If you dare to suggest that the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell isn’t completely terrible, you’ll most likely receive a confused dog look from some film fans, while also having your sense of morality brought into question. The 2017 adaptation, directed by Rupert Sanders, was instantly dismissed by many when it was announced that Scarlett Johansson would be playing Major Mira Killian, who, in the original manga, anime films and TV series, was most definitely a young Japanese woman. The whitewashing controversy was then made infinitely worse when it was reported that the film-makers were planning on using CGI and other visual effects to make Johansson look Asian, which would have been biblically disastrous and unforgivable had they gone ahead with it – it was bad enough that it was even considered.
The subsequent backlash was completely understandable and pretty much killed any chance of the film receiving positive reviews across the board. And it’s a shame, because Ghost in the Shell is far from the soulless Hollywood remake many expected and still claim it to be. It’s an absolute visual feast, complete with enthralling action scenes and a strongly adapted plot that – yes, I’m daring to say it – more than justifies its creative choices.
Set in the near future, where the line between human and machine has faded so significantly that people are now knocking about with robotic limbs, internal organs and eyes, the plot follows Johansson’s Major, a cyborg supersoldier who investigates the suspicious occurrences surrounding her past. Naturally, she soon discovers that the company that placed her organic brain in a mechanical shell tore her away from her family and erased her memories. The real twist, however, is that Major actually was a Japanese woman before the evil tech people got their hands on her.
For many, that reveal sparked even further outrage, but they weren’t particularly bothered about it in Japan, where some fans felt that the protagonist’s non-traditional appearance actually served the film’s themes of self-identity and the blurring of natural and mechanical bodies. After all, it’s quite literally a story about a young woman whose life and likeness is stripped away from her. Even Mamoru Oshii, the director of the anime films, argued that Major’s physical form was immaterial, since she wasn’t in her own body. “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one,” he told IGN. “[Her name] and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her.”
The decision to set the film in a culturally ambiguous city, even though it was shot in Hong Kong, was also heavily criticised, but as producer Steven Paul explained, the intention was to create an “international world” with people of numerous nationalities – which makes a great deal of sense considering they’re meant to be part of a progressive, futuristic civilisation. Even if grotty strip clubs are still a thing.
In any case, the furore surrounding this adaptation shouldn’t detract from the numerous things it gets right. Johansson is undeniably a natural in the role, playing her bionic character sufficiently cold, but never letting you forget that there’s a tormented human mind hiding behind her detachable face. And even though the story is ripped straight from the source material, the mystery of the main character’s past is still surprisingly engaging, with her real-life memories appearing in the form of cryptic “glitches”.
Even Major’s trusty colleague Batou (Pilou Asbæk) is more fleshed out than you’d expect him to be, as he openly admits to the emptiness of his duty-bound life, as well as his endearing affinity towards stray dogs. A half-decent metaphor in a mainstream blockbuster? How dare they.
Visually, that “international world” that the characters inhabit is stunningly realised, with giant holographic adverts standing as tall as the surrounding buildings, while low-angled shots of dingy apartment blocks add gritty texture. The opening sequence, in which Major’s synthetic body is constructed to the sound of Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe’s faith-inspiring score, is neatly and respectfully adapted from the 1995 anime, and the kaleidoscopic, light-bending action scenes involving invisibility cloaks, slow-motion shattered glass and splashing water provide images worthy of framing and hanging up on your wall.
It may not be as ambitious or profound as Blade Runner 2049, which was released in the same year, but with enough character depth and intrigue to back up the visuals, Ghost in the Shell is far from a hollow robot of a film.
Ghost in the Shell is available to rent digitally in the US or on Netflix in the UK