I doubt it can be understated just how visually spectacular Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell really is at times. Pulling from a beloved manga and anime, the film is crafted with maximum showmanship by Hollywood alchemists. In its ominous and overbearing neon lights, Ghost offers a digitized future that looks like it takes place several decades after 1982’s Blade Runner, with the next generation being the children of what happened when everyone did like Harrison Ford and got busy with toasters.
It is ironic then that a film about the soul inside of an ostensible machine has so little of the divine—or simply the serviceable—beneath its own flesh-colored bodysuit. Indeed, Hollywood’s Ghost in the Shell is haunted by the techno-dystopias of the 1995 animated film from Mamoru Oshii, because the original movie version of this tale was one of both mournful regret and longing anticipation for the advent of technology—a destiny where humanity is augmented, blurred, and possibly lost to cybernetic upgrades.
Over 20 years later, maybe American filmmakers figured that future is already here, or is at least close enough that viewers see no beautiful sorrow in technical progress. Instead, Sanders builds a monument to Hollywood’s own techie wonders that makes for a stunning demo reel, but a rather dull film.
The eponymous Ghost in the Shell is a woman who goes by the name of Major. In a different life that she does not remember, she was a human being. But after an ‘incident,’ her brain was erased of all memories and placed inside a completely cybernetic form that suspiciously looks a lot like Scarlett Johansson. This is the shell. Now, she is part of Section 9, an elite police force—or private security muscle, the movie muddies the details—that goes after terrorists, particularly one whom Major believes is responsible for her losing her human body, an enigmatic figure known as Kuze (Michael Pitt).
Still, Major shouldn’t feel so lonely as the first woman with a fully synthetic figure. In this grim future of what is presumably Tokyo, everyone has cybernetic enhancements, such as her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk), who after losing his eyes gets appropriately disturbing telescopic sunglasses installed into his head. They’re led by an old war horse named Armaki (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano), but even these superspies take orders from generic corporate stooges added for American audiences to have an easy villain, in this case Cutter (Peter Ferdinando). There is also Juliette Binoche as Dr. Ouelet, Major’s maternal figure who oversaw the operation that made her whole.
It’s a sleek noir future where there are giant holographic commercials even more inescapable than pop up ads on every street corner, and there are shady backroom dealings occurring on every floor of the city’s high-rises—allowing for several shots of Johansson stripping down to basically nothing as she dives off rooftops into blue screens that have been replaced with the most highly rendered of urban cityscape freefalls.
For whatever issues folks have had with Ms. Johansson’s casting in the role of Major, there is little denying that she gives the part everything. Intense fight choreography, multiple monologues about anguished solitude, and the fact that her costume in this film makes Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique design look demure, Johansson is all in on—visibly happy she finally has more to do than so many listless turns as the backgrounded Black Widow.
Thus the shame that the film does not really strive to offer a vehicle for its star that embraces the identity crises of actual noirs where faulty memories are an issue. Rather, Ghost in the Shell is a fairly dim and disinterested studio action movie, more concerned with cobbling together enough set-pieces that’ll ensure all four quadrants can feel like they’ll get their money’s worth. The result is a breathtakingly pedestrian and half-hearted screenplay by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger that pays lip service to concepts about self-identity and the role of memory in our self-actualization… but is mostly just an ungraceful blending of many science fiction films you’ve seen before. And all of them much better.
Sanders keeps things moving with a stylishness one would expect from the director of 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman. But like that picture, what he accomplishes in aesthetics does not particularly translate well to pacing or character empathy. His newest film mostly just careens from one subplot to another, at times recalling the vibe of other ‘90s properties beyond the original Ghost anime—like the ones where Sylvester Stallone or Jean-Claude Van Damme would also fight clone armies in extravagantly overproduced sets.
There are flashes of genuine humanity in the film, particularly in a pretty gnarly performance by Pitt as a kind of doppelganger for Major, but the picture is so driven by the demands of franchising and setting up for a sequel that they get buried. Much has been and will continue to be made in the press for the lack of Asian actors in major roles in the film, other than an admittedly scene-stealing Kitano. But this critique does a disservice to the film’s much more pressing problems: being often boring and playing wholly like a disappointment.
Ghost in the Shell opens on Friday, March 31.