It’s kind of a testament to the quality of its source material that Hollywood’s take on Ghost In The Shell is as good as it is. While the above statement does have to come with the caveat that I only have a pretty cursory knowledge of the original anime and manga, Ghost In The Shell feels like a movie that does everything wrong but somehow still comes out pretty watchable despite its missteps due to its grand sense of visual scope and fascinating science fiction world.
Taking place in the neon-lit landscape of New Port City (a locale that blends together Hong Kong, Tokyo and Blade Runner’s Los Angeles) of the not-too-distant future, the Rupert Sanders directed film sees Scarlett Johansson take up the mantle of Major, the world’s first synthetic soldier and member of an elite special forces team called Section 9.
When senior members of the Hanka Robotics corporation (responsible for building Major’s body) begin to drop dead, Major spearheads a sprawling investigation to find the culprit. If you’ve seen or read a lot of these kinds of cyberpunk or science fiction noir stories before you’ll probably put together the film’s ultimate destination ahead of time but otherwise, Ghost in the Shell manages to offer a reasonably compelling rhythm of twists and turns – though it does falter towards what should be the film’s climax.
Even then, the appeal of the film isn’t so much tied to the story it’s trying to tell, but incredibly detailed and lavishly produced world that story is set in. Everywhere the film looks, humans are embracing the potential of cybernetic modification for reasons aesthetic, practical or medicinal.
With her brain is stuck in an entirely mechanical body, Major is just a few steps ahead. “You are what they will become”, the film elegantly proclaims before clumsily explaining and re-explaining the phrase “ghost in the shell” multiple times for those in the back.
In fact, if there’s an Achilles heel to Ghost in the Shell, it is to be found in the writing. The dialogue is at-times painfully uneven and heavy-handed. There are parts where it feels like a bad translation and others where it’s just bad. As a result, all of the interesting ideas about transhumanism and society’s relationship with technology that the film taps into through its world-building ultimately end up falling to wayside.
With regards to the whitewashing controversy that’s surrounded the film, I’m not sure what I can really add to the discussion that people smarter (and more-informed on the issue) haven’t already written hundreds of words about. There are times where it feels grating and egregious and scenes where her casting works more-or-less fine. To be honest, it feels like a missed opportunity by the film.
The script does make a not-insignificant acknowledgement of Johansson’s casting by making her original body one of an Asian ethnicity. However, it fails to really capitalize
on the potential of that story beat and what that could mean for Major’s own sense of identity.
In terms of Johansson’s performance itself, she does a pretty serviceable job with it. If you’ve seen many of her recent films you likely know the score by now: she nails most of the film’s action scenes to a tee and handle’s Major’s almost-inhuman sense of isolation pretty well; but when it comes to more emotive and exaggerated beats, her performance feels a little hamstrung by the script.
In comparison, some of the film’s supporting cast deliver in spades. Game of Thrones-alumni Pilou Asbaek chews the scenery as the Major’s partner Batou while Michael Pitt makes a menacing effort as the enigmatic hacker Kuze. Takeshi Kitano also deserves a nod as the paternal leader of Section 9, who receives startling little focus in the film’s first two acts – only to come out of nowhere an emerge one of its most superbly-badass figures in the final half hour.
With unsolved murders, hidden agendas and gorgeous visual effects and production design – Ghost in the Shell offers up a sprawling cyberpunk-noir world that’s worth seeing on the big screen, in spite of its litany of shortcomings.