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Non-Review Review: Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell is a fascinating, deeply flawed, film.

The movie is vibrant and vivid, rich both textually and texturally. Its style, as much riffing on American films inspired by Japanese cyberpunk as by Japanese cyberpunk itself, is simply breathtaking. The hypersaturated colours leap off the screen, which is somewhat ironic given that the 3D rendering mutes them ever-so-slightly. Those bright blues, those glowing greens, those rich reds, they combine to create a sensation that might be described as “bubblegum noir”, a reworking of the noir trappings of cyberpunk with the colour turned way up.

Putting the pieces together.

It is almost too much handle. There is an appealing aura of sensory overload to the world of Ghost in the Shell, as if the film might best be experienced by passively allowing the world to wash over the audience, to sink into the movie in the same way that several members of the cast threaten to sink into virtual networks. Ever frame is saturated with detail, creating a sense that the audience might drown in all the little touches that suggest this neon fantasia dystopia. Ghost in the Shell works best as a mood, a visual lava lamp of shapes in motion.

The problems only really emerge when the story and characters come into focus, the film struggling to grapple with its themes through dialogue and exposition as readily as it does through steadicam tracking shots and computer-generated establishing sequences. Every character in Ghost in the Shell speaks as if preparing for a freshman philosophy tutorial, ruminating on the threads that bind identity and memory together. Characters have little time for metaphor, often bluntly over-explaining their world and their emotional state.

Neural network.

Ghost in the Shell feels at once too smart and too dumb for its own good. This is perhaps most obvious in the allegations of whitewashing that hang over the film, the wry irony of casting Scarlett Johansson as the central character in a big-screen adaptation of a beloved piece of Japanese culture. Johansson’s presence has sparked debate about cultural appropriation and representation. To its credit, Ghost in the Shell makes an earnest attempt to engage with this idea, turning audience frustration into theme. It is a very clever way of dealing with the issue.

The only problem is that Ghost in the Shell simply cannot talk its way around this core concern. Ghost in the Shell tries to recast itself as a narrative that is fundamentally about cultural appropriation, but in doing so it cannot escape the fact that it is also an example of cultural appropriation. Like those circular debates about identity and memory, these is a sense that Ghost in the Shell is attempting to trap the audience in echoes and reflections, a glitch that betrays a fundamental flaw.

Manufactured.

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