‘Ghost in the Shell’ (2017) Review: A Shell of Its Former Self

'Ghost in the Shell'

Movie Rating:


Controversial amongst nerds and social justice advocates alike, the American ‘Ghost in the Shell’ remake hits theater screens to more wary concern than excitement. Ultimately, the anime redo disappoints, but not for the reasons many predicted. The movie feels dully uninspired despite some glorious wall-to-wall eye-candy.

The new ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is a curious concoction. It exists because so many Hollywood movies (most notably ‘The Matrix’) took elements from the 1995 anime classic (plus the 1989 manga and many other sequels and spinoffs) that a remake of this cult oddity became a mainstream possibility. Many folks cried foul that Hollywood would dare touch something like ‘Ghost in the Shell’, even though the original movie stole many images and ideas from Hollywood features (especially ‘Blade Runner’) in the first place. When the live-action edition hits screens, it feels oddly familiar in ways both good and bad. Although it’s exciting to see the story that spawned so many imitators get its due with some absolutely gorgeous imagery, much like the ‘John Carter’ movie, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ took so long to get here that it seems overly familiar and even old-hat now. At the turn of the millennium, this would have been a revelation. Now, it’s kind of a yawn.

Scarlett Johansson stars as Major, a cyborg member of a cyberterrorism law enforcement team that goes after hackers who attempt to sabotage the Artificial Intelligence products of Hanka Robotics. Of course, Major is also a product of the company that she protects, which complicates things plenty. She has a human mind that gives her robo-superbody the consciousness necessary to kick ass and take names as needed. She’s treated somewhat like a daughter by her creator (Juliette Binoche) and like a product by her company, which raises all sorts of existential quandaries. Not that Major asks many of them at first. However, a new case leads her toward a hacker (Michael Pitt) who might actually be a previous product of Hanka. When he causes Major to consider the ghost in her shell (i.e. her soul, for those following at home), suddenly Major is forced to question everything she knows.

It’s a pretty heady story wrapped up in an action flick about a pretty robo-girl in a skintight suit firing off guns. (That’s anime for ya!) There’s a reason why the story has resonated with so many for so long. Director Rupert Sanders (‘Snow White and the Huntsman’…shudder) is a fan. He lavishly creates a world that’s both deeply indebted to the 1995 animated film and 1989 comic as well as its own thing. The neon and Apple product future is gorgeous to behold, both sleekly high-tech and crumbling in the cracks.

On a purely visual level, the movie feels like an anime brought to life (with plenty of ‘Blade Runner’ for good measure) and it’s easy to get lost in the eye candy. It lights up a big screen with every dollar of the budget apparent for maximum impact. For those concerned about whitewashing, Sanders cast with that in mind. Johansson got the lead for obvious movie star reasons, but everyone else is a hodgepodge of international actors ranging from the French Binoche to Japanese cult action actor/director Takeshi Kitano (as badass as always). It feels like a world without cultural borders in the best sense.

The problem isn’t that ‘Ghost in the Shell’ miscast a classic or dishonored the deep ideas or stunning visuals of the source material. Sanders and company nailed all those things. The problem is that, aside from a few stunning action scenes (mostly front-loaded), the movie is simply dull. The script is so determined to overstate all the themes and oversell all the conspiracies that far too much of this eye candy action film is dedicated to actors overtly discussing subtext in hushed tones until it loses all meaning. These ideas aren’t quite as avant garde as they were in the ’80s and ’90s. Viewers don’t need the spoon-feeding that they’re forced to sit though, and that prevents ‘Ghost in the Shell’ from ever gaining the momentum and excitement it needs to function as a satisfying action movie. Instead, it plays more like a series of dreary conversations circling around the same tired concepts explored in so many more satisfying movies.

Eye candy can only carry ‘Ghost in the Shell’ so far, especially since so many of the images are so familiar. Ultimately, the film will likely play well for younger audiences completely unfamiliar with ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and the many movies produced its wake that pillaged all its best concepts and visuals. They may well be as blown away as people who first discovered this story decades ago. As for everyone else, they’ll get bored quickly and leave the theater wondering what all the fuss is about. Like ‘John Carter’, that’s a shame and not really the filmmakers’ fault, in that they told this story as well as it could have been told. No, it’s their fault for thinking this story needed to be told again. It didn’t. It’s just too bad it took $150 million and the wasted efforts of so many talented people to figure that out.

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      • Chris B

        lol, I half-expected that interview with Oshii stating “now if you’ll excuse me, my dump truck full of money is here.” He can try and defend it all he wants but Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese story, set in Tokyo….something is amiss.


        I finally got to see this yesterday; I disagree, I thought it was worth seeing. But, to this so-called controversy, I’ve been saying that all along: How do you whitewash something that was already white to begin with?! If you look at the bulk of anime/manga throughout the decades, they’re usually created with Euro-centric features. To further illustrate the point, there’s a couple of recent anime out (either Sword Art Online or Ajiin-I get them confused ’cause I haven’t seen either, yet) where one of the characters is a female redhead (definitely not an Asian trait by any stretch); so, if Hollywood makes a live action adaptation and casts for argument’s sake, Julianne Moore (yeah, I know she’s more of a strawberry blonde, but again, for argument’s sake), would that be considered whitewashing? To argue that because the character was created in Japan which therefore makes it Japanese (which is actually a technical by-product of intellectual property rights) is absurd. It’s not uncommon/unusual for authors to create something different from their racial identity/perspective. Look at James Patterson and Alex Cross, Shakespeare and Othello, the roster of black characters from the annals of Marvel/DC, etc. Are we going to lambaste them for creating characters different than what they see in the mirror?

    • Actually the story takes place in the FICTIONAL city of Niihama. Oshii has stated however the design of the city was based on Hong Kong.

      If your going to Bitch for the sake of Bitching, At least get your facts straight.

  1. Adam

    Only skimmed the review, as I’ve never read or seen any prior version and I plan to see this. I really liked John Carter quite a bit, so if this is that “bad”, I’m really gonna enjoy it.

    • Bolo

      Phil is saying that as a result of timing, this adaptation feels derivative of work that its own source material influenced and inspired.

      The same way people saw the trailer for ‘John Carter’ and thought it looked like a ‘Star Wars’ knockoff even though its source material novels actually served as an influence and inspiration for ‘Star Wars’.

  2. Bolo

    This opens in Japan in a few weeks. So I won’t get to see until then. I generally relate to Phil’s reviews and expect that I will feel the same way, which is good enough to get my money’s worth.

    There are lots of ideas in the source material that haven’t been explored to death, but I never expected a mainstream Hollywood movie to tackle them. Going with a very faithful adaptation of the series’ broadest safest passages is probably better than I expected.

      • Bolo

        This is actually really fast. Most Hollywood blockbusters are delayed by several months before opening in Japan.

        A lot of it has to do with how Hollywood movies are marketed in Japan. Hollywood movies are often promoted based on the success they’ve already enjoyed in their homeland. Japanese audiences hear that a movie was #1 for three weeks in USA, and that makes them think it is worth seeing.

        Also, the school and work schedules are incredibly demanding, so release dates have to be chosen very carefully around when the target demographic will have a day off school or work to go see a movie.

  3. NJScorpio

    I remember when I first saw ‘Akira’ around 1996 (a little late to the party), I blown away by the intriguing concepts and exciting visuals. The next biggest name in anime at the time was ‘Ghost in the Shell’. I watched that…and it couldn’t hold my interest. It felt like it was rambling. I think I need to rewatch it before I, inevitably, watch this movie (via Redbox).

    • Pretty much the same with me, Ghost in the Shell I’ve watched probably twice over the years and didnt fully follow what it was trying to convey and I’m usually pretty game on head trips like this. Might have to re-watch it here and see how it is now, havent seen it in over a decade probably. Really want to see this one though as I quite enjoyed Snow White and Sanders directing and visuals for that movie and if they dumbed it down some, from what I remember of the Anime, it might not be a bad thing for the general movie going audience 🙂

  4. Cmdrdredd

    Seeing this because I’m a huge fan of the original and the series it spawned. Also seeing it because I am a sucker for HDR eye candy and this is playing in Dolby Cinema.

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