'Ghost in the Shell' Review: Has a Movie Ever Owned Itself So Hard? – GQ Magazine


Roast in the Shell.

Joshua Rivera, GQ.com contributor: It's barely April, and 2017 is already a banner year for Hollywood being utterly clueless when it comes to Asian culture on screen. Ghost in the Shell, a live-action remake of the seminal 1995 film by Mamoru Oshii (itself based on a manga by Masamune Shirow) is the third major project this year—following The Great Wall and Iron Fist—marred by controversy surrounding whitewashing and representation of Asian actors on screen, and a refusal to meaningfully address it. It's also, quite possibly, the one that bungles this the most. Oh, and it's a bad movie on just about every level?

It's really hard to know where to start with this one. What would you say is the first thing you want to get off your chest when you talk about Ghost In the Shell, Kevin?

Kevin Nguyen, GQ digital deputy editor: Even if we put whitewashing aside for a moment (which the movie does not let audiences do, but we will get to that), Ghost in the Shell fails in so many avenues. It’s a boringly told sci-fi movie, blandly directed action movie, and a deeply shallow adaptation of some pretty excellent source material. (I rewatched the anime last week and dang it holds up well!) In fact, the thing that surprised me most is how far they veered from the original film. I’m not someone that thinks a live-action remake needs to stay close to its origins, but every change made in the new Ghost in the Shell seems to be intended to strip out all of the weird and interesting things from the anime.

If the anime is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” then the new one is the equivalent of a Pentatonix cover.

Joshua: And that's what's so strange about this movie! For a film that seems so slavish to the imagery of the original anime (it bends over backwards to directly lift scenes from the original, even though the story is entirely different) it's incredibly timid about reproducing what makes those scenes memorable, which is that they were gross and uncomfortable. There's some great tech-fueled body horror going on there, and this remake just makes it all as sterile as possible. I mean, it manages to have a scene where bags of dismembered body parts are just hanging from the rafters, and it's the dullest thing! This also extends to the story's attitude to technology, which is… well, I'm not sure what it is.

Kevin: Yeah, the original does a lot of existential pondering on the relationship between humanity and technology. The new one does not. In fact, the remake has very little to say, and would rather spend its time trying to render a futuristic Tokyo. Which it does competently, at least for the first few minutes, introducing us to an eerily lush, neon-soaked CGI cityscape. But that look gets tired quickly, and Tokyo starts to resemble some drab sci-fi B-roll borrowed from a sneaker ad. I get that part of the appeal of a live-action remake is seeing some dope anime shit IRL, but the movie favors slow-motion slickness over the haunting grittiness of the original. The aesthetic of the new Ghost in the Shell is so hollow and surface-level. If the anime is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” then the new one is the equivalent of a Pentatonix cover.

Joshua: A lot of this comes down to just how plain a lot of American blockbusters are, you know? Everything is just so drably… functional. At some point, all the slow-mo stops being a stylistic choice and becomes an excuse for a lack of inventive presentation. The score tries to walk up to the original film's theme (which plays over the credits, because of course) in distinctness, but then recedes to the background to become barely memorable. The final fight, a tense, thrilling, and, most importantly, quiet encounter replicated from the original, is now loud and noisy with the music jacked up, because that's how big climactic fights roll here in Blockbuster Town. Sure, a bunch of the imagery is right, but the why of it is all wrong. Which is where this film starts to mess up in a big way.

Kevin: Okay, I guess this is the part where we talk about the hellacious ending?

Joshua: Yes, definitely. Let's HACK THIS ENDING.

Kevin: (Spoilers ahoy!) At the end, we discover that the Major is the kidnapped brain of a young Japanese girl implanted into a robotic body by a tediously nefarious corporation—a plot twist that is nowhere in the original and, at first, comes across as incredibly dumb until you have a moment to really think about it and realize oh my god this is even dumber than I could have ever imagined.

If there is a thin moral in Ghost in the Shell, it’s “Do not take a Japanese girl and put her in the body of a white robot.” Which is EXACTLY what this movie is! They took a Japanese brain and put it in a white shell. The ending of the movie is a self-condemnation of the movie’s own whitewashed existence (which in some ways would be an extremely anime move if it were deliberate). But in the end, Ghost in the Shell owns itself harder than any other movie I’ve ever seen.

Joshua: It's like the Ed Sheeran of movies. Can you even really own something that owns itself so hard? This is terribly frustrating when you consider how seminal and full of ideas a property like Ghost in the Shell is. That thing from Westworld, where they dip robot bodies in goo? Totally from Ghost in the Shell. Seventy-five percent of the ideas in The Matrix? Directly lifted from Ghost in the Shell. There's a story about how the Wachowskis pitched that movie to Joel Silver by just straight up showing him Ghost in the Shell and saying, “We wanna do that for real.”

It's like the Ed Sheeran of movies.

Like you, Kevin, I'm generally more interested in remakes that aren't very beholden to their source material, but there's a downright condescending quality to the way adaptations like this are treated. Live-action Disney remakes are treated with way more respect, you know? No one wonders if audiences today (or abroad, because foreign box offices matter more than ever) will connect with a love story between a woman and a giant were-buffalo. But yeah, let's take the thing that's hugely influential to other things audiences love and make it like… none of those things.

Kevin: Maybe that’s the most cynical part of this new Ghost in the Shell. They made a movie with no interest in its source material. Apparently all that really matters is making a movie that bears the same name as one that people love, even if there’s nothing in it for them.

In a heavy-handed voice over at the end, the Major says “we cling to our memories as if they define us, but it’s what we do that defines us.” Aside from the fact that the plot would prove contrary to this vapid line, maybe there’s a lesson there for the audience here: Don’t let your fondness of the original Ghost in the Shell encourage you to see this movie.

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