Director: Rupert Sanders
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt, Juliette Binoche

Let me state right up front that I went into Ghost in the Shell with no previous knowledge of this material. It’s based on the wildly popular 1989 Japanese manga comic series by Masamune Shirow. I’ve never read the books or watched the 1995 animated movie of the same name. Nor have I seen any of the franchise films that came after that. I went into this with an open palette and no preconceived notions of what to expect outside of the rumblings of Scarlett Johansson being miscast. She has become another example of the Hollywood whitewashing dilemma. I’ll have more on that later.

In a future world, artificial intelligence becomes a closer reality. The line starts to blur between robots and humans as human bodies are enhanced with synthetic parts and vice versa. Johansson plays Mira who was almost killed after a tragic accident. Her brain has survived and is placed in a synthetic robot. She is told she is the first of her kind. The company behind this is Hanka Robotics. While her doctor (Binoche) sees potential for Mira, another member of the company wants to use her as a weapon. A year passes and Mira, who now goes by Major, only has vague memories of her previous life and has honed in on her skills as a trained assassin. The various scientists at Hanka are part robot, part human and become the targets of being hacked into and terminated. Each assassination attempt is left with a warning message via hologram stating, “collaborate with Hanka Robotics and be destroyed.” Major and her counterpart Batou (Asbæk) hunt down the assassin, known as Kuze (Pitt), and find that he is specifically targeting the scientists behind Project 2571. Her discovery about Project 2571 leads Major to reassess everything she remembers about her past.

For someone that went into Ghost in the Shell completely green, I was able to easily follow along with this live action version. Screenwriters Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger have made this accessible to a beginner audience instead of playing too deep to please the fans. It doesn’t get overly technie or futuristic given the language and world that Masamune Shirow created. The title refers to the idea that the “ghost” refers to a person’s soul who is now living in a robotic “shell” of a body. The movie excels at being visually stunning at any given moment. It boasts a very intricate design showcasing the virtual reality look of a futuristic Japan. It’s created entirely by special effects, which works well for the universe at hand. The overall tone and dark atmosphere feels like a cross between The Matrix, Total Recall, and The Terminator. If you’ve been able to tap into those films, you may appreciate the inner workings of Ghost in the Shell.

While it’s fun to look at, it takes a good hour before we can get any sort of emotional content or drive for Major. The first half basically feels like a standard sci-fi action film with chase sequences, shoot-outs, and the rise of the villain. It’s not until the second half where it finally dives into the conflict at hand for Major. Ghost in the Shell plays like a beginner Marvel Comics movie where it takes up too much time setting up the characters and world at hand. The trouble here being that all the all characters feel a bit stiff. You never quite know until its revealed who may be fully human or part robot. I got the impression that maybe the actors felt a bit stilted in how much life they should give their characters. Michael Pitt (Boardwalk Empire) makes obvious clichéd choices as the villain, Kuze. As Major, Scarlett Johansson can easily handle the action sequences as she’s no stranger at playing heroines and non-human characters with her roles in the Avengers movies, Lucy, and Under the Skin. The backlash involving her casting comes from the fact that Major is typically thought of as an Asian character, yet Johansson has been cast instead. Now the counter argument is that Major is no longer in the body she was born with and is now in a robotic shell making her race a non-factor. Her discovery of her past is revealed in the second half of the movie, but I think director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) could have chosen to explore her inner conflict earlier on even if it was indirectly. I sense that even Johansson feels too conflicted about how much personality and inner human core she wants to bring forth to make Major an interesting character.

As a whole, Sanders struggles at bringing out any levels in the mystery and intrigue at hand. It all seems to drive along at the same pace and energy. Many of the film’s themes center on the memories we hold onto and accepting our fate in life. Part of the closing narration reminds us that what we do in life defines us and that humanity is our virtue. Doesn’t that always seem to be the theme in these kinds of movies? I get that this isn’t a new property, so maybe at one point it felt fresh and original. I didn’t quite get that feeling from this live action adaptation. While there haven’t been any official talks for a franchise, the ending leaves you a bit open to that possibility. Maybe there’s more to explore with this version of Ghost in the Shell now that we’ve gotten the origins story out of the way.

Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Only if you’re already invested in the material


4 responses to “Movie Review: GHOST IN THE SHELL”

  1. I am curious to see this one but may wait until it is out of the theaters. I also felt it was a bit weird to call attention to the whitewashing in this instance since it is originally an anime movie and they don’t necessarily look distinctly Asian anyway. I’m sure this is not a popular opinion but it is a way I feel. I am all for most of the other times this has happened but this one seemed odd to dwell on to me.

    • I wanted to call attention to it as a concern people have for this adaptation. I’ve never read the manga or seen the anime movie, so I don’t have an informed opinion. However, there is something really odd and noticeable in the film regarding this concept.

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