'Ghost in the Shell': Film Review

Fails to live up to the original.

Scarlett Johansson stars as a cybernetic superhero in director Rupert Sanders' live-action update of the Japanimation classic by Mamoru Oshii.

If the "ghost" of anime classic Ghost in the Shell refers to the soul looming inside of its killer female cyborg, then this live-action reboot from director Rupert Sanders really only leaves us the shell: a heavily computer-generated enterprise with more body than brains, more visuals than ideas, as if the original movie’s hard drive had been wiped clean of all that was dark, poetic and mystifying.

Not that it’s easy to follow in the footsteps of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 Japanimation masterpiece, which remains a cornerstone of the genre and sits somewhere between Blade Runner and The Matrix, but Sanders and his team have clearly opted for a sleek, watered-down version that eschews much of the first film’s A.I. existentialism for a futuristic shooter that never digs deep enough. Abetted by a few cool set-pieces and a gun-toting Scarlett Johansson, this Paramount release will see strong box-office returns before disappearing from most of our minds.

The movie already met with some criticism two years ago when Johansson was cast as the part-robot, part-human Terminatrix known as Major, whereas the character in Oshii’s movie and Masamune Shirow’s manga series was Asian. Such whitewashing is becoming more and more controversial for Hollywood studios trying to woo a burgeoning fan and financial base in the East, and nearly all the principal players here are Caucasian, save for a memorable “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who manages to steal most of his scenes without ever getting up from his desk chair.

But the real issue in Ghost in the Shell may have less to do with whitewashing than with brainwashing, as it often feels like the screenwriters (Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger) chose to jettison the more thought-provoking, cryptic aspects of their source material in favor of a streamlined actioner that jumps from one fight to another without much contemplation.

The original film managed to be both violent and philosophical, putting the viewer in an uneasy place and pushing us to ponder the future of humanity in an increasingly computerized world — a world that would have a huge influence on the Wachowskis' magnum opus, all the way down to the cable ports in the back of each character’s head. Here we get a taste of that ambience, but it feels more like a backdrop than the crux of the story, which boils down to yet another good vs. evil scenario where no mystery is left unsolved and conflicts are tied up in an all-too Hollywood way.

Things start off somewhat promisingly when, in an opening that recalls the credit sequence of both the Oshii film and the HBO series Westworld — if you’re looking for a smart contemporary take on the robot genre, look no further — we see a human brain transplanted into the state-of-the-art body of Major. A year later, she has become a ruthless fighting machine at the hands of the Section 9 security department and its stoical boss, Aramaki (Kitano, speaking in Japanese when he speaks at all).

Major’s job is to track down cyber terrorists alongside her badass partner Batou (Danish actor Pilou Asbaek, who was already Johansson's occasional sidekick in Lucy), the two of them cruising a city that looks like Tokyo swallowed a bottle of growth hormones and went on a shopping spree at Best Buy. Every space is covered in giant LCD screens and hologram projections, while human beings are enhanced with synthetic body parts or other improvements that make them all look slightly artificial — and that includes all of their hairstyles. (Kitano somehow manages to remain convincing while wearing what looks like an anvil covered with cotton balls on his head.)

The entire place is ruled by the nefarious Hanka Corporation and its leader, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), who built Major as a prototype war tool and is hoping to cash in on his product. But there’s a new hacker in town named Kuze (Michael Pitt, in a Kylo Ren cape and voice) who is screwing with both Hanka’s plans and Major’s mind, giving her memory glitches that are tougher and tougher for her supervising scientist (Juliette Binoche, doing her best) to control.

Even if you haven’t seen the anime version, it’s not hard to predict where things are headed, though Major’s quest for self-discovery provides some surprises. But they are often mired by the routine action and plotting, with Sanders dishing out two memorable sequences — one involving a geisha-bot from hell, the other Hanka’s underground wired lair — amid the kind of run-and-gun stuff we’ve seen before. That would all be acceptable if Ghost in the Shell led someplace profound, but the film merely treads in shallow waters and, by swapping the original ending for what can only be described as a lame sellout, eradicates whatever made it interesting in the first place.

Sanders does showcase some of the visual flair seen in Snow White and the Huntsman, with impressive visual-effects shots of broken glass, rain pellets and other falling debris, and a moody color palette effectively captured by DP Jess Hall (Transcendence). In an amalgam of her roles in Her, Lucy and Under the Skin, Johansson toes the line between ass-kicking action and a distant unearthliness that often feels, well, robotic. It’s not her best performance, though it’s hard to do much in such a slick and lifeless movie. Perhaps Ghost in the Shell needed to be more human after all.

Distributor: Paramount
Production companies: Arad Productions, Steven Paul Production, DreamWorks, Paramount Pictures, Reliance Entertainment
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Chin Han
Director: Rupert Sanders
Screenwriters: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger based on the comic ‘The Ghost in the Shell’ by Masamune Shirow
Producers: Ari Arad, Avi Arad, Michael Costigan, Steven Paul
Executive producers: Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, Yoshinobu Noma, Jeffrey Silver, Tetsuya Fujimura
Director of photography: Jess Hall
Production designer: Jan Roelfs
Costume designer: Kurt and Bart
Editors: Billy Rich, Neil Smith
Composers: Lorne Balfe, Clint Mansell
Casting directors: Lucy Bevan, Liz Mullane, Mirana Rivers
Visual effects producer: Fiona Campbell Westgate
Visual effects supervisors: Guillaume Rocheron, John Dykstra

In English, Japanese
Rated PG-13, 106 minutes