Rupert Sanders’ adaptation of the celebrated manga and anime film Ghost in the Shell has many of the same assets and drawbacks of his prior film Snow White and the Huntsman. Both feature a high profile actress playing a powerful lead and great visuals, but leave you with precious little when the lights come up.
Scarlett Johansson stars as Major, a robot whose soul exists within her human mind. Major works as a terrorist-battling soldier but suffers “glitches” that provide clues to her mysterious origins.
Purely as a visual experience, it’s top notch, especially on the big screen. The obvious Blade Runner, The Matrix and manga influences have merged to create rich, jaw dropping vistas. As a story, it leaves a far colder, muted effect. I never grew emotionally engaged in Major’s dilemma, didn’t hate the villain and wasn’t captivated by the narrative
I missed reading Masamune Shirow’s 1989 serial manga but did catch the 1995 anime adaptation of Ghost in the Shell when it first arrived stateside. It oddly gave me the same impression as the 2017 remake: great action, splendid visuals but an overly familiar story with concepts better explored elsewhere. Numerous others film are better portraying humanity existing within a machine. To name just a few: the recent Ex Machina, the classic Metropolis, Steve Spielberg’s wondrous A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Paul Verhoeven’s perfect RoboCop and Ridley Scott’s probably unbeatable Blade Runner. Those films leave the eyes and mind spellbound. Ghost in the Shell, both versions, are like my first VCR: attractively produced but outdated.
Far more worthy of note is the 2004 anime sequel, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. That film is among the most stunning animated works I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching and is worth seeking out, even for non-fans of the genre.
This oddly plays less as a live-action anime and more of a mainstream, less mysterious redo of Johansson’s Under the Skin, another vehicle for the actress in which she plays an evolving human soul existing in an alien guise. Both films share creation sequences and peek-a-boo nude scenes of its star.
Johansson does what she can as Major and looks great doing it but her performance and role are limited. Also, what the heck is Juliette Binoche doing in this? It appears the English Patient Oscar winner is making an awkward, ill-advised and belated attempt to embrace making Hollywood movies. Somebody please stop her before she pops up in RED 3 or some other nonsense.
Many have accused this production of whitewashing, as Caucasian performers have been insensitively added to an Asian story. The accusation is valid, though the choices made here are downright puzzling. Johansson, one of the biggest movie stars on the planet and one of the few actresses who can open an action movie, has been cast as Major instead of a Japanese actress. It makes sense as a commercial choice, but Johansson has been miscast, both as a robot and an Asian. The overall approach to creating a mostly English-language, Japan-set thriller is murky. The great “Beat” Takeshi Kitano sports a bad haircut and, unlike his other co-stars, recites his dialogue in Japanese. Nearly everyone else speaks English, despite kanji written everywhere. The attempts to westernize this Japanese story are downright confusing.
Sanders’s film is much better than the live action Aeon Flux and so gorgeously produced (with vibrant CGI in every scene), the art direction alone justifies its existence. Still, while Ghost in the Shell starts strong and has well-staged, wham-bam action, it doesn’t leave much of an impression. Both impressively weird and intellectually lackluster, it delights the senses as you watch it, but your brain will hit DELETE on the drive home.
Two and a Half Stars