“Maybe next time you can design me better,” the cybernetic law enforcer Major says in the early opening moments of “Ghost In The Shell,” teasing her maker Dr. Ouelet about the limits of her extraordinary abilities. It’s a remark about her external mechanics, but perhaps one where the subtext reflects on questions of identity, the fingerprint of memory, and vulnerability. These qualities open the doors to philosophical ideas about artificial intelligence, intention, and who’s really in control. But if the beating heart behind “Ghost In The Shell” is really the notion of the soul, the sci-fi actioner rarely achieves the singularity or a true sense of emotional connection.
Visually dazzling but dispassionate and hollow, the film often looks impressive, with some incredible action sequences to boot, but otherwise keeps the viewer at a considerable distance. A live-action remake of the original, innovative 1995 manga/anime classic — an immeasurable influence on pop culture, most apparent in the works of the Wachowski siblings — this updated iteration generally hews close to the original source material, but mostly fails to provide new observations into its inherent impressions of meaningful consciousness.
Featuring a compelling lead performance by Scarlett Johansson, the actor causes ‘Shell’ to feel intermittently absorbing, but her captivating presence can only beguile so much. Moreover, cultural appropriation — a white savior in the role of what should be an Asian lead — will provoke the ire of the more sensitive and sentient viewer (the knives are already out). But distasteful whitewashing and lack of diversity are perhaps the least of the movie’s worries.
To the plot: in the distant future, Johansson plays Major, a synthetic, cyber-enhanced police officer saved by the miracle of technology. Having essentially died in a terrible boating crash that also consumed her family, Major is the first of her kind: a self-aware human brain — a ghost — in the body of a machine. A strong-willed cyborg and perfect soldier, this intelligent deadly weapon takes orders, asks no question and also happens to be conveniently drop-dead gorgeous. Set in a futuristic Tokyo where all citizens are perpetually wired-in, the line between human and the biomechanically augmented are blurred. Of course, the dense city is a sprawling, uber-high-tech cosmopolis that seems as if wants to outdo most sci-fi meccas, but less would be more here.
Major and her partner, Batou (Pilou Asbæk), are tasked with hunting down a dangerous cyber hacker/terrorist hellbent on destroying a tech corporation for reasons unknown. As Major, Batou and her Section 9 taskforce (Takeshi Kitano, Chin Han and more) travel further down a rabbit hole of mystery, deception, and reality-warping conflicts, the warrioress comes face to face with startling revelations. Like an explosive needle drop that distorts space and time, these shocking discoveries shatter her belief system.
Occasionally gripping — its opening sequence is ripped straight out of the anime — ‘Ghost’ is visually arresting and action-packed, but far too often the movie dips into a lukewarm flaccidness. Co-starring Juliette Binoche as the aforementioned creator/scientist, Peter Ferdinando and a scenery-chewing Michael Pitt, a strong cast admirably does their best in so-so material and clunky dialogue that too often spells out its own themes.
A synthesis of cyberpunk sensibilities, the mind-bending torque of “The Matrix” and a little bit of “Blade Runner,” “Ghost In The Shell” is a soupçon of influences that are perhaps too recognizable to truly stand apart. And the idiosyncratic nature of the hi-tech/low-life artistry is mostly ditched in favor of something more smooth and polished even when the film tries to dip itself into the gutter. That unique manga flavor is largely absent too.
Directed by Rupert Sanders (“Snow White And The Huntsman”), one has to marvel at the assuredness of such filmmaking where nearly every frame is CGI and VFX-heavy. Many sequences, much like say, “Deadpool,” are completely animated with no humans or tertiary texture. It takes leap-of-faith confidence to understand how wall-to-wall green screen or fully animated sequences will add up as a whole when you are largely flying blind. In this regard, “Ghost In The Shell” is technically exceptional, but its depth is rather shallow.
The original anime was innovative and brilliant for its time, and one of the inherent issues with ‘Shell’ is that nearly all of its concepts and have been cannibalized by other movies. Much like Clair Noto’s famously influential and unproduced sci-fi script “The Tourist,” picked over by “Men in Black” and several sci-fi properties, many of the core conceits in “Ghost In The Shell” have been liberally borrowed from.
In its purest, most concentrated form, the impulse behind every science-fiction story grapples not only with the oncoming future, but also the nature of evolution. As humanity bottoms out, as the planet reaches peak mankind, the genre nearly always explores the idea of humanity’s ability or failure as a species to evolve to the next level. There’s also a healthy fear of technology at its core, as a computer generation seems like the only way forward. Do we own it or does the technology own us? “Ghost In The Shell” explores all these mech’d metaphysical qualities, but with little to add to the eternal conversation of artificial sentience, what’s left is a movie that looks pretty cool, but lands as far too familiar. So, for all the lip service paid to post-human identity, the grand irony of the narrative is a movie so preoccupied with individuality it forgets to pack the humanity inside its internal shell. [C]