Ghost in the Shell struggles to dig below the surface of its thought-provoking concepts and bring real depth to its striking visuals.
Following a mysterious incident that leaves her physical body beyond repair, a woman (Scarlett Johansson) awakens to discover that her brain has been transplanted into a state-of-the-art cyborg body, courtesy of one Dr. Ouélet (Juliette Binoche) and Hanka Robotics: a company that specializes in cybernetic and artificial intelligence tech, in a world where most everyone has technological "enhancements" of some kind. Now known as Mira "The Major" Killian, the woman is recruited to serve in Section 9: an organization, run by one Chief Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), that specializes in keeping the growing number of cybercriminals, hackers and cyberterrorists in this future at bay.
Everything changes when "The Major" and her fellow Section 9 officers, including her trusty partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk), begin hunting a mysterious terrorist known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), who is targeting seasoned Hanka Robotics scientists for reasons unknown. As "The Major" pursues Kuze, she begins experiencing more and more "glitches" that might actually be flashes of memory... and starts to suspect that Hanka Robotics was not honest with her, about who she was and the life that she had before becoming "The Major".
The new movie from director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman), Ghost in the Shell in part suffers from what could be dubbed "John Carter syndrome" - in the sense that the once-groundbreaking sci-fi elements from the film's source material are much less innovative now, after serving as inspiration for and being recycled by numerous other works that have come since then (The Matrix being perhaps the most notable example). Compounding the issue is that Ghost in the Shell has mixed success in its efforts to reimagine the source material's cyberpunk story and setting, in an aesthetically unique and thematically-rich fashion here. Ghost in the Shell struggles to dig below the surface of its thought-provoking concepts and bring real depth to its striking visuals.
Sanders does succeed in effectively recreating or re-imagining key sequences from the 1995 animated Ghost in the Shell film - itself, like Sanders' movie, based on the original 1989 manga created by Masumune Shirow - as visually splendorous moments and/or exciting action scenes, in live-action form. Unfortunately, other sequences and spectacle-driven scenarios in the live-action Ghost in the Shell are more muddled and less inspired in terms of their construction (read: both how they are staged and edited). These moments stand out all the more (in a bad way), when stacked up against the anime-inspired eye candy provided by Sanders and his director of photography here, Jess Hall (Hot Fuzz, Transcendence). In this respect, the film is a mixed bag.
Ghost in the Shell writers Ehren Kruger (Transformers: Age of Extinction), Jamie Moss (Street Kings) and William Wheeler (Queen of Katwe) do streamline the source material's narrative here, in the process delivering a more focused storyline that allows the film to maintain a comparatively brisk runtime (by modern blockbuster standards). The movie's quasi-philosophical dialogue and simplified exploration of its cyberpunk themes make Ghost in the Sheel feel a bit like The Matrix-lite (even though again, the Ghost in the Shell manga/anime themselves inspired The Matrix). Likewise, the film's Noir mystery plot beats and futuristic backdrop (shimmering skyscrapers decked out in holograms and towering over the city's seedier underbelly) come off as being a less substantial variation on similar elements that were featured in Blade Runner.
This brings us to the unavoidable elephant in the room: how Ghost in the Shell retains the futuristic Asian setting of its predecessors, yet casts white actors for most of its leading roles. While Ghost in the Shell does attempt to explain why "The Major" looks like Scarlet Johansson, the explanation offered by the movie - like the film's larger themes about the nature of identity and humanity - is undercooked and carries uncomfortable implications (concerning Hanka Robotics' standards of beauty) that are neither fully acknowledged nor explored. Beyond that: Johansson once again proves her action star chops here, but "The Major" herself is a bit too much of a blank slate over the course of her own journey of discovery, save for during her interactions with her dog-loving partner, Batou (a solid Pilou Asbæk).
Ghost in the Shell also struggles to convincingly portray its sci-fi setting as being a proper melting pot - making it near-impossible to overlook the fact that most of the main characters have been (in some sense) "white-washed," even with the more inclusive supporting cast around them. There are standouts in the film's supporting ensemble all the same, in particular Takeshi Kitano as Section 9's "silver fox" Chief, Daisuke Aramaki. Michael Pitt as the film's antagonist, Kuze, is less memorable by comparison (save for his Stephen Hawking-style processed voice), while sturdy character actors such as Juliette Binoche, Chin Han and Peter Ferdinando deliver fine, but otherwise unremarkable performances while playing familiar archetypes here (the ambiguous scientist, the cruel corporate overseer, and so forth).
Whereas the original Ghost in the Shell manga and animated movie were trend-setters for the sci-fi/cyberpunk sub genre, the live-action film adaptation struggles with its efforts to balance homage with innovation and falls short of standing out as something equally distinct, in the modern pop cultural landscape. Some steadfast fans of the Ghost in the Shell property and/or those who haven't been exposed to this franchise before now, might gain more traction with the movie - since, as mentioned, it is visually slick and touches on the same fascinating ideas as its predecessors. For other fans, however, Ghost in the Shell will prove be the shiny, yet hollow and "white-washed" Hollywood version of the franchise that they were concerned it would be.