OnScreen Review: 'Ghost in the Shell'

Ken Jones

OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Ghost in the Shell (1995) is widely considered to be one of the pillars of anime filmmaking.  An adaption of a popular manga, it came out at a time where animation was innovating and implementing new technology as well as the dawning of the internet age for most of the world.  It became highly popular, critically praised, and influenced others (The Matrix, for instance) because of its themes pondering the future of future of humanity in a technologically advanced world.  A live-action adaptation of it has been long talked about almost since the release in 1995 and actually in the works for nearly a decade, going through various iterations of screenplays and directors rumored to be attached since 2008.  The final product has Rupert Sanders in the director’s chair and features Scarlett Johansson in the lead.

In the not-too-distant future, humanity has started to merge with technology.  Humans are enhancing their bodies with tech and blending more and more with it.  At the forefront of this is Hanka Robotics, which has developed a program that successfully puts a human brain in a mechanical body; with the spirit or “ghost” of a person (the brain) inhabiting this mechanical “shell.”  The first of her kind, Major Mira Killian (Johansson) is neither fully human nor fully AI.  A year later, she works for Section 9, a counter terror unit in New Port City (a Hong Kong, Tokyo mishmash), alongside other enhanced officers, including Batou (Pilou Asbæk), and headed by their Chief, Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano!!!).  They’re on the case of a mysterious hacker (Michael Pitt) that is killing off Hanka scientists, and may present a direct threat to Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), who designed Major’s body, and Cutter (Peter Ferdinand), the CEO of Hanka, because of a secret project.

I’ve tried to expose myself to various different genres over the years, and I’ve discovered that I can engage with almost all of them on some level and appreciate even a handful of ones I used to have zero interest in.  For whatever reason, anime has been the toughest code for me to crack.  I had planned to watch the 1995 Ghost in the Shell for the sake of comparison, only to discover that I had in fact already rented it from Netflix in 2012.  I had zero memory of it.  Rewatching a few clips online, pieces came back to me.  And from what I could remember, this adaptation of the story does faithfully recreate a significant amount of shots and scenes from the anime while rearranging a few elements here and there to create its own story here.  Some of these are pulled off quite well, including a memorable fight in shallow water where Major is cloaked in invisibility or part of the ending including a spider-like tank.  They’ve captured the look and feel of Major, Batou, and the surrounding environment of the futuristic city.  The film liberally borrows from the visual style of Blade Runner in the look and feel of the city.  Better to borrow from the best.

Johansson has the difficult task of portraying a character that is at varying degrees of emotionlessness.  The way she walks and several of her mannerisms are deliberately robotic.  Still, an actor has to connect with the audience in some way, even if the character is emotionally limited, and she has a few moments where Major’s humanity still manages to shine through, though some are more awkward than others (hiring a prostitute for the express purpose of touching her face to see what it feels like was one instance that did not work well).  However, there’s too much talking about her detachment and how she doesn’t feel like she belongs in this world rather than showing this to the audience.

Despite hardly remembering the plot of the 1995 anime (and some aspects of this plot are borrowed from other stories involving the character other than the 1995 anime) a lot of this was predictable.  From the beginning, when we see Johansson’s character wheeled into surgery with a “dying” body, it’s clear that things don’t seem entirely on the level with Hanka as a company or Cutter as its CEO.  That the mysterious hacker and Hanka have a history and what that history is and how it all relates to Major is visible from a mile away.  Both the hacker and Cutter are forgettable villains.  It’s always a big disappointment when there is such a generic, unsatisfying villain in films that aspire to be big blockbusters.

In fact, the ultimate failing of this film is not that it is outright bad but that it is so forgettable aside from a handful of visuals, nearly all of which are borrowed from 1995.  This film has nothing very interesting or fresh to say.  Takes on the increased integration of technology in the world has been done over and over and over, the blending of humanity and robotics is not that groundbreaking in 2017. In 1995, a lot of the philosophical themes of identity in Ghost in the Shell made it compelling, but compared to that this is merely lip service to those themes.  In 1995, the internet was still a novelty and the possibilities of where it could lead were endless and ripe for sci-fi storytelling.  That’s not quite the case anymore.  If anything, by the end of it all it comes across as a superhero origin story rather than a sci-fi film pondering the loss of identity in an interconnected world. 

There is also the issue of white-washing the characters, particularly the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead.  Depending on who you read, this seems to be a bigger deal in America than it does in Japan where the manga was hugely popular.  It’s problematic, for sure, but the topic is directly handled in the story, in more ways than one.  There is a line thrown in by Major at one point about her parents being refugees to the country.  Things progress to a point where Major’s memories are not reliable, casting more shadows on her identity crisis, so then the plot goes a step further (or doubles down) to really explain/justify things.  For some people, this will be sufficient to satisfy them because the explanation is tied into the story.  Those who are more cynical about the intentions of a Hollywood studio, it will probably come across as forced and weak.  I’m closer to the latter than the former. 

Speaking of Hollywood, it seems that the studio machine is also part of the problem here.  Reading about the production history of this film, it seems as though over half a dozen people had input in the writing process for this film over the previous nine years in some form.  When that many cooks are involved in the process, it’s usually a muddled end result, and this feels like there are the ghosts of several drafts and revisions lingering in the final screenplay.

My overall indifference to Ghost in the Shell did get me thinking, though, about the director.  Rupert Sanders has two feature film credits to his name, this film and 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman.  That film made over $155 million domestically and fared much better overseas, grossing nearly $400 million worldwide.  But nearly five years later, is there anything memorable about that movie?  There is nothing that stands out in my mind regarding that film, other than Charlize Theron having a milk bath.  Coincidentally (or not), there’s one of those in the opening of this film too.  That film had a budget of $170 million and Ghost in the Shell had a budget of $110 million.  After two largely forgettable films, I’m left to wonder how Rupert Sanders has managed to be someone who had a budget of $170 and $110 million respectively for his first two films.  That’s practically unheard of, someone who has never made a feature film before being given the keys like that.  The only person I could think of who comes close to that is McG, and the less said about him and his Charlie’s Angels movies the better.  Through two films, there has been nothing to indicate that Sanders is anything beyond mediocre, certainly not someone who should be repeatedly handed the reins of multiple $100+ million studio projects.  Ghost in the Shell, possibly like its director, is mediocre and nondescript.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars