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Ghost in the Shell

Year: 2017
Studio: Paramount
Director: Rupert Sanders
Writer: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Michael Wincott

If you need any more proof that success in Hollywood is an exercise in marketing a product rather than ensuring quality, look no further than this critically drubbed financial trainwreck. You might have heard the reverberations around the industry for five minutes while it flopped loudly for Paramount and assumed it was another cheap, cynical IP grab by a creatively bankrupt studio that failed to capture any of the spirit or aesthetic of the original classic.

Don't be fooled. Director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) and his creative and design team have done what Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins did with Blade Runner 2049. It's plain they love the original anime and have taken great pains to homage not just the visuals in live action, but the aesthetic language of how the camera moves and tracks its subjects, how characters are framed and portrayed, the sets and surroundings and everything else.

And the script by William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger understands enough about the world of the story so that the extras it throws in – like explaining how Batou (Pilou Asbæk) gets his electronic eyes – fit perfectly.

After an introductory coda showing Major (Scarlett Johansson) being created in the labs of Hanka Robotics that's every bit as visually inventive and beautiful as the birth scene from the 1995 film, we see her and her team doing what they do best. In an unnamed Japanese city she bursts in on an attack in full swing after her iconic swan-dive from the top of a skyscraper. Robot geishas have turned into assassins in the midst of a high powered business meeting and the Section 9 counter-terrorism unit that deploys Major and her colleagues swoop in to bust it up.

While trying to ignore the strange snippets of memory her handler Dr Ouelet (Juliette Binoche, putting her stamp definitively on studio blockbuster territory after this and Godzilla) assures the Major are glitches in her cybernetic brain, she plugs into the memory of one of the geishabots that attacked, trying to pin down the source of the attack.

It puts her and her team on the trail of Kuze, the apparent mastermind behind the assassination, and it leads them from the grimy streets to a yakuza nightclub to the signature fight in the shallowly flooded plain in front of a bank of grim apartment blocks.

But Major's visions are coming faster and harder, and Kuze turns out to know more about her origins and that of Section 9 than she's comfortable with. She starts to wonder more about who she is, giving rise to the main themes in the story – what it means to be human in an increasingly mechanised world where we're slowly becoming machines ourselves. In 1995 it was cutting edge science fiction, but with todays wearable health monitors, bionic implants, nano-biotechnology and AI becoming more commonplace all this stuff seems right around the corner.

If you're a fan of the original you know what/who Major really is and the secret behind her and Kuze's genesis which this review won't spoil. I actually found the plot of this version easier to follow than the original, giving the themes more room to shine through.

Bodies of water, streams of light, the living cityscape and the spider tank battle in the abandoned church are all gorgeous. The visual register is taken very much not just from animation but anime specifically, just sharper and more heightened. It's very glossy, very neon tinged and very architected.

Why it flopped so hard is a mystery. It might have been the accusations of whitewashing that saw a white American girl cast in a role that was originally a Japanese character. The plot did what it could to explain things, but by the time the film came out the scandal was in full swing. Audiences don't usually care about that kind of thing, so maybe it's just that the project – however classic in the sci-fi firmament – was just too niche to return a $100m budget.

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