Ghost in the Shell (the 1995 anime, based on the 1989 manga) is an interesting, pschologically complex examination of the human condition – but the new film starring Scarlett Johansson ... not so much. While the 2017 film is a let down, at least it always looks incredible, with some dazzling CGI adding some superb life to the visuals.

‘WHITEWASHING’ in Hollywood is no contemporary phenomenon; from Brando’s turn as Genghis Khan to the recent controversy over Netflix’s Iron Fist, the lexicon of mainstream visual entertainment has long been vulgarised with a tendency to mash Caucasian stars into roles much more suited to, or written for, actors of an Asian heritage.

Naturally, when Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell (Cert 15A, 106 mins), the Hollywood remake of the acclaimed anime of the same name was first announced, with lead actress Scarlett Johansson taking the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi (now just “The Major”), the news was met with the vitriol of a thousand online think-pieces.

The news spurred on many necessary conversations on the dangerous trend of whitewashing. In a political and social climate so driven by race relations, you’d think the producers would have had a little more foresight.

Still, despite whatever progress the industry has made in recent years, this trend is seemingly showing no signs of dying off.

The beloved animated sci-fi from director Mamoru Oshii dealt with themes of self-identity and humanity in a hyper-connected world – themes common to the literary world of ‘cyberpunk’.

As with most of the distinctive imagery from the original, these themes play a large part in this remake.

In a future where most humans are augmented with cybernetics, The Major is the first of her kind, built from the ground up as the perfect cyborg soldier, with a human brain encased inside – “the ghost in the shell”.

When a terrorist begins hacking into people’s minds and controlling them, The Major is put on the case, along with the rest of her team, Section 9 – led by Chief Aramake (the incredible Takeshi Kitano).

Ghost in the Shell is a technical marvel. From the smallest holographic detail to the most bombastic, CGI-fuelled action sequence, this is a sumptuous display of wonderfully executed, perfectly integrated visual effects.

The intro, with Clint Mansell’s mood-perfect synth score expertly adapting the music of the original, re-imagines the opening sequence from said film perfectly; a seamless assimilation of live action and CGI.

The cityscape clearly takes notes from Blade Runner and the original source material, but also from Katsuhiro Otomo’s startling anime Akira, the illustrations of Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud and the heavy sci-fi prose of William Gibson.

In a word, it’s visually beautiful – ripped straight out of a cyberpunk dream. The frame is always on the verge of bursting at the seams.

Unfortunately, beyond these incredible visual feats and a few riveting action sequences, Ghost in the Shell has little to offer. For all its manifold layers of sci-fi world-building, this is a shallow experience, narrativity speaking.

Its thematic meditations on humanity and identity are extremely cursory.

We’re frequently told about the cybernetic “risk to individual identity” and the problematics of “messing with the human soul” yet Ghost in the Shell is altogether soulless.

Forgoing the original’s contemplative twist for a conclusion that allows the film to squeeze the whitewashing issue into the narrative, Ghost in the Shell has nothing new to say about its subject matter.

Johansson may be playing a robot, yet although we’re constantly reminded there’s a ‘soul’ in there, she never shows it.

Still, Juliette Binoche does an admirable job as her creator, Dr Ouelet, and it’s great to see Kitano fire off a few rounds in some of the latter action sequences.

Ghost in the Shell is saved from an otherwise worthless existence with said action sequences and some innovative CGI.

One can’t help but wonder, however, how much more mercifully shorter it would have been without all that stylised slow-mo…

Verdict: 5/10

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