Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images
Screenplay by Jamie Moss and William Wheeler, based on the comic by Masamune Shirow
Directed by Rupert Sanders
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano Takeshi, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Chin Han, Danusia Samal, Lasarus Ratuere and more
Grade: One and a half stars
This isn’t really “Ghost in the Shell.”
Yes, I know that’s what it says on the title, and the movie throws out several different set pieces/plot devices used in the 1995 anime movie of the same title, the TV series, comic book, and other related materials. But all that lip service can’t ignore the fact that it misses the fundamental concepts of its source material almost entirely – it’s even inaccurate in its definition of what a “ghost in the shell” actually is – and dumbs it down into basically an inferior “Robocop” knockoff with cleaned-up “Blade Runner” aesthetics. Yes, it’s pretty to look at, but the heart is completely missing.
Here, Major (played by Scarlett Johansson) has only had her cybernetic body for a year. She has no memory of her past, and struggles to reconcile her human mind and robotic body while she and her team hunt for a cybernetic hacker with mysterious secrets of his own.
The movie deserves the blowback it gets for casting a white woman in an iconic Japanese franchise, and is rightly held up as an example of Hollywood’s deeply unfortunate tendency of stealing characters’ racial identities. They manage to compound the problem even further by revealing later on that both the Major’s human self, as well as that of the major antagonist (also played by a white guy, naturally), were Japanese. If you’d managed to ignore the whitewashing before, the writers wanted to shove it in your face.
Despite the nods to various portions of the “Ghost in the Shell” franchise, the movie guts the heart of that as well. There’s a lot of plot and characterization variation throughout the franchise’s various mediums, but a unifying concept behind all of them is the boundaries between human and machine and what it means to be human. The franchise’s take on it is deeply philosophical and inherently Japanese in feel, reflecting concepts such as personal transformation and the struggle to hold onto a “self” while also serving as a functional part of a greater whole.
In this movie, however, the thematic concept of the movie seems to be one of the taglines of “The Lion King” – “Remember who you are!” The entire driving arc of the film is the Major’s struggle to reclaim her old identity, though the movie also contradicts itself by saying that memories don’t determine who you are. If they don’t, then why did we just watch a woman go through two hours of effort to get those memories back? Having rejected the thematic concept of the original story, I’m not sure the writers ever came up with one to replace it.
Johansson sells her character’s robotic nature, but doesn’t do enough to convince us of the character’s human heart. Pilou Asbæk is fun as Batou, and Takeshi Kitano is magnetic as Aramaki. Unfortunately, Juliet Binoche plays the same parental scientist character I’ve seen in a dozen different sci-fi action films. Michael Pitt’s Kuze feels like he wandered in from some post-apocalyptic teen romance somewhere.
The visuals are gorgeous (for the record, I’m talking about the scenery rather than Johansson’s nearly-naked body) and wonderfully evocative of the genre. The problem is that they’re a beautiful wrapping on an essentially hollow package.
In this particular shell, sadly, there’s no ghost to be found.