Cyberpunk is seriously one of the coolest, most over-the-top genres in the film industry. If you don’t get excited when you hear the words, “The sky was the color of a TV tuned to a dead channel,” you need to step your game up (like actually though, go read “Neuromancer” if you haven’t already).
Cyberpunk is in this Goldilocks zone between pulp and seriousness. It’s the generic equivalent of eating a Denver omelette for breakfast: there’s a lot of ingredients in it, and it is a fulfilling meal—but at the end of the day, there is a significant amount of cheese in it.
Cyberpunk is a genre where Harrison Ford can be getting choked to death by an android one minute and then be crying over a bottle of whiskey the next (“Blade Runner” is another staple of cyberpunk that you should really see if you haven’t already).
“Ghost in the Shell” is one such series that is a staple for the genre—cheese and all. The series (split among movies and TV shows) has influenced the genre in innumerable ways and is deserving of the title “classic” for the genre. And unsurprisingly, the live-action adaptation of this beloved series is bad.
If you’ve been keeping up, you’ve probably noticed that I’m doing a lot of recommendations in this review so far, and that’s because this review is going to be one huge recommendation for the original 1995 “Ghost in the Shell” animated movie.
In this sense, my beef with this new “Ghost in the Shell” isn’t that it is a bad movie per se (which it is), but that it’s just baffling how they managed to drop the ball in departments that the original animation excelled at. I would have been okay if this new movie had been a shot-by-shot remake of the 1995 film. Instead of that, director Rupert Sanders added plots and details that aren’t just completely unnecessary, but actively hurt this film.
One thing you’ll notice about the 1995 “Ghost in the Shell” is that it is paced to the dot. Everything in the movie has a reason for being there. The animated movie is only 80 minutes long, and it is able to pack every minute with an enjoyable mix of actions and ideas. The movie progresses from set-piece to set-piece with barely any filler. It isn’t just lean, it’s able to tell its story with only the parts that are absolutely necessary for the story to be told.
The 2017 “Ghost in the Shell,” on the other hand, is only 20 minutes longer, but it feels incredibly bloated. If you watch the 1995 “Ghost in the Shell” close to the new “Ghost in the Shell,” you’ll notice just how horribly the new version handles both its pacing and the content within the film. The movie has action for sure, but the route by which we arrive at these scenes is needlessly long and boring. Even worse than the pacing issue is what is shown on the screen: it’s boring!
The 1995 film really nails a sort-of-cool factor when it comes to its action—and this is where the pulp comes in. It was, and still is, fun to watch the Major, the series’ main character, turn invisible and toss people around like ragdolls, and it’s fun to watch the spider-tank fight at the end of the film. The movie also never takes itself too seriously and is well aware of how cheesy some of the scenes look. More importantly, it’s also pleasurable to watch the slower scenes.
The animators behind the 1995 film really nailed a cohesive aesthetic, not just for the characters in the film but also the world they inhabit, giving us images of a futuristic city that grows more lifelike by the day.
The 2017 film not only just flops when it comes to the action (there’s a fight involving electric batons that was borderline unwatchable), but the visuals in the film in general are a complete mess: colors are all over the place with no unifying style, and the film as a whole lacks any sort of cinematic style to reel it all together.
Then there’s the other half of the new “Ghost in the Shell”: the concepts. A big part of the original animated film was how it explored the theme of humanity and what it is that makes a person human, a theme the new film just ignores in place of its own broader theme of identity. The commentary from the new film on this new theme is superficial at best and thoughtless at worst.
If you want a good barometer-reading comparison between the two films, look at how they handle their themes. The original “Ghost in the Shell” leaves us with the question “What does it mean to be human?” and points us to some examples within the film that can be seen as answers (giving a greater appreciation of what the film does on subsequent watches).
In the new “Ghost in the Shell,” the answer to its central question of “What is identity?” is stated by Scarlett Johansson at the end of the film when she says (paraphrasing here): “I’m me because people tell me I’m me.” It’s vapid, banal and completely shallow.
I’ve left the whitewashing controversy for the end of this review because I’m going to assume most people have heard about it. It’s still in the film, and my comments wouldn’t add much to this discussion.
I will say, however, that other than the inclusion of Scarlett Johansson, the 2017 “Ghost in the Shell” fares better in terms of avoiding racially-insensitive casting actors for their roles than other live-action adaptations (“Avatar the Last Airbender” and “Dragonball Evolution” to name a couple). So at least there’s some sort of progress being made.
Points you should take away from this review: don’t see the 2017 live-action “Ghost in the Shell,” go watch the 1995 animated “Ghost in the Shell” instead. This new remake is shallow and as lifeless as some of the robots shown in the film. The original film is one that has aged like wine, and is well worth your time (all 80 minutes of it).