Film Review: Ghost in the Shell

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Originally published on Flickering Myth on 29/03/17.

4-stars

A big-budget Hollywood adaptation of a much-loved Japanese anime, Rupert Sanders’ glitchy Asimovian nightmare isn’t quite what you’d expect going in. Between the frequent claims of white-washing from the original movie’s defenders, to some fairly sub-par, broadly out-of-context marketing, it’s been difficult for anyone to fully get on board with it thus far. But those happy few holding out for an unexpected miracle can sleep soundly from hereon out: this 2017 Ghost in the Shell is a visually stunning masterclass in big-picture sci-fi, and stands as one of the most thrilling blockbusters of the year so far.

Fans of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 original will be well aware of the central story’s rather dense plotting, and whilst Sanders’ update doesn’t borrow entirely from the anime classic, it keeps just enough of its intelligence to come out on top of a great deal of its American cohorts. Whilst it is neatly simplified in places from the source material, it’s never insultingly (or often even really recognisably) so, and the first act alone keeps up the much-needed world-building at a roaring pace.

There’s nothing to suggest that Sanders or Paramount or any of the big-name investors here are ever gunning for the sort of ‘lowest-common-denominator’ audience so many blockbusters of this scale often are; Ghost in the Shell remains hugely intelligent, and philosophically-driven in all its messages. And despite not being quite as dense as the original, it’s still very, very easy to fall behind if the right attention isn’t applied. This is far from yet another leave-your-brain-at-the-door action romp, rest assured.

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And it’s not just in its plotting that this huge-scale remake finds new ground either. Visually speaking, Sanders manages something incredibly impressive too: a fully-realised, largely computer animated world, that never feels at all washed-out or forcibly digital. The amount of visual effects here is frankly dizzying, but what’s even more stunning is just how tremendously they blend in with the film’s overall aesthetic.

Everything from the robotically-enhanced humans to the incessant buzzing of the Tokyo-inspired city that surrounds them, bleeds this bizarre 90s-style retro-future, offering up not just a refreshing aesthetic but an oddly tangible one too. There’s a real texture to the effects work here; a genuinely immersive quality that makes the visual world-building almost effortless. And for the first time in forever, the 3D upgrade actually comes recommended, helping to pull together a cleverly dreamy window into a very scary tomorrow.

But between this hazy neo-neo-noir set-up and the impressively cyberpunk-inspired visuals, there are a few loose screws that threaten to derail things. Namely the film’s core mystery; a conspiracy thriller that doesn’t really settle into place until a long-way down the line. As condensed as it might feel early on, with the amount of set-up needed to make something of this depth really work, a huge amount of Ghost in the Shell’s actual plot-time ends up lost, and the resulting narrative ends up taking a bit of a kicking.

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It’s still involving enough, and ticks along nicely throughout, but never quite reaches the full-on dramatic crescendo that you’d expect. In fact, in the long run, without a fully-formed climax, narratively speaking Sanders’ film feels more like a TV pilot than a mega-money blockbuster; laying some very tidy groundwork but in the end, only really feeling like it’s scraped the surface of what’s to come. Ultimately, plot-wise it’s a little frustrating, and whilst Sanders acton-skills are very well-honed here, building from some tidy shootouts to a terrifically tense tank battle, again they never really feel that they get the pay-off they deserve.

On a similar level, the widely criticised casting choices here can feel a little too distracting at times. It’s nothing against Johansson, who’s both sublimely deep and badass simultaneously once again, or even any of her other Western co-stars (Michael Pitt turns in one of his most fascinating performances maybe ever), but the film’s not at all shy about its Far-East setting and leaves a great deal of its white-washed casting unanswered.

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All-in though, it’s hard to let these plot niggles and casting hiccups take away fully from what is otherwise a totally unexpected triumph of big-picture sci-fi. In marrying the visuals of Blade Runner with the destructive action of The Matrix in a totally updated new arena, Sanders has managed a wide-release blockbuster that remains both thrilling and explosive, without ever threatening its audience’s intelligence. Not only does it deserve multiple watches, Ghost in the Shell demands them.

Ghost in the Shell is out in UK cinemas from today.

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