There’s almost nothing Scarlett Johansson can’t do on the big screen (or the small screen, if she was wanted, but she doesn’t right now). She’s played a superhero multiple times (Black Widow, minus the superpowers). She’s played a superhuman (Lucy, the next step in evolution). She’s even played an alien (using her physical beauty to seduce unwitting men to their deaths). But what Johansson can’t do, though, is save her latest film, Ghost in the Shell, the live-action remake of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga series. The remake – or reimagining or whatever you want to call it – never fails to impress on a visual level, even as it borrows its aesthetics from Ridley Scott’s seminal cyperpunk classic, Blade Runner, updating it with the best 21st-century CGI money can buy, but story and character wise, it goes where too many genre entries have gone before, into stale, rehashed ideas about identity, consciousness, artificial intelligence and what have you.
After an unnecessary prologue explains the whole “shelling” process (human brain, synthetic body, we get it), Ghost in the Shell segues into h a literal big bang: Johansson’s character, dubbed the “major” here and in previous incarnations, watching over a diplomatic meeting, defies orders to stand down after robot-geishas go haywire and begin attacking the men (they’re all men) at a meeting between diplomats and several, high-ranking executives from Hanka Robotics, the mega-corporation responsible for the Major’s existence. They claimed they found her moments before she died from injuries suffered in a terrorist attack. The Major doesn’t exactly save the day, but manages to take down the robot-geishas (hacked, one and all, by an enigmatic cyber-terrorist) and the cyber-enhanced who storm the meeting thanks to her super-fast reflexes and stealth technology.
The cyber-thieves wanted something else besides the death of one or two men: They wanted access to closely guarded, super-secret information, information that inevitably leads the Major on a personal journey to recover her long-lost memories. The Major might be “more human than human” to borrow a phrase from Blade Runner, but she has few memories (if any) left from her pre-enhancement days. The Major’s body isn’t her “real” body. It wasn’t built to look like her former self. It’s just the first (or the last) in a series of unique models. It’s a clever way to get around the legitimate “whitewashing” claims that have dogged Ghost in the Shell from the moment the studio announced Scarlett Johansson’s casting in the lead role. The “real” major is just a brain, a mind, or in the awkward, somewhat confusing language of every version of the story, a “ghost” (an idea presumably meant to represent a “spirit” or more accurately a “soul” in Western parlance). That won’t be enough, of course, to convince cultural critics of the Ghost in the Shell’s worth or value, but they’re a small (if growing) subset of moviegoers.
Setting aside the “whitewashing” issue, though, doesn’t help Ghost in the Shell with it’s central problem: The story that took three credited writers and probably several more feels like one cliche after another, from the the Major’s search for her real identity, to the scientist and maternal stand-in, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), who essentially gave Frankenstein-inspired “birth” to the Major. Ouelet sees the Major as a full human being, not a product or weapon as Hanka Robotics does. But every corporation, no matter how evil, needs a human face, a human face attached to an amoral executive who puts profits over people, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando). He’s as one-dimensional and thus forgettable as any corporate villain in any future dystopian film. With Cutter and a small army of disposable, if well-dressed, henchmen, the main source of conflict, that leaves the Major, her partner-in-crimefighting, Batou (Pilou Asbæk), and their chief, Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), on the other side of the divide.
The other “villain”, Kuze (Michael Pitt), isn’t so much as a villain as story starter, plot engine, and at a crucial time, exposition giver. He’s the cyber-terrorist the Major and her team at Section 9, the elite cyber-crime-fighting government agency, have made their goal to defeat, but he’s rarely onscreen, operating primarily through intermediaries or in the shadows. When he does show up, he’s the virtual equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster, updated for the super-sleek, technologically advanced late 21st-century. At least, though, he passes the “looks cool” test. Then again, practically everything in Ghost in the Shell practically jumps off the screen (especially in IMAX/3D) with a level of detail and imagination rivaled by few genre films. Major props go out to the production designers, costume designers, and, of course, the visual effects team that bring the future world of Ghost in the Shell to vivid, often startling life.
It’ almost – operative word being “almost” – makes up for the thinly developed characters, a dull, unengaging story, and cliched ideas. For all the world-building, though, Ghost in the Shell falls short on action-heavy set pieces. Even the inevitable big battle that closes out the film feels small and cramped, not to mention it’s over far sooner than expected. That might have been a function of the budget, but in an age where every major studio film involving spandex and superheroes throws up massive amounts of CGI at the audience at least two or three times per entry, we get several short set pieces that mirror the 1995 film (fan service alert) and the big battle at the end. For all of the splendid, techno-futuristic visuals, it’s hard not to feel cheated by Ghost in the Shell. If a promised sequel makes the light of day, let’s hope they break away from the same tired story ideas or at least give us a memorable set piece or two.