Rupert Sanders apparently acquits himself better with a solid preexisting cinematic framework to lean on. The open concept of weaponizing fairytale stalwart Snow White led to a dull, humourless feature directorial debut a few years ago, but for his sophomore effort, he has the more stable foundation of an anime classic to build from. Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell, based on a manga by Masamune Shirow, has become Sanders' Ghost in the Shell, a chronology which renders this latest version relatively redundant, yet also gives its director a lot to work with.
The 22 years between the original anime and this Hollywood remake also lends Sanders an opportunity to illustrate a new future, one that's informed by our current world and the decades of cyber technology growth since Oshii's movie debuted. All of these things are key to this new movie's moderate success as a creative venture, because Sanders is all about allowing dazzling visuals to take centre stage.
In this case, the visuals are especially rich and intriguing, enough to keep a very structurally straightforward narrative engine running somewhat smoothly. Futuristic Tokyo has become a sea of advertisements, with skyscraper-sized 3D animations towering over the pint-sized people who hustle and bustle through the city's colourful corridors, oblivious (or merely accustomed) to the sensory overload. Some of the imagery is a direct lift from the anime, still showcasing impressive effects work, while other designs and concepts are the result of fresher efforts.
All of it looks largely incredible, since the animation-to-live-action recreations are impressive from a technical perspective and the newly invented imagery buzzes with crisply executed imagination. Add to this a tremendously moody score courtesy of Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe and Sanders has effectively executed a coolly compelling depiction of a dystopia.
There are additional positives of a sort, but it would be reckless to continue such praise without acknowledging the ugly controversy that simply cannot be ignored. The movie makes no attempt to relocate the story, but also insists on casting mostly white performers with a few token Asian actors (screen icon Takeshi Kitano being the peak of the movie's Japanese representation) populating the periphery.
The plot revolves around the Major, a cyborg government operative described as a human brain inside a robot body. It’s made quite clear that the Major was once a Japanese girl, but after the scientists of shady corporation Hanka Robotics get their hands on her, she’s resurrected as Scarlett Johansson. Huh. Johansson doesn’t exactly pass for Japanese in spite of sporting her anime counterpart’s haircut and so this all adopts a distractingly uncomfortable air.
There’s just no way around it and the way the movie flaunts the whitewashing only makes the error all the more egregious. The Major is eventually given a Japanese name along with a sort of companion who was apparently also Japanese before being turned into a cyborgian Michael Pitt. Decisions like this ensure that the controversy can’t be easily brushed off because the filmmakers didn’t just race-bend their protagonist in order to put a big star in the role, but rather consciously chose to make plainly clear that the characters are Japanese living in Japan that just so happened to be resurrected as white.
No good spin can be put on this and that obviously hurts the movie overall. It’s a dumb mistake that could have been avoided with a mere location switch. It’s a shame that this controversy has to hang over what is a pretty decent sci-fi actioner led by an exciting heroine. Johansson has played similar roles to this one before, ranging from a gun-toting superhero to an alien outsider to a cyber-connected hybrid whose existence questions our humanity. The Major is a culmination of those past parts and so Johansson is in familiar territory, operating slickly within her comfort zone. She delivers a solid performance that doesn't tread any new ground, but further solidifies her position as one of the definitive action stars of her generation.
Johansson fits the bill even though she doesn't fit the race, which makes for an unfortunate mix. She's understandably the go-to actress to fulfill such criteria as looking both gorgeous and convincing while brandishing a firearm or beating up henchmen, so hiring Johansson isn't particularly surprising. It's the refusal to make minor tweaks to the story to better justify the casting that truly baffles.
At least Sanders makes somewhat smarter decisions in other areas. He drops much of the cursing and nudity of the original and replaces it with increased violence, which certainly feels like a Hollywood sort of thing to do. It's a fair trade, though, since the anime's nudity made little sense in context, instead appearing exploitive, and this is a tale of gun-toting agents cleaning up some dangerous streets, so the added violence doesn't exactly seem out of place. Sanders's version jettisons the original's moments of introspection and simply piles on the action, but at least this particular replacement supports his crisp aesthetic enough to remain engaging.
The 2017 Ghost in the Shell deviates often from its predecessor, fashioning an intriguing mystery out of its recycled parts and taking a more direct shot at the material's broad questions of what divides man and machine. Sanders' approach leads to more obvious answers, but he appears to recognize his strengths and therefore focuses on crafting a vibrantly visualized vivisection of the modern sci-fi action movie.
The superb source from which he's drawn such inspiration has provided Sanders with the necessary elements to prove he has a talent for assembling immersive imagery. The looming shadow of controversy cannot be avoided, though, and the movie eventually finagles its ethical dilemma into a rather silly happy ending, so Sanders has plenty of room to grow. Upgrades and enhancements hopefully follow for this filmmaker whose vision so far is as vast as it is shortsighted.