Movie Preview: Ghost in the Shell

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STARRING:  Scarlett Johansson, Michael Wincott, Michael Pitt, Jouliette Binoche

DIRECTOR: Rupert Sanders

WRITER: Jonathan Herman, Jamie Moss, Masamune Shirow

PRODUCTION: Dreamworks

GENRE: Action, Drama, Sci-fi

In the coming year, there will be many science fiction films vying to not only expand on popular franchises, but which hope to contribute towards a changing movie industry. One of these is a live-action remake of the classic anime film “Ghost in the Shell.”

After spending many years in development, the film will be released on March 31.

It will star Scarlett Johansson in the lead role and will be directed by Rupert Sanders (of “Snow White and the Huntsman”). While the prospect of trying to bring such an acclaimed film to a new audience may sound enticing, the film has unfortunately attracted controversy in a similar manner to the oft-delayed live-action remake of “Akira” (itself now rumored to have Christopher Nolan attached to the project).

While remaking any beloved film is no easy task in itself, “Ghost in the Shell” is highly influential among not just anime, but film in general. It has not only spawned a whole franchise of both movie and TV continuations, it was also based on an equally-groundbreaking manga by Masamune Shirow. The Wachowskis in particular cited the film as a major influence on “The Matrix” franchise, to the point where it could qualify as a remake on its own.

Yet, the filmmakers involved seem to be rather blithe about a touchy subject. While Johansson has been a highly acclaimed and successful actress, her role as the lead has divided critics and fans for casting a caucasian actress in a role and production strongly associated with Japan. There was even leaked CGI testing to alter Johansson’s appearance that ended up meeting with audience backlash as well. The tests were ultimately scrapped, but many have also responded negatively to the early advertising being too derivative of moments from the original film in an attempt to curry fans’ favor (though many have at least praised the visuals themselves).

Even though the film has the support of original director Mamoru Oshii, as well as many Japanese fans, Western fans have been significantly more divided. Although producer Steven Paul has tried to reassure fans by describing the film’s setting as “an international world,” many of them do not share those sentiments. In a column about the remake in the Los Angeles Times, writer Marc Bernardin posited that “…the only race Hollywood cares about is the box office race.”

Above all this, however, is possibly the biggest cardinal sin any remake can commit: it risks losing what made the original inspiration a classic in the first place. Even in a landscape dominated by big-budget tentpoles, Paramount has had mixed success with its blockbusters in the previous year. For every success, such as “Star Trek Beyond” (regarded as one of the best films of summer 2016), there have been massive flops, such as the ill-fated remake of “Ben-Hur” (which cost a reported $100 million to make but earned barely over a fourth of that at the US box office).

In a landscape where comic books and superheroes have been proven box-office draws, adaptations of manga have often been a hard sell. Yet, while bombs such as “Dragonball Evolution” are textbook examples of how not to do an adaptation of a beloved work, “Ghost in the Shell” could potentially be damaging to the genre for a different reason: taking a highly unique work of fiction and distilling it into a highly derivative film. Even with what appears to be a high-budget and faithful adaptation, the live-action “Ghost in the Shell” runs the risk of becoming the very work its source material broke the boundaries of. While casting a white actress in a non-white role is nothing new, it is also cause for concern that an insightful look at what it means to be human in the machine age could very well be homogenized into a mindless effects-driven blockbuster akin to the live-action “Transformers” films (a fifth entry, “The Last Knight” is on track for June 23).

While it remains to be seen how the live-action “Ghost in the Shell” will perform amid the controversy, Sanders’ and Paul’s casual responses to the criticism has done little to calm a large amount of critics and fans’ fears about the matter. In fact, the film will also be competing with several other major releases in March. Films such as “Logan,” “Kong: Skull Island,” the reboot of “Power Rangers,” and Disney’s live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” could prove to be problematic for Paramount and Dreamworks, who want to potentially make a franchise of their own if the film is successful. Even so, the live-action “Ghost in the Shell” may very well be one of the few blemishes in a decade that’s produced some of the best science fiction films in recent memory. If you are someone who is doubtful about the remake, it might be best to stay home and rent the original film instead. The anime classic has proven to be a spectacular film after more than 20 years, and the live-action film appears to be a load of sound and fury signifying nothing. Oshii’s 1995 thriller gave countless audiences a film that was both thought-provoking and mind-blowing, and the words of the remake’s filmmakers ring hollow regarding a story that so many admire.

Preview by Steven Pryor