Ghost in the Shell is my least favorite type of film, but it should not be. I love science fiction. I love sci-fi about robots and AI. I love action. I love Scarlett Johansson.
And yet here we are, stuck with a bog-standard sci-fi action movie that squanders what little promise it has by focusing on the wrong things.
Before we get too far, let’s address the whitewashing (pre-release article there, no film spoilers); it is here, and it is done to more than one character. I can’t say much about it you haven’t already heard without getting into spoilers (and follow that rabbit hole at your own peril, because the film is out and spoilers abound in recent articles), but let me just say that one of the primary things that really hurt this film for me was that in one particular scene, one conversation, the film showed an awareness of this issue. It proceeded to, for just a moment, look like it was going to say something surprisingly meta and contemplative, like it was going to acknowledge what it had done and turn it around as an actual critique of the practice at large.
Instead this glimmer of intelligence and self-awareness falls away, buried for good under the rubble of the frustratingly-standard final battle.
I have only a passing familiarity with the source material for Ghost in the Shell, as while I enjoy Japanese cinema and other cultural creations from the island nation, anime and manga are not among them. Nonetheless, I am well aware of the original works’ importance to fans around the world and its influences on media since then, so this film was important to me in a way as well.
Johansson’s performance as The Major (they just say “Major” but dropping the article feels weird to me) is one of the better parts of the film. She brings with her equal parts human fragility and robotic coldness, evident especially in her eye movements. During lighter scenes with people she trusts and likes, such as her creator Dr. Ouellet (Juliette Binoche) or her second-in-command Batou (Pilou Asbaek), she relaxes a little, expresses herself through her movements, even smiles a bit. When she’s on the job or on the table getting repaired and running through mechanical functions, she has a way of staring unmoving through the camera that is noticeable enough to enhance her synthetic nature while not being too obvious.
The actor I was most excited to see in this, and perhaps the second-largest disappointment of the film, is my man Takeshi “Beat” Kitano. Relegated primarily to sitting in a chair and delivering exposition, I couldn’t help but be frustrated at such a treasure being so misused. He does get a couple of scenes that are worthwhile, late in the film, and I’m always happy to see the man in anything, it’s just a shame that the most interesting thing he does revolves around shooting some people. It almost feels like he was there mostly as the token Japanese anchor, as he has by far the most screentime and things to do than any of the other bit characters of Asian descent.
The largest issue for me relates back to the whitewashing awareness thing I mentioned earlier. The film has a pattern of these sorts of things, asking or bringing up questions and themes and then taking them in the wrong direction. Again, this would require spoilers to hash out fully, but I will say that the issue that gets brought up in every film about androids and AI surfaces here, and instead of taking the actually-intriguing route that the film seems to be building to, The Major instead ends up in the most painfully generic and disgustingly tidy of places by film’s end. It come so maddeningly close to saying and doing a couple of really neat things, but opts instead to retread old ground.
This issue is especially egregious when you consider just how distilled this film is. To get here, we first have to take Blade Runner and cyberpunk, mix it with some creativity and originality to get the original manga and films, then rip those apart to get back to this live action film. Extra effort was going to need to be put in here to get back to something unique and meaningful; the excellent visuals and atmosphere are nonetheless something we’ve seen before in better things, so they can’t hold the film together without being the backdrop for something worthwhile.
This is not to say Ghost in the Shell’s visuals are without merit; one particular chase with The Major and an enemy agent involves them both using active camouflage that shimmers and glitches in the water-logged environment they are moving in, making for some neat spectacles, and there a couple of fairly well-done close-quarters shoot-outs and fistfights, with Johansson once again flexing her Black Widow muscles for some slick acrobatic takedowns (when it wasn’t her stunt double, of course).
If you’re a die-hard fan of the source material, you’ve probably already made your decision either way, so nothing I say as an ignorant outsider will matter. For those of you who are like me, I can only recommend Ghost in the Shell if you really just want to see Scarlett kick ass in some stylish locales and give a good android performance in the process, or you’re just really into cyberpunk and have to see everything.
Propped up by a good effort from Johansson and a few decent action scenes, this otherwise painfully average movie is let down further by the glimmers of more interesting ideas poking through its shell and its inability to say anything new.