Director: Rupert Sanders
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 107 minutes
Ghost in the Shell is beautiful to look at, its nameless Asian city resembling Blade Runner’s dystopian future Los Angeles complete with even more, and larger, holographic advertisements cutting though the dreary concrete landscape. What’s missing in the milieu are a heart, soul, and brain – even though all of those things are constantly mentioned as integral to the imitative narrative.
The visuals may be somewhat derivative, but at least they’re something to behold. The plot, action (what little there is), and the commentary are all sourced from the parts of various genre staples. The cobbling together of those tropes is uninspired and only adds more tedium to the already dismal mission at hand.
Based on the beloved manga and 1995 anime, this new Ghost in the Shell is largely the same with some changes – certainly one in particular that has drawn some scorn. Scarlett Johansson plays Major, a cybernetic soldier with an artificial body wrapped around her human brain. She’s the perfect weapon for the counterterrorism efforts of corporate conglomerate Hanka Corp. – a thinking machine that follows orders. The brain of a woman who survived a terrorist attack being the titular “ghost” in the manufactured “shell.”
Major’s creation opens the movie, set to a great score from Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe that establishes the mood as a sci-fi fever dream. The birthing includes a bath in milky-white liquid, a shot taken from the anime, though it may stick out to those critical of Johansson’s casting. She’s fine in the role, a weird gait and hunch while standing aside, and the reimagining of the character as Caucasian is dealt with somewhat in final act plot developments. It could also work to communicate the idea that her makers – scientist Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) and Hanka slimeball Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) – created Major in their own image.
There is some international flavor on Major’s team, which includes hulking sidekick Batou (Pilou Asbaek) and their leader Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano). It does get a little weird that everyone speaks to him in English and he only ever replies in Japanese. Everyone aside from Major has the thinnest of dimension. For example, we know Batou is a nice guy because he feeds stray dogs.
The team’s task involves investigating the murder of an executive and tracking down the hacker Kuze (Michael Pitt), who has a beef against Hanka. The familiar rhetoric spewed by the shadowy, possibly misunderstood, villain is ridiculous to begin with and made almost comical with an intonation that sounds like a mixture of the AOL voice and Max Headroom.
When the action kicks in it’s also tough to engage with, a blend of heavily edited Matrix-y moves and Predator cloaking occasionally cutting through the platitudes about Major discovering her origins and her purpose. Pretty much what you see in the trailers is what you get action-wise.
It’s disappointing that the film doesn’t further explore what makes it unique. The melding of man and machine as common in this society is only touched on in the most superficial of ways. Instead of reinforcing interesting questions about identity and humanity we get a guy who had a mechanized liver implanted so he can drink more. An interaction with a human prostitute is short and obligatory. Even Major’s ultimate self-realizations feel more like requirements than resolutions.
Under the shine of the visuals and the consistently distinct music, Ghost in the Shell is an empty vessel.