classic fairy-tale, Snow White and the Huntsman. While not necessarily a bad film, the style utilized there would certainly indicate the direction the studio wanted this project to go in. It’s the direction all big-budget films want to go in – towards a franchise.
The opening action sequence does show some promise in that sense, with the Major’s assault against some robotic geishas indicative of some creative flair and adrenaline. It’s just a sugar rush however, with subsequent action sequences edited inertly, and slow-motion poorly compensating for energy and excitement.
The stark contrast in pacing between this and the 1995 version would actually be humorous, if it wasn’t so disappointing. The original had the satisfying, steady pace of a downhill stroll; restrained but not dragging, allowing the narrative to develop almost nonchalantly.
Flash-forward to present day and the ante has been oh-so-dramatically ‘upped’ in order to keep up with the Transformers and Avengers of the modern world. A film primarily known for its reflective nature suddenly doesn’t have the time to stop and think. The constant slow-motion sequences are presented to us as an unintentional but near-perfect visual metaphor; an indication of how poorly this tempo and that narrative slot together.
For example, one of the oddest and most memorable scenes of the original film involves a late-night excursion in the harbour, a luminous city from the future pulsating in the background. A wet-suit clad Major broods over her identity, her detached expression and tone infusing her questions with poignancy. It was an iconic moment that provided valuable insight into what motivates her as a character.
While included here, the moment is so at odds with the film’s in-your-face attitude that you’ll probably find yourself wishing it had been cut altogether. Almost all of Johansson’s lines are uttered with earnest or without effort, and they appear to be written in the hopes they will become a memorable quote on a t-shirt.
Spoilers: none of them are.
To give credit where credit is due, there are isolated elements at play here that hint at what Ghost in the Shell could have been. Johansson might not be staggering in the delivery of her dialogue, but at least she remains engaging throughout. She certainly has the physicality for the role, channelling a lot of what makes her Black Widow from Avengers so engaging. And Batou, played by Pilou Asbæk, brings the only chuckles in what is otherwise a very humourless affair.
It’s the actual aesthetic of the city that will prove the most divisive for audience. The towering holograms projected by advertising companies are reminiscent of Blade Runner, and impressive in their own right. The issue, which the grungy Blade Runner neatly side-stepped, is that they feel detached from the world itself. Each tracking shot of the city feels like a loading screen, as we wait for the action to resume. Much like the boat scene, they are slotted in with all the elegance of a USB stick on the third attempt.
What it eventually boils down to is a 100-metre sprint towards a conclusion that is far less exciting than it thinks is. Action movie staples, such as a one-note villain and impractical monologues, are criminally implanted without ceremony and we are left with very little of what made the original feel special.
It might have made a decent stab at justifying the white-washing, but it comes nowhere close to justifying all the white noise.
Written by Stephen Hill