“Ghost in the Shell” — the polychromatic, Westernized live-action reboot of Masamune Shirow’s cult manga series of the same name — opens wide this weekend.
Although Rupert Sanders’ remake has been slammed for its controversial casting of Scarlett Johansson in the film’s (originally Japanese) headlining role, critics have begun to roll out their reviews — and the consensus looks like something of a mixed bag. The VFX masterminds behind the film’s composite, techno-metropolis backdrop are praised for their aesthetic prowess, which pays homage to Mamoru Oshii’s animated adaptations in the mid-90s. But, despite its glossy veneer, it seems as though this iteration of a long-established series has, ironically, been whittled down to a shell of its original spirit. To this end, reviews credit the film’s exhaustive cultural overhaul, but have mixed reactions to Johansson’s performance. See what critics have to say below.
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Spectacularly honoring the spirit and aesthetic of Mamoru Oshii’s beloved animated adaptations without resorting wholly to slavish cosplay, this is smart, hard-lacquered entertainment that may just trump the original films for galloping storytelling momentum and sheer, coruscating visual excitement — even if a measure of their eerie, melancholic spirit hasn’t quite carried over to the immaculate new carapace. Box office returns should be muscular, minting what could be one of the more enticing franchises in a multiplex landscape riddled with robotic do-overs.
Stripped of its deeper-dish musings, the story turns into a perfectly watchable, somewhat bland action movie, tricked out with sharp details, some fine actors and one slumming legend, the director-actor Takeshi Kitano, who plays Aramaki, Major’s boss. He only speaks in Japanese; Major and almost everyone else speak in English.
The characters understand one another, presumably because they’re beyond mere language and, in any event, they sometimes communicate telepathically. At first, the fact that they can speak to one another comes across as an inventive flourish, but like so much in “Ghost in the Shell” — the toddling geishas, the Asian extras — it helps to reduce an entire culture to a decorative detail. The movie has been widely criticized for casting Ms. Johansson in a role that was, of course, originally Japanese, a decision that isn’t offset by an absurd narrative twist that seems to have been created to forestall criticism but will only provoke further ire. This isn’t just appropriation; it’s obliteration.
In the end, you get Johansson spinning her wheels in a stock hero’s-journey story that feels stripped for exotic spare parts. The secret-sharer sense you got from watching the original, the idea that you had come across a low-frequency transmission that felt subversive yet familiar enough to strike a chord, has been surgically removed. All that’s left is big-budget cybersploitation scrubbed for a global audience, a machine designed to collect money. Who stole the soul? For a movie steeped in aspects of the singularity, there’s nothing very singular about this Ghost in the Shell at all.
The original film managed to be both violent and philosophical, putting the viewer in an uneasy place and pushing us to ponder the future of humanity in an increasingly computerized world — a world that would have a huge influence on the Wachowskis’ magnum opus, all the way down to the cable ports in the back of each character’s head. Here we get a taste of that ambiance, but it feels more like a backdrop than the crux of the story, which boils down to yet another good vs. evil scenario where no mystery is left unsolved and conflicts are tied up in an all-too Hollywood way.
It is a spectacular movie, watchable in its way, but one which – quite apart from the “whitewashing” debate – sacrifices that aspect from the original which over 20 years has won it its hardcore of fans: the opaque cult mystery, which this film is determined to solve and to develop into a resolution, closed yet franchisable. It has been standardised and westernised with hardly any actual Japanese characters left in it, and effectively reimagined as a superhero origin myth, with tropes derived from the existing templates laid down by Metropolis, Robocop, Blade Runner and Total Recall. The film incidentally makes some play with rudimentary Hawking-style robot voices. There are some stately cameos from Juliette Binoche and Takeshi Kitano.
The most impressive thing about Ghost in the Shell is how quiet it is. Like Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy, this is another case of a hard sci-fi thriller/drama being sold as a slam-bang action movie. And yes, you do get sequences of Johansson’s major kicking butt and shooting folks, but it’s more about periodic bouts of quick violence than sustained action. The film doesn’t really become a conventional blockbuster until basically the brief action climax. Like the 1995 animated film on which it is based (I cannot speak to the literary source material), it is a meditative and almost soft-spoken meditation on how much humanity remains when our physical parts are no longer ours or even organic.