‘Ghost in the Shell’ Review: Entertains But Misses the Mark

Kim Taylor-Foster
Movies Comics
Movies Comics

It’s the near future, and Major has been cyber-enhanced to merge her human mind with a fully synthetic body, or shell. She’s the perfect soldier, and the first of her kind. When a ‘bug’ begins hacking into cyborgs and people start dying, she must investigate. But as she dives deeper, she begins to discover that all is not as it seems and starts to question her identity, and existence.

Stunning Good Looks

Ghost in the Shell is one of the most influential works of science fiction of the late 20th century. Starting life as a comic, the 1995 anime movie it became captured the attention of many including the Wachowskis – it inspired The Matrix.

And while The Matrix has many similarities, it was only a matter of time before a full-on live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell happened.

And here it is. Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders takes on helmer duties, and just as that film relied on its gorgeous visuals, Ghost in the Shell is a visual masterpiece.

Ghost in the Shell
A cityscape like that just makes you want to dive in

However, its striking imagery is both its strength and its weakness. While the film takes steps to explain what’s going on more clearly than the Japanese anime original, it tweaks the story and places its focus on the sheer spectacle of the undertaking. And if you’re going to bring a cult classic like this to the big screen in a big-budget, live-action extravaganza, audiences are definitely going to want to see some astonishing design and special effects.

But at the expense of characterization and layers? It’s this, along with the bleak, melancholic tone of the original, that’s sacrificed in the US remake. And it’s these things that made the 1995 film so affecting.

There are pauses for contemplation in the original that feel more natural than the intense dialogue around existence in the live-action version. Sure, the animation has some of this dialogue too, but it’s interspersed with lines incorporating everyday language that’s easier to identify with. These ‘everyday’ moments tie the film more closely to our own experience – the chatter about divorce for one thing. These moments are missing in the new version, and as such we’re that bit more detached as viewers.

Derivative But We Don’t Mind That

Ghost in the Shell
Thermo-optic camouflage is ace, even if you can't quite work out what the deal is

However, the film is pacy and rich in its own way – the tweaks to the story work and it asks the same big existential questions.

You’ll also see the Blade Runner influence vividly. Although it makes it look derivative to a degree – there are vertiginous cityscapes, widespread neon, large-scale hologram-style adverts – you can’t hold it against the film since it reproduces it so well. And anyway, the original anime film and manga comic were heavily influenced on Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic.

One aspect explored arguably in more detail here is the idea of cyber-enhancements. Aligned with cosmetic surgery, Major visits a nightclub which seems to be populated by an underground set of undesirables – many of whom look to have had dodgy cyber-jobs. Where the anime is quite clear about who has had enhancements, Sanders’ version leaves us guessing in many cases. There are varying degrees of enhancements – some choose X-ray eyes enhanced with night vision, while others replace limbs and others mess with their minds.

It’s a scary vision of a potential future that seems as relevant today as it was when it was first conceived – more so perhaps since we’re that much closer to the reality. And that’s not only with regard to cybernetics and technological advancements but also the idea that the conglomerate is all-powerful.

As for Scarlett Johansson, she does a grand job – it’s just her thermo-optic camouflage that’s problematic. Looking like she’s clad in a full-body Spanx suit when she’s disrobed, it’s hard to work out where the shimmery effect, collar, cuffs and visible joins in her ‘shell’ go when she’s dressed in vest and knickers. We’re going to assume it’s something that becomes visible when she ‘switches on’ because not once did we see her struggle into any tight-fitting control wear.

Is ‘Ghost in the Shell’ Good?

Ghost in the Shell
Want Batou's X-ray eyes – but perhaps not at the expense of real eyes

With an arguably more upbeat ending, Ghost in the Shell changes some significant parts of the original film – but it’s not the story that suffers from this as such. It’s the changes that affect the meditative, downbeat tone that have the most significant impact on our ability to identify with any of the characters and the amount it moves us. So while it’s visually stunning, pacy, and entertaining with an updated and expanded story that works on the big screen, it lacks the mood of the original and the ability to resonate for weeks, months or years to come.

Kim Taylor-Foster
Kim Taylor-Foster is Entertainment Editor for Fandom in the UK. She was raised on an unsteady diet of video nasties and violent action flicks.