Controversy has plagued Ghost in the Shell since the day Hollywood “It” girl Scarlett Johansson was cast in the pole position. Adapted from a serialized Japanese manga of the same name, Ghost in the Shell tells the story of Major, a Japanese cybernetic counter-terrorist agent. Before anyone starts yelling “Whitewashing!”, it’s easy enough to see the problem lurking. Even those without a ton of processing power may be thinking to themselves, “Hey, but Scarlett Johansson isn’t Japanese…what gives?” Indeed, what gives? Johansson being the most bankable actress in the world, teeing her up to lead an effects driven potential franchise starter makes perfect sense. From a financial perspective, the move is logical. But…
That’s the trouble with Ghost in the Shell as a whole: it has analytical skills but lacks a soul. Adapting a Japanese manga for American audiences and transplanting white performers into nearly every single role of substance is a heartless move, one that culturally appropriates in arguably the worst of ways, but also one that doesn’t make a lot of sense within the context of the film. Here we are in the belly of Japan’s urban sprawl, with Japanese extras peppering nearly every frame, and yet they have all (save for task force Section 9 leader Takeshi Kitano’s Aramaki, a commander with the most questionable of judgement) been regelated to window dressings. They are the diverse icing on top of this FX-actioner whereas they arguably should be the sponge itself. In the third act, the script from Jamie Moss and William Wheeler attempts (very poorly) to account for the racial switcheroo and just ends up making things worse. The whole thing comes across as awkward and offensive and rather than just sweeping it under the rug, our attention is zeroed in on it; a spotlight to a crime scene.
Outrage aside, Ghost in the Shell just isn’t very good. Had it been a rollicking bang-em-up action thriller with immersive set pieces and memorable characters, one might forget entirely about the problematic social issues but that is simply not the case. The film from Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman), for all its visual splendor, is often a bore, trudging from one stylish shootout to the next with the fleet pacing of sinking in quicksand.
The plot circles around Major and Division 9’s attempt to take down cyberterrorist Kuze (Michael Pitt), a mysterious foe who uses hacking (question: has hacking ever been cool in a movie?) to take down Hanka Robotics, a corporation propelling an artificial intelligence revolution that everyone and their mother wants to get in on. Kuze proves a difficult mark to eliminate since he’s freely able to jump into and out of a population who’ve willingly upgraded their flesh and bone for cooler, stronger, more efficient cyborg parts that has in turn has opened them up to “hacking”. If you’re thinking that sounds like Agent Smith jumping in and out of bodies in The Matrix, you’re following along nicely.
Obviously, something sinister is afoot on as Major is plagued by flashbacks that her handler (Juliette Binoche) quickly dismisses as “glitches”, administering a serum that helps Major forget so that she can better “mesh” with her body. As Major closes in on the villain she so desperately wants to kill (Ghost does a rather poor job motivating her seething rage), she discovers they share a shocking connection that might reveal her past… and that she is not indeed the first of her kind.
For a movie ostensibly about soul and identity, Ghost in the Shell is notably sparse on both. Beneath the surface, Ghost is ghostly. Hollow. All decoration, little true grit. Even fully human characters like Batou (Pilou Asbaek) are more robotic than organic, with the majority of dialogue a patience-testing string of jargony exposition. When the inevitable malevolent wizard behind the curtain materializes, he is as boring a villain as they come and even the introduction of a Spider-Tank (not nearly as cool as it sounds) doesn’t help to inject Ghosts with some much needed life.
As Major, Johnasson is on autopilot. She is but a brain, a “ghost” the film tells us, living inside a cybernetic shell, but the performance adheres strictly to the later. A corporate creation, Major is more product than person – a kind of Robocop-lite but lacking any discernible moral compass who huffs and puffs her way through an action scene like a humorless Wonder Woman – and in that regard, she is the perfect allegory for the film itself. A pretty shell masquerading as something with a soul.
Created by Hanka Robotics and contracted to eliminate criminals, Major lacks any discernible intrigue or character traits. She floats around in combat, a flickering butterfly, but when she’s not kicking ass and taking names, Major is flat as a logic board. And moody to boot. She’s just kind of drifts through (there’s literally a scene where she hovers underwater (…in a wetsuit???), ponderously gawking at jellyfish) without ever giving us a sense of humanity, the whole thing that’s supposed to make her different, special, a revolution of human potential. Even her predictable journey to find “herself” follows obvious and well-tread narrative tropes that devolve into dull stretches of soul-searching that lack any real emotional impact .
With a visual palette that suggests the pairing of Blade Runner and Tron, what Ghost in the Shell does have going for it is a dystopian aesthetic sparkle that cannot be ignored. The city in which the wholly boring story transpires feels decadent and lived in, with cybernetically-enhanced patrons patrolling the streets and gigantic holographic advertising sucking us to the edges of our seats. The detail is immense and immersive, the kind you wish had been paid to the characters and story. In IMAX, the experience is engrossing, even when lacking in big, memorable spectacle moments. Without doubt, Ghost in the Shell is bursting at the seams with style but has little substance to back it up and when the seams tear and we’re able to look inside the gaping maw of Ghost’s interior, we’re witness to something expensive but ultimately hollow. Again, it’s Major in a nutshell. For all the talk about ingenuity, invention and soul, Ghosts feels like an import lost in time, done up with modern VFX to cover its gaping problems. With any luck, Ghost in the Shell will differ from Major in one critical way; it should be both the first and last of its kind.
CONCLUSION: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is all shell, no soul. This vapid, mopey, effects-driven, entirely predictable action-thriller haunts audiences with dazzling special effects, hoping to cover up a substance-bereft narrative that leaves Scarlett Johansson stranded as a robotic and culturally-troubling character.