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Ghost in the Shell: Slick pretense can't hide soulless substance

Boasting slick, vivid imageries of a dystopia, Ghost in the Shell homogenizes its source material to become a mediocre sci-fi with no substantial innovation.

In futuristic Japan, cybernetic enhancements dominate every aspect of life, allowing humans to augment their body with intricate prosthetics. Hanka Robotics, the leading company in AI technology run by CEO Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), initiates a project to create synthesized bodies that can mesh with human brains. Under the wing of Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), a young woman (Scarlet Johansson) becomes the first test subject after being lethally injured in a terrorist attack. Or at least that’s what Hanka tells her.

With a biomechanical body, she is now Major Mira Killian, The First of Her Kind, The Best of Section 9, and also The First of Her Kind. Section 9 is a government-based organization led by Chief Aramaki (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano) responsible for warding off and eliminating cybercriminal activities. Everything changes when Killian, together with her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk), must investigate a mysterious hacker. The female cyborg doubts Hanka has something shady with her previous life while being bothered by the frequent glitches in her system.

Scarlet Johansson as Major Killian

The anime Ghost in the Shell was a revolutionary step of cyberpunk back in the 90s. However, there existed only a niche fandom to admire and analyze the movie—despite thematic richness and a gorgeous art style—due to its complexity and a general Western prejudice towards anime. More persistently thought-provoking than welcoming in terms of narration, it couldn’t attract the mainstream audience. That might be the reason why Paramount gave it a Hollywood remake, updating the franchise’s appeal (the movie spawned a sequel and two TV shows) to an accessible action sci-fi, plus the parade of modern CGI. The new Ghost must be more comprehensible, so changes were welcome. Just give us a new perspective worthy of its prestigious legacy and Ghost would be fine.

But right after casting Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi, Ghost was bookended with controversies regarding ethnicity. The “whitewashing” accusation, by and large, damaged the movie’s reputation long before its theatrical release. This became another burden next to movie enthusiasts’ growing wariness about its inexperienced director Rupert Sanders, whose only feature-length is* Snow White and the Huntsman*.

To attract new views, writers Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger incorporated entertaining elements from the TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex into the original setting. As a result, the new movie is more action-packed and less ambiguous. It’s no inherent fault in adding more violence to Ghost, but the question is “For what purpose?” Recreations of iconic sequences, most of which are perceptibly accurate, emit little to no power of visual storytelling. Those shots only pay lip service to the memorable images of the original because the context has changed. For instance (no spoiler), Sanders brought in the spider-tank, but the decision feels forced as the original Major is a soldier of tours de force, who deserves such an extreme method of assault. Johansson’s Killian, on the other hand, is boring, emotionally unstable, and not nearly as efficient as a field agent. The opening sequence, which intends to highlight her “expertise”, fails miserably due to Sanders’ directing. Killian accidentally leaves one terrorist alive (for Batou to finish him off?)—what a display of competence! She also acts rashly and damages the geisha-bot after its anatomy… irritates her. Seriously, what? And that’s only one amongst many times Ghost ostentatiously tries to promote her undesirable skills.

Direction-wise, Ghost aims to be plot-driven, which makes everything duller as characters take extremely passive roles. In comparison, the original seems to have nothing on the surface, but there’s actually a lot going on; Sanders’ Ghost includes a lot of events, but they amount to nothing as absorbing as its cryptic predecessor. Stripped of all philosophical implications, the plot follows many action clichés: a foreseeable trap by the villain Kuze (Michael Pitt) or the revenge tale that mirrors V for Vendetta. It neglects the sense of provocative cloudiness and moves closer to beliefs for humanity, which eventually comforts audiences in a poor manner. Sanders executed the soporific twist like an info dump, where a platitude about technocracy, corporate greed, and futuristic Luddites couldn’t fulfill any climactic sensitivity.

MIchael Pitt as the villain Kuze

In terms of exhibition, at least the movie could boost cyberpunk aesthetics, engineered by spectacular shots over the digitalized splendors. VFX company MPC (Life of Pi, The Jungle Book) introduced their Ghost Cams to capture giant picturesque holograms, named Solograms by supervisor Guillaume Rocheron, next to skyscrapers that overshadow the low-quality life right beneath—there are still dirty slums after technological advancement brought about such miracles. This contrast further showcases the widespread grip of technology on social and personal life, which comes at the right time as the original envisioned. However, Ghost breaks its back trying to convey aspects of Japanese culture to its stylized American hero story, even with marvelous shots on the city ground bringing depth to geographical layouts. This society reminds us more of Big Hero 6’s San Fransokyo than a Hongkong-ish Japan, undercutting many conceptual values. On a smaller scale, Sanders demonstrated the delicacy of cutting-edge technology in the scene that analyzes Killian’s synthesized skin, but her camouflage suit doesn’t translate well onto CGI. It works best as 2D animation when Motoko waves her hand then disappears into the view of the hustle and bustle below.

The Solograms

Boasting slick, vivid imageries of a disturbing future, Ghost homogenizes its source material to become a mediocre sci-fi with no substantial innovation. Deprived of the existential questions made by the original, it modifies many philosophical themes to attain a humane approach. Fans might understand if it aims at the general audience rather than continuing the legacy of its original, but it’s no way to justify this compromise to produce a safe, lazily written Hollywood story. The plot only worsens controversies; then Kenji Kawai’s fantastic theme song plays in the background of the end-credits, timely disheartening but far too late to redeem the movie.