Ghost in the Shell Film Review

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Expectations be damned – this is a wonderful remake and a great film.

There’s a stunning, three-minute sequence in the original anime Ghost in the Shell (1995), based on Masamune Shirow’s manga series. In it, the city of Hong Kong is shown in a variety cuts, devoid of characters and plot development. It’s a beautiful sequence that emphasises the importance of the film’s setting, undoubtedly a work of art and a landmark in visual storytelling. There’s nothing like it in Rupert Sanders’ 2017 remake starring Scarlett Johansson, but it doesn’t mean that remake isn’t a great film. It stands on its own without trying to replicate the original, and is all the better for it.

Sanders and his team’s take on the story is instead of a direct adaptation of the first film, a mix of influences and plot points from the series’ sequels with a few new additions. Scarlett Johansson plays Major, a character whose body is artificial except for her brain, leaving her mind or, ‘ghost’, intact within her shell. She’s made this way after a terrible accident which reveals itself as the film goes on, by scientist Dr Oulet (Juliet Binoche). Major is put to work as ‘a weapon’ for Hanka, a cybernetics company being infiltated by a mysterious terrorist.

The plot leads Major on a journey into the film’s weird world of cybernetically altered bodies, hacked identities and mysterious villains who may simply be as lost as she is. It’s a somewhat convoluted action/thriller plot anchored by the personal journey Major embarks upon, the film’s ghost in her artificial shell.

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Part of what gives the film its soul is Johansson’s empathetic and meticulous performance. Having already established herself as cinema’s go-to for post-human characters with Her (2013) and Under the Skin (2013), here she solidifies her status as one of our greatest and most talented movie stars. Throughout the story, Major is reassured by the Frankenstein-like Dr Oulet that she is still human. Instead of being a spiteful experiment, Major recognises her superior form, yet carries with it an internal conflict. Johansson conveys this with a pained look of anxiety, a fundamentally human trait, offset by the lurching, mechanical gait of her walk. It’s a mesmerising performance that encourages audiences to reflect on what shred of humanity we may have left as technology increases its takeover, and it does this without the essayistic conversations on identity that took place in the original film.

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Heavy on the CGI, the visual effects team, with the film’s three established screenwriters, manages to create an immersive world that proudly displays its influences. Doll-like geishas recall Innocence, the second film in the original series, a one-armed bartender brings William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic Neuromancer to mind and the city is Bladerunner on steroids. Overhead shots display a neon-infused Tokyo with giant, three-dimensional ads looming like Kaijus bearing down on the city. It’s admittedly a little crowded, but the smaller setpieces in alleyways and a certain iconic fight scene in shallow waters craft a setting both epic in scale and intimate in detail.

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While the film has been met with middling reviews from critics who claim it favours style over substance, it’s by far the best franchise remake in years and what modern blockbusters ought to aspire to: intelligent storytelling, dedicated performances and a unique visual style.