Ghost in the Shell got hobbled coming out of the gate by casting a bunch of Europeans in a live action version of one of the great animes. I’m still not sure why they cast Scarlett Johansson in a role which ought to have been played by a Japanese actor, but that gets lost in the bigger question of why they bothered to remake the movie in the first place. There hasn’t been a remake of Gone with the Wind. Give or take a TV show and this there hasn’t been a remake of Casablanca. So why remake one of the great Japanese animes? I still don’t really know.
One possible reason is that they had the technology to do it in live action and make it look gorgeous. Because they did, and it does. No matter what else you don’t like about the new Ghost in the Shell, there’s something dead in you if you don’t think it looks great. From the very first shot, there’s a tremendous commitment to the look. Everything has been considered. The hospital smocks have got an origami texture which they don’t need, but which instantly tells you you’re not in Kansas any more. And the movie sticks with that all the way. The art is in a million tiny details. GitS is something you could watch again just to catch all the design choices.
And even though Scarlett has taken a huge amount of heat for taking the role, she’s still an actor who’s always better than action material. So she’s always hypnotic when the camera locks onto her. The Major is messed up, and ScaJo is a good enough performer to sell that while looking otherworldly and beautiful. So there’s that, even if the Major’s combat uniform is so skintight and not-quite-flesh-toned that looking at ScaJo in motion always feels vaguely pervy at best. It draws way too much attention to something which isn’t discussed. Creepy corporate overlords made a perfect robot body for combat, and - somehow - that perfect body for combat is also perfect in other ways. Irrelevant ways. There’s a conversation to be had about objectification of the female body and I don’t know what all else, and the movie just doesn’t even bother. Partly that’s because anime has always been kind of creepy that way, but mostly it’s because the movie is trying to be grown up about something else, and just doesn’t have the insight to cover more than one big question in between explosions.
Which is a pity, in all kinds of ways. Ghost in the Shell is all about what it means to be a person, what it means to have a soul, and where the soul might reside. To be honest, the movie doesn’t quite land that discussion, so that maybe I’m asking too much for it to think about gender politics as well. But the producers went to the trouble of remaking a movie which did its job. If they remade it, why bother unless they were going to do something more?
It’s also a somewhat confusing movie. Part of the Major’s dissociation from reality is the way that she keeps glitching, seeing things which aren’t there but might be part of her memories, part of the reality which has been stolen from her. But a lot of the action scenes feel like pages from the same book, full of glitches and things which break continuity and make no sense. Is she imagining all of that? Is all this taking place in some kind of Matrix? Turns out, not really. It’s just bad staging. It looks great, but it doesn’t make a button of sense.
And although they give pretty much all the big roles to non-Japanese actors, there’s one breathtaking exception. Yup, centre screen as the head of the team, that’s Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, stubbornly delivering all of his lines in Japanese and effortless demonstrating why the movie could have worked better if they’d used Japanese performers for every single role.