While “Ghost in the Shell” is grand in terms of visuals and aesthetics, it could have used a stronger script that deals with its philosophical themes in less of a Hollywood blockbuster way (whitewashing and all) and more of a profound way like the defining anime it is adapted from.
Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film based on the beloved Japanese manga is an iconic timestamp in 20 century science fiction and anime. That is why Paramount Pictures’ retelling is tied down with controversy over the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role.
Whitewashing is a white actor being cast in a non-white role and while Hollywood has been practicing it forever, it is becoming increasingly unacceptable in these times of social change. At least Johansson does well in the role of “Major,” shortened from “Major Motoko Kusanagi.”
In the future, the cyber enhancement of society blurs the lines between technology and humanity. Hanka Robotics is the top developer of this futuristic technology and the target of terrorist hacking.
Major is a cyborg whose designer synthetic body (the shell) houses a human brain (the ghost) rescued from the body of a cyber terrorism victim. She is a militarized Section 9 professional who works with her reserved partner, Batou (Pilou Asbaek), to prevent cyberterrorism. As the film progresses, the hacker (Michael Pitt) reveals truths to Major that make her unsure of her purpose as an individual.
The information that the hacker (Kuze) gives to Major leads her to question her superiors and do some soul-searching. Major suspects her designer and mother figure, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), has secretive knowledge about her past and her division commander, Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), has conflicting motives concerning her life. She experiences meaningful and mysterious memory glitches that amplify her relentless pursuit to understand who and what she is.
Credit should be given to the film for asking the questions it asks in the first place, but the ideas at the core of the story are not pondered as substantially as the original. A greater sense of the society and future that these agents stand for would have helped as well as a deeper dive into the boundary between human and machine’s physical and philosophical differences. The cyberpunk spy does search for her identity throughout the film, but her experiences do not feel as mystifying and dark as they should for such compelling material.
Rupert Sanders has improved on his last feature (Snow White and the Huntsman) and is capable of some of the finest art direction. It is only disappointing that he does not have the world building skills required to bring this richly detailed setting to its fullest context. Nevertheless, he has a gift for crafting beautiful scenery and this is a sensory overload that is pleasing to the eye from start to finish. Almost every other scene is a lush spectacle that successfully translates the feel of the anime.
Honoring the fast-paced violence that is a trademark of the original, the film’s action sequences are all choreographed in spectacular and fresh ways. However, the PG-13 rating feels like a way for the studio to make the film more accessible to audiences by undermining some of the brilliant intensity of Oshii’s version that would justify an R rating. It probably would have been better off if it took the risk with that important bit of the anime version.
Johansson is on auto-pilot this time as she has plenty of experience with action as an avenger in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and as a variety of inhuman or enhanced characters in “Lucy,” “Under the Skin,” and “Her.” She is always convincing as a human hybrid because her portrayal is cold and straightforward, but equally ambiguous and undefined.
The uneven pacing of the film (an aspect evident in the 1995 film too) may dampen the effects of her performance, but she is still the source of poignancy no matter how empty the film feels in some spots.
This is by no means a disappointment as it is a major studio blockbuster led by a woman with heady themes and visuals at the peak of perfection. It is, however, a movie that loses some of the original’s sophisticated complexities to a Westernized reimagining. In its simplest form, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is an existential meditation on cyberization and transhumanism in a modernized world that is somehow deep and shallow at the same time, like putting a human brain in a robot’s body.