Ghost in the Shell is a phenomenal film that’s made waves in all hemispheres. It was one of the first films to truly nail the themes surrounding a cyber-future and trans-humanism. It’s a shame, then, that the 2017 remake is just really rather average – rather forgettable. The film is by no means a bad piece of cinema; there’s some fun action sequences, some beautiful effects. Sadly, the film is held back because it brings nothing new to the table, which is the opposite of its original namesake.
Ghost in the Shell follows a central character of ‘Major’, the first human brain transplanted into a Machine body (or a Shell). The plot follows her as she traces a criminal who is not only behind a series of killings close to home, but also hacking the brains of others to do his bidding. Along the way Major discovers some uncomfortable truths about herself and the world she lives in.
Along the journey there are some fun action sequences, some stunning visuals, and some fairly decent supporting cast members who don’t get nearly enough time to shine. Pilou Asbaek, in particular portrays an interesting Batou, but doesn’t get any screen time besides that he shares with Scarlett Johansson.
Ghost in the Shell, therefore, has all the makings of a summer action flick. It’s pretty, it’s enjoyable, and it has some stylish action scenes. Judged purely in a vacuum, it’s worthy of rating suitable to fairly brainless fun. However, no artwork exists in a vacuum, and by taking on the title of a world-renowned work of art you’re only going to be held up to its standard; a standard which forces this live action remake to simply pale in comparison.
*** Warning: Spoilers for both the Live Action and the Anime follow as I attempt to analyse what I felt was thematically wrong with the film ***
The original film dealt with issues still fairly prevalent today; how do we define ourselves in a modern, techno-centric world, the growing prominence of AI, and how do we define self and sentience. You’d expect a remake of the same film to tackle the same issues, but besides the odd nod here and there it doesn’t seem to touch them. Naturally, as the times change so do a message, and an adaption doesn’t necessarily need to strictly follow its original intention, but this wouldn’t be such a crime if the themes were replaced with something as meaningful or thought-provoking. Really, all the Live-Action Ghost in the Shell gives us is hamfisted exposition and a power fantasy of just “being true to yourself”. There’s no introspective narrative here, nothing too thought-provoking. In fact, I feel the Film does itself a disservice by simultaneously trying to tell the audience the past doesn’t matter, that only what you do matters, but then placing such a reliance on ‘the past’ as one of its key plot points. This version of Ghost in the Shell, along with its original, tries to deal with the reliability of memories and what they mean when moving forward. The antagonists of both films manipulate the memories of others to produce the results they require, showing that memory is easily manipulated, can’t be relied upon, and can completely change someone’s personality, but this adaptation also tries to show that a true memory will come to the surface and that through realising that truth do you give yourself power. There’s that running self-empowerment theme typical of bigger blockbusters.
This runs rampant in this remakes subplot, one of finding out who Major really is and where she came from. A topic left untouched by the original and better for it. It’s no lie that the original can be confusing for new viewers, and by giving Major this backstory perhaps they hope to give the audience some grounding, but instead it only serves to butcher the themes. This backstory also ties our protagonist and antagonist together, perhaps aiming to make for a more relatable opponent, but, by doing so, they completely remove the debates the original put in place; can Artificial Intelligence ever be true Intelligence? Can a robot truly be alive?
This change also impacts the ending of the film, our antagonist Kuze, gives Major the option of joining his network. In the original, as he was the first self aware AI, his offer to merge with Major reflected the birth of a next step and resulted in an almost literal child between the two of them. It was poignant. Now, where the original had a message of moving forward, of accepting AI and humanity as a next step, the new film shuns this step forward in favour of remaining the same. It seems as though this is again their message of ‘being yourself’, when really it seems more of being stuck in the past. How fitting that a film, that serves as a remake and struggles to adequately reflect its namesake, also seems to sell a message about clinging to the past.
*** Spoilers End ***
Ghost in the Shell is incredibly hard to review and perhaps a real example why many reviewers shy away from using a numerical scoring system. On its own, without ties to the original, Ghost in the Shell is an enjoyable watch that doesn’t really exceed any expectations, but provides a good distraction for its run-time. It is an action film, with Sci-Fi elements, that would probably be forgotten after a month or so if not for the scandal around the white-washing of its lead role and its famous heritage. It’s that namesake though, that it will forever be held up against, and when compared it simply cannot compete; it is all style, no substance, it is a Shell without its Ghost.