Ghost in the Shell: Magnificent Visuals with a Hollow Philosophy

Rupert Sanders’ adaption of the 1995 Ghost in the Shell is an incredibly visually appealing and immersive experience with a highly derivative philosophy targeted at the segregation of mind and machine and how to delineate what is human and what is artificial. Viewers are particularly struck by a richly developed environment, a formidable lead and a magnificent score. Despite not matching it’s original counterpart in many regards Ghost in the Shell’s exploration of Major’s mind proves an engagingly off kilter exploration of her mind and journey. This film feels like a more conventional, dumbed-down iteration of the original yet is capable of making up for this in its pervading tone of dread and tumultuously unexpected narrative to reveal an atypical action thriller.

Aesthetically and from a world-building perspective, Ghost delivers the most organic, detailed and engagingly vivid environment from the ground up I have seen. The combination of costume design, production design and CGI meld together seamlessly to give the surroundings a live-in and vibrant feel. Colourful extravagant Asian Futurist fusion fashion distinguishes different classes roles and wealths of it’s primary and secondary characters as the melding of holographs on a street level interact intuitively and pleasingly with their environment. Large three dimensional holograms tower over building blocks and wrap themselves around the city with a perfect balance of beauty, commercialism and artificiality so as to reflect the fusion of human and mechanical. On this point, the artificial limbs, eyes and headsets feel almost medical and an extension of oneself in such a way that it seems to mimic the personalisation and identities we seek in modern day through clothing and technology. I was particularly struck by the Yakuza seen in the club shoot out scene. Much like a tattoo the mechanical jawline and arms added to the aggressive masculinity and intimidation factor in there introduction leading to a heightened atmosphere.

Those reading this review will probably want it to address the whitewashing controversy – something I now unexpectedly believe you can only judge having watched the film. The casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major received criticism of whitewashing after being announced. The claim was that the creative minds behind the upcoming feature were orientating themselves around profitability rather than authenticity. Despite this many Japanese fans seemed enthused by this casting choice implying that the racial factor was irrelevant. From my perspective, Johansson was the correct choice. If we compare the appearance to the anime original from 1995 it is easy to recognise that the anime style blurs the racial distinctiveness of the character. I believe it looks American. More than this, I believe this casting choice was important as the revelation that Major’s true identity and heritage had been stolen from her is visually masterful in her presentation as a Japanese individual in an American body. Her identity has been corrupted underlying the central theme to the film. While this is not explicit in the film it is no large leap to make.

On a more technical level, I believe that the score is a step up from the original. I found it to be ecstatically beautiful, moving and transportative. It avoids generalisations and embodies the mood of each scene by building tension and recognising an apt synthesis between what is on screen and it’s own approach. Often sounding akin to Hans Zimmer’s work of the late 2000s in it’s use of overbearing strings the soundtrack can often be invasive which is sometimes encouraged and at other times feels out of place. I recognised the use of traditional japanese choir influences at three points in the film which enriched the earthiness of the film as well as heightening the core theme of cultural isolation.  The use of 70s and 80s retro style using strong synths and leads plays into  my expectation for a future oriented narrative. This trope of cyberpunk is however welcomed as it is not not often used.

One can observe almost immediately that the source material has been dumbed down for American audiences. The complex philosophical debate on individualism and identity as well as the  blurred border between the artificial and human is drastically simplified. I found that the debate was hollow and unclear. This film was more narrative driven and did not contest the internal conflict felt by Major in a meaningful way through it’s economic and inexpensive dialogue. While the original attempted to examine the specificities such as the whispering of an internal dialogue true source – in code or in thought. Furthermore the film does not explore the perimeters of a synbiotic human mind and any safeguards or barriers to true freedom of thought which appear. The approach to this is not contemplative like the original but instead focuses in on it as a rudimentary hurdle lessening the experience’s formulation as a debate. Moreover, the concept of mortality is almost abandoned as otherwise life threatening injuries are reversed using technology in such a way that is casual and understated.

The death of the puppet master feels empty as this theme is not explored. His bitterness at being disregarded and maltreated borders on the concept of mortality as he attempts to make explicit the depth of his creators perversion and wrongdoing but this subject is never fully breached. Therefore we feel little following this character’s death as we are not allowed to sympathise or contemplate it.  Ghost does not try to contradict any of these notions by positing the question as to which the firing of a sequence of neurons is identical to code and therefore questions the relevance of this distinction. This is not to say that the film does not posit important questions however many of them feel plagiarised and unoriginal, with the exception of one scene. When Major hires a prostitute to to compare skin textures with and to observe her response the film silently asks the audience to question the distinction and asks for an opinion on where the two diverge and converge from a physical and consciousness of one’s psyche perspective. This is fairly new territory and enriched the reflection and musings philosophically speaking.  As Major learns more about herself in the second and third act I appreciated the moral complexities and ambiguities which the audience can begin to recognise as unexpected shifts in motivation or the moral parameters shift if at times in a predictably western simplistic approach. Overall, distinguishing the philosophy behind this film and how it attempts to distinguish itself is unexpectedly derivative.

The film’s presumed antagonist Kuze was a mix of good and bad. While the almost stroke like roboticism of the voice alongside the faithful visual depiction advanced his claims of rejection and disregard and the creepy philosophical yearnings of the character did not come off as pretentious or weird I believe the film could have benefited from a fully explored backstory for this character or instead a more psychologically thrilling and intellectually demanding dialogue between major and Kuze in its First Act. Kuze’s admiration of and almost worship of the  technological advancement embodied by Major tributes the almost god-like act of creating symbiosis at this level in such a way that is conflicted and complex. Ghost’s compelling protagonist is expertly crafted by Johansson as she balances a coldness with a tortured curiosity in a way that does not weigh down the film’s atmosphere yet creates a potent sense of confusion and disorientation as Major struggles through this journey of self-discovery.

Unfortunately the cinematography is often hit and miss in this iteration. While the special effects bring to life the universe created and have a unique approach to mimicking each scene’s purpose with a combination of aerial shots and sweeping tracking shots I noticed a disappointing repetitiveness. Instead of cutting from wide shots of the city cinematographer Jess Hall repeated many of the dive shots as Major was transported from one scene to another. Moreover, many of the healing scenes used a mid-range centre of the frame shot which gave created disharmony and a repetitiveness. Contrary to this I do believe that on the whole Hall’s approach to photography was exemplar. The mix of low light and natural light with practical lighting and moody colours alongside it’s constantly evolving visual tone was matched by the impulsively exciting and dramatic shots which created adrenaline and slow pacing in equal parts.

Despite being an improvement on the empathy developed for characters in the original the film never truly gives us a motive to root for it’s protagonist in spite of their more emotive and human-like depiction. I believe that the screenwriting needed a more concise and dialogue filled approach that would reveal each character’s motive and transformation more clearly and articulately and to create a more analytical scholarly approach to tension both emotional and political.

The similarity between the original in terms of visual camera shots and character is remarkably faithful as the more iconic scenes and character designs one might expect to be difficult to mimic in live action cinema are pulled off to perfection. Major, falling off the building, taking down the truck driver and being mended and restored all reflect visually the feel and visual appeal of its predecessor aesthetically and visually. Moreover the exaggerated facial features is incredibly well done. While the original’s characters were more caricatures than based on reality the design and appearance of Batou and Daisuke is the perfect composure of realism and anatomic exaggeration.

In the original, Major lacks embarrassment about nudity and does not have a self consciousness about her body despite it sexually appealing design. This ignorance is an important moral issue in the original but is replicated to a lesser extent in this version. The original includes a brief scene where Major examines the similarities between herself and a manikin in a shop window which is absent from this iteration. This exploration of body and sexuality as a component of the human mind is more of an undertone in this film compared against the original and therefore posits a different approach to this conception of the body. It is more centred on a heroic confidence than an ignorant isolation.

By far, my favourite part of this remake of Ghost in the Shell is the off kilter feel to the entire film. This adds to the shifting psychological and physical environment and adds a sense that something is askew throughout this process of discovery. The glitches in which former memories seep into Major’s reality are visually stunning and impactful and add to the tone of the film. This is complemented by the visual hacking scene in which major is drowning in grasping hands. This visual depiction of hacking alongside these glitches give an insight into Major’s reality and perspective in such a way that fills each scene with tension, dread and a gripping sensation of our protagonist’s self doubt.

Overall I believe that Ghost in the Shell (2017) is a step up in many regards to it’s original with a phenomenal soundtrack and environment as well as a stunning visual approach and a moderately gripping protagonist in a faithful depiction of the original. Unfortunately, the philosophy of this adaptation is underdeveloped and lacks clear suggestions for answers to the moral and ethereal questions it attempts to posit.



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