Ghost in the Shell, a remake of the 1995 anime of the same name, is so lacking in ambition and style I was left wondering why anybody had bothered. It lacks even the decency to be entertainingly bad, instead turning in a basic shot for shot remake that says nothing new and does nothing new, on any conceivable level, narratively or technically.
Aside from the whitewashed casting that’s been widely derided and covered elsewhere, and is never justified within the film, that Ghost in the Shell does nothing really bad is counterbalanced by the fact that it doesn’t do anything really good either. It’s a film of bland competence: the performances are fine, but not outstanding, the visuals are nice without ever being spectacular, and the direction is robustly sufficient without ever being memorable. The end result is like unsalted, unbuttered mashed potato; it isn’t going to kill you, but you’re not getting much out of it besides calories.
The problem with trying to remake something as visually and narratively influential as Ghost in the Shell is that the source can now feel unoriginal because so much of it has been referenced and remarked upon in countless other films — The Matrix, Total Recall, Robocop, Minority Report, A.I., Avatar, and so on. This sense of unoriginality doesn’t lessen the original, which is still perfectly watchable with the contextual understanding that it’s from 1995, but it does leave the remake feeling flat.
This isn’t helped by the lack of any stylistic oomph in the filming; sweeping overhead shots of a futuristic Japan are pretty enough but you’ll have seen shots like these a hundred times before, just as you’ll have seen the “falling backward into the koi pond after being shot” scene time and time again. The opening text that describes a future of cybernetic augmentations and sinister corporations may have sounded thrilling and darkly-futuristic to a ‘90s audience, but now it just sounds expected. Even the language used — systems and networks and ‘deep dives’ and hacking — sounds faintly embarrassing, like hearing someone today referring to ‘multimedia’ or ‘the information superhighway’.
It should be possible to take a landmark film from the ‘90s and reimagine it for contemporary audiences, but that’s not what’s happened here. The film fails even to tap into any Stranger Things-style targeted nostalgia — instead of intentionally referencing that slightly-grimy 90s vibe with something like an ironic Johnny Mnemonic with dated references and chunky MiniDisc technology, everything is neat and smartly presented and dull.
The failing of Ghost in the Shell is that our world has moved on, technically and socially, to a very different place, but the film is still showing us a future imagined by people two decades ago. Remake a film, fine, but at least use the opportunity to say something new, something we can try and relate to: a story set 35 years from 2017, not 35 years from 1995. What they’ve done instead is take some 20 year old sci-fi concepts, given them a CGI polish, and shoved them hopefully out the door. The whole thing’s just left me feeling a little sad.