There are messes, there are hot messes, and then there are messes that are also hot. Ghost in the Shell, unfortunately, falls in the last bucket. While visually arresting, it fails to capitalize on its iconic realization of a cyberpunk future and gets mired in the simple act of getting from scene to scene. Even with the context provided by growing up with the source material, it doesn’t ever get around to being as compelling thoughtfully as it is aesthetically.
It goes almost without saying, but Ghost in the Shell is based on the seminal manga series Masamune Shirow. Set in a futuristic Japan, humans have gone beyond simple cybernetic implants to becoming almost indistinguishable from fully synthetic beings. The culmination of that trend is Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), a woman whose brain has been transplanted to a synthetic shell following a potentially fatal accident that resulted in the death of her parents.
She now serves as a counter-cyberterrorist field commander for a task force known as Section 9, but things take a turn as a terrorist starts sabotaging and hacking executives and scientists from her parent organization Hanka Robotics. The glitches that begin to invade her mind could be coming from similar hacks or from her past memories bleeding back into her brain. It’s a sharp clash of internal and external conflicts for Major.
Whether you’re a writer or philosophical viewer or just someone that happens to be in a movie theatre while this is playing, you can see that this is ripe for deep and complex themes. Even if you don’t toy with the ones set forth in the original manga or movies or television series, you could modernize it to play on the fears of privacy as all of Major’s thoughts are open to the company that made her despite being human on the inside. Or maybe go into the paranoia of being hacked without ever knowing it’s happening. Something—anything—to add layers to the base story.
It doesn’t, though. It squanders every single opportunity to get into meaningful territory despite getting right up the welcome mat and pulling the hand back to knock on the door just before turning around and walking away. Part of it feels like purposeful teasing, as if the movie was leading you around for extended setup. But the facade of that suspicion quickly falls away as you hit the midway point and still it feels as though nothing has been established.
The storytelling is somehow both hurried and glacial. The movie only ever feels like it’s in a rush to get somewhere, glossing over bits and pieces that should be expanded on if not just for clarity to the audience, while still feeling it is perfectly content never getting there. It’s a confusing sensation as all the momentum the opening minutes bear is shed like a snake slithering out of its skin.
It’s so confusing, in fact, that once the rapid onslaught of revelations and consequences starts, it comes across as more filler. This person shows up and this other person knows this and this guy wants that. The movie gives up absolutely no reason to care, let alone look at it through any sort of lens that provides context. Conceptually you can appreciate what’s happening to Major and the events that unfold around her, but emotionally, it’s a goddamn void.
At least the movie looks good. It is about as pitch-perfect of a manga-to-movie transliteration as you’ve probably ever seen. A lot of it can be attributed to the stellar work done by Weta Workshop. That suit Johansson wears? Real. All those geisha robots? Entirely practical effects. Everything from the costumes to the set dressing (by Jan Roelfs and costume duo Kurt and Bart) manage to look distinct and foreign yet wholly integrated into the world in a way that avoids being cartoonish despite featuring a 90s-level of pastel translucency.
The action, while perfectly digestible, could be smoother. Directed by Rupert Sanders, it suffers from the same problem as his directorial debut Snow White and the Huntsman. It prefers to lock into shots of clarity at a whim without much decorum for transition. Given the modern trends towards fast, incomprehensible whipping pans, though, the ability to comprehend the action is entirely welcome.
While divorced from the literal action of the film, some of the credibility of the fight sequences can be attributed to Johansson’s performance. There’s not a lot for her to work with (a fault of the writing and storytelling, really) but she manages to find ways to imbue Major with a stoic menace that makes it completely believable that she can and will kick that much robot ass. Even the uneasy way she stands within any particular scene lends credence to the idea that she’s barely hanging onto the detachment required for a human to exist in an unfeeling, uncaring synthetic shell.
And with Pilou Asbæk as Batou and Takeshi Kitano as Chief Daisuke Aramaki, there are some great supporting cast working with her. Not only do they fit the manga visuals eerily well, they deliver some solid performances, too, though they also have little meat on the bone to work with.
It’s worth mentioning, however, the whitewashing controversy. Not only is it fully present in this movie, they also wrote the racial conversion into the story (something you’ll pick up on if you know the manga or anime). They then shamefully fail to make that twist anything impactful, begging the question of the necessity of the whitewashing. And then they have the audacity—what they might call racial progressiveness—to cast stereotypical-sounding Asian actors with full L-R “Engrish” replacement despite being in a cyborg-filled, post-racial future, as if to really hammer home the idea that Asian leads don’t exist and they can only thrive as throwaway side characters in American cinema.
Shoving that incredibly problematic and systemic issue with Hollywood aside, though, Ghost in the Shell still fails to come together into any sort of interesting package. If you want to look at 106 minutes of a delectably derelict cyberpunk future like a poorly constructed but highly produced vacation slideshow, then go for it. But if you want anything approaching excitement or intellectual stimulation, then maybe stay away.
Final Score: 6 out of 10