Ghost in the Shell
Directed by Rupert Sanders. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt. (2017, PG-13, 107 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 7, 2017
The inevitable live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s groundbreaking manga and its equally stunning 1995 feature-length anime is 75% Hollywood eye candy and 25% René Descartes by way of Blade Runner. As the cyborg cop with a human brain, Johansson’s Major wrestles with bad guys, corporate turncoats, but most of all, she wrestles with herself: She thinks, therefore she is, isn’t she? Actually, Shirow’s original themes of identity, the soul (or “ghost” in the film’s parlance), and self-determination come in at a distant second to the film’s cordite-scented pyrotechnics and CGI cityscapes. It’s a given that the current zeitgeist and the fear of AI-driven ’bots razing the global flesh-and-blood workforce are now more than ever less sci-fi and more, “Yes, this is really happening.” Instead of following that nervous train of thought, screenwriters Ehren Kruger, William Wheeler, and Jamie Moss are inclined to gloss over the deeper shades of gray matter that are central to the very humanity of the source material in favor of a less cerebral and more slo-mo Scarlett dystopian mediocrity. As helmed by Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman), this is truly a shell of a movie with only occasional nods to the existential phantoms of Shirow’s deeply spiritual original.
Which isn’t to say this Ghost isn’t a kick to watch, of course. Johansson’s blank-faced Major heads up Section 9, a band of ace covert agents overseen by the inscrutably awesome Aramaki (played by the equally inscrutably awesome living legend “Beat” Takeshi Kitano – Battle Royale, Sonatine). Although this film version never gets specific about what remarkably well-realized megalopolis the story takes place in, it’s clearly an anime-inspired mash-up of multiple manga futurescapes that have also inspired much of the Wachowskis’ and other filmmaker’s visions of tomorrow. Augmented reality is on display everywhere, making your Pokémon Go displays seem like, uh, child’s play, while humans can upgrade themselves with all manner of body-tech. Case in point is Major’s hulking partner Batou (Asbæk, apparently a big fan of Hellboy), who, after a particularly nasty firefight, trades in his boring old organic peepers for something akin to mantis shrimp-vision. Nice. They’re on the trail of the mysterious “terrorist hacker” Hideo Kuze (Pitt) who is seeking to disrupt robotics manufacturers Hanka Corp and, presumably, lay waste to the status quo. Explosions, spider tanks, and a reductionist sort of self-actualization ensue.
Ghost in the Shell feels hollow nonetheless, due in large part to its overreliance on standard Hollywood tropes. Certain touches resonate and remain memorable long after the film’s conclusion – I’m talking to you, creepy robo-geishas – but for all its CGI bells, whistles, and Johansson, this simply can’t compare to its (highly recommended) Japanese forebears.