Well, I thought that I’d review last year’s remake of “Ghost In The Shell” because – the day before I originally prepared the first draft of this review- I got a copy of it on DVD as a birthday present 🙂
Surprisingly though, I only really watched a remastered version of the original 1995 version of “Ghost In The Shell” back in 2016, when I was going through (another) cyberpunk phase. Needless to say, I was impressed enough to end up watching almost all of “Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex” on DVD, as well as both the second and third anime movies. So, yes, I’m a fan of the franchise.
Needless to say, when I first heard that Hollywood was remaking the original film, I was somewhat sceptical. Although I was amazed to hear about 1980s/90s-style cyberpunk films being made again, my scepticism was further enhanced by the fact that the remake had a 12A/PG-13 certificate upon it’s release. I was worried that it would be some kind of simplified Hollywood remake that would miss the point of the original films. Of course, as soon as I started watching it, I realised that I was wrong about this.
So, that said, let’s take a look at “Ghost In The Shell (2017)”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS for both the remake and the anime film that it is based on.
“Ghost In The Shell (2017)” is set in a future where cybernetic enhancement of humans is common. However, a government-funded company called Hanka Robotics wants to take this even further by transplanting a human brain into a cybernetic body. They try this technique out on an orphaned refugee called Mira who it is said has drowned. The transplant is a success.
A year later, Mira is a Major in the elite “Section 9” counter-terrorism unit. However, following a mission to prevent the assassination of the president of Hanka robotics, the Major comes into contact with a mysterious cyber-terrorist called Kuze whilst analysing one of the hacked robots from the crime scene. Needless to say, she begins to investigate…..
One of the very first things that I will say about this film is that it isn’t an exact remake of the original anime. Stylistically and narratively, it is very much it’s own thing.
But, this is hardly a bad thing. Although there are a few homages to scenes from the original anime, this film tells a somewhat different story – which is still just about within the traditions of the series (if anything, it’s probably a tiny bit closer to “Ghost In The Shell II: Innocence” and “Ghost In The Shell: Solid State Society” though).
In short, the film focuses a lot more on the Major and her history. An important theme in the film is whether our memories define who we are and, like in “Blade Runner“, there’s also a sub-plot about artificial memories too. Whilst this works as a homage to “Blade Runner” it is also in keeping with the themes of the original anime and also slightly topical in this age of fake news etc… too.
This focus on the Major also allows for much deeper characterisation than in the original anime. However, this comes at the expense of the characterisation of the other characters. Even so, we still get to – for example – learn why Batou has artificial eyes. But, the team-based storytelling that is so key to the original films and TV episodes is missing somewhat here. But, this allows the film to be a much more focused thriller in some ways though.
Still, this focus works. In an age where Hollywood films can be bloated things that can drag on for two hours or more, the fact that this film has a relatively slender 103 minute running time (at least five minutes of which is taken up by the end credits) helps to keep it focused and compelling. Yes, the pace isn’t as “relaxed” as the average cyberpunk film – but it’s hardly an “action for the sake of action” film either.
And, yet, although this film contains more action than the original anime, it’s still very much in keeping with the tone of the series. Although this is an action movie, it isn’t a mindless superhero-style action movie. There’s still some philosophical and/or science fiction stuff going on within the film.
However, since the film is very much about the Major’s quest for self-understanding, the philosophical issues in the film aren’t explored in quite the depth that they could have been. Still, they’re still there, which is reassuring.
However, one slight change between the Hollywood remake and the original film is that some of the main characters seem a little bit more vindictive. This mostly takes the form of several members of Section 9 occasionally summarily executing disarmed criminals/terrorists, rather than arresting them. Whilst this is no doubt meant to be a depiction of how dystopian the futuristic setting of the film is, it perhaps adds a little too much moral ambiguity to otherwise sympathetic characters. Especially since these scenes are often presented in a slightly “badass” kind of way.
When the film originally came out, there was some online controversy about the fact that the Major was being played by Scarlett Johansson (since, in the original anime, the Major is Japanese).
Whilst the idea of the Major’s cybernetic body looking significantly different to her brain is very much in keeping with the themes of the series (and the ending of the original anime film too), it still caused a lot of internet controversy in America and Europe (although it was apparently much less controversial in Japan).
But, controversies aside, the cast is a lot more international in this film than in the original anime. Plus, one cool thing about this film is that people realistically speak different languages (with subtitles for the audience and, presumably, translation software for the characters) rather than the typical Hollywood thing of everyone just speaking English.
Best of all, despite the “12” certificate, the film still thankfully manages to retain a fair amount of the grittiness and uncanny psychological horror that made the original films so good. The robots and robotic elements of the film all look suitably creepy and, although a lot of the action scenes are eerily bloodless, they still manage to be surprisingly intense too.
Plus, the film also still – sort of – manages to show how realistic robots have affected people’s attitudes towards nudity in the future too. In other words, it’s absolutely no big deal whatsoever. I’m kind of surprised how much of this the Hollywood remake managed to keep – albeit with a few slight “robotic body suit” changes in order to stay on the right side of the censors. But, even this works really well – since it ensures that the robot nudity is “functional” (rather than comedic or titillating), which is much more in keeping with the spirit of the original films.
In terms of set design, lighting design and costume design, this film is outstanding!
In addition to taking influence from the original anime, the set designs and lighting here also take a lot of influence from “Blade Runner” 🙂 Not only that, they’re also their own unique thing too – with brightly-coloured holograms and some truly outstanding lighting. Seriously, anyone who has seen some of the art I’ve posted here will know, “colourful cyberpunk” is my favourite type of cyberpunk 🙂
In addition to this, the setting has a fairly Hong Kong-like “look”, in a similar way to the original film. Plus, whoever designed the sets obviously took some inspiration from Kowloon Walled City too.
Likewise, the costume design here is surprisingly good too. Not only does it take a bit of influence from “Blade Runner” (with regard to the background characters), but it also manages to be both “realistic” and “futuristic” at the same time.
For example, one of the most interesting costume designs in the film is probably the strange cagoule/trenchcoat/biker jacket hybrid that the Major wears at the beginning and end of the film. Seriously, it looks really cyberpunk in both an 1980s-style way and a modern way.
In terms of the music, it’s reasonably good. However, the only truly stand-out musical moment in the film is the fact that a version of the background music from the awesome Hong Kong montage in the original anime (which, sadly, isn’t included in the remake) plays during the end credits.
All in all, on it’s own merits, this is a really good cyberpunk movie. It looks really cool, there’s some good characterisation, there’s a bit of intellectual depth and the pacing is reasonable good too. Yes, it isn’t as good as the original anime – but, for a Hollywood remake, I’m genuinely surprised at how good it is 🙂 It’s kind of like “Ghost In The Shell lite”, but this probably still makes it better than many modern movies.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four.