When Mamoru Oshii’s anime film Ghost in the Shell debuted in 1995, it was a genuinely revolutionary vision that took stock of an over-industrialized, hyper-connected, and slowly deteriorating world with strange matter-of-factness. Ostensibly an action film, it lingered in the culture more because of the philosophical ground it broke in talking about the ways human identity intersects with computers, and the limits of our understanding of what it means to be sentient. It’s a brilliant piece of sci-fi that has its tendrils in countless works of movie futurism that followed, from The Matrix to Avatar.
Now, somewhat belatedly, Ghost in the Shell has gotten a Hollywood remake: a big-budget, live-action epic that retains much of the original’s visual look and basic plot principles, with an American star (Scarlett Johansson) playing the heroic Major, a cyborg secret agent fighting future-crime in a dystopic world. But the film, directed by Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman), wildly misses the mark on everything that made its forebear interesting. It’s been clumsily translated into a simplistic tale of corporate rebellion and individual freedom that tries to distract from its generally vacuous story with oodles of competently choreographed, but uninspired, action.
Given the extent to which Ghost in the Shell’s themes about the increasing unions between human and machine have permeated Hollywood science-fiction, that this remake has no grasp of those ideas feels particularly baffling. Sanders’s Ghost in the Shell is a flimsy copy of a copy, one that recreates some of the anime’s set-pieces nearly shot for shot, but then pares away nearly everything else that made the original a classic.
Johansson’s Major is a quasi-Robocop who works for “Section 9,” an intelligence agency patrolling an unnamed future city. As viewers are told in the film’s opening montage (which sees her shapely form being purpose-built in a lab), the only “human” part of her is her brain. The rest is a humanoid cybernetic shell, a kind of flesh-colored bodysuit that can turn invisible (if she sheds her clothes, which she does anytime she goes into battle). The Major is heralded as “the future” by her creators, a robotics company called Hanka; she’s a post-human triumph in a world where most people have already begun to augment their bodies with cyborg add-ons.
The Major, along with her sidekicks Batou (a gruff Pilou Asbæk) and Togusa (Chin Han, whose character is crucial in the 1995 film but mostly sidelined here), is investigating a mysterious cyber-villain called Kuze (Michael Pitt). Meanwhile, her boss Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano) seems to be running interference between the government and the corporate entities invested in the Major’s performance as a super-soldier, though any other details are left to the viewer’s imagination.
Sanders and his screenwriters (Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger are credited) try to keep things as simple as possible, which somehow only makes them more confusing. The particulars of the Major’s world are never explained, outside of some throwaway lines about the proliferation of cybernetic modification. In design, this future-city resembles a scrubbed-up Blade Runner, a CGI festival of glass skyscrapers and 3D billboards, covered in superhighways. Kuze’s evil mission is simply to take out the leaders of Hanka Robotics, which he does by “hacking” the brains of robots and people to carry out his assassinations.
There’s not much nuance at work, and Johansson’s extremely flat performance doesn’t help matters, though she’s likely doing as much as she can with the material she’s been given. Her character is an intentional blank slate, a living weapon designed with few memories of the past. Obviously, there’s more for her to learn, and some various rote twists along the way, but the message of Ghost in the Shell never amounts to more than “shadowy military-industrial corporations are not to be trusted.” It’s an insidious move that seeks to lamely justify the Major diving into endless bullet-storms against her largely anonymous enemies.
As a remake of a Japanese film that retains its futuristic setting and most of its characters’ names (but features white actors in the four leading roles), Ghost in the Shell ostensibly had the chance to delve into the tricky politics of identity and how it might evolve in the future. But a third-act twist attempts to confront Johansson’s casting in a way that ends up feeling awkward, misguided, and vaguely insulting to Oshii’s film, summoning the specter of its original protagonist in an effort to explain why the Major’s “shell” might look like the American actress.
After most of the movie’s runtime has been devoted to visual spectacle in lieu of any deeper philosophizing, this addition lands with a clunk, offering far too little and too late to explain why this Frankenstein monster of a remake exists in the first place. Sanders’s efforts to balance a certain faithfulness to the original with a degree of innovation never quite add up. To new viewers, Ghost in the Shell will likely come across as an incoherent work of forgettable sci-fi; to existing fans, it could range anywhere from baffling to offensive.