Let me preface by saying I don’t know much about anime or manga or the whole cyberpunk genre, other than it’s extremely popular, and “Ghost in the Shell” has been a rumored project for live-action film since it was written in 1989 (I had to look that up). What is familiar is the visionary look at a high-tech, lowlife future society where robots, cyborgs and automation overshadow humanity (“Blade Runner,” “The Matrix,” “Total Recall”). You get the idea.
“Ghost in the Shell” begins with the massive monopolistic Hanka Corporation showcasing its new cybernetic toys. We’re in a future where every human part is replaceable for a price, leaving very few pure humans left, and they are pushing the limits of technology in the creation of Major (Scarlett Johansson), a human brain with synthetic everything else. She’s the secret weapon of a group called Section 9, which are kind of the Special Forces for Hanka.
Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) directs based on source material by Masamune Shirow. I do wonder if the whitewashing was part of the original story, but a big name is a big name, and Johansson is bigger than any of the Asian-American actresses out there. Money talks louder than political correctness in film, so don’t expect any apologies. Without background knowledge, you might not know better, but there is a distinct Asian influence in the unspecified megalopolis, which makes the casting a bit suspect.
Supporting Danish player Pilou Asbaek is Batou, Major’s only true friend, and for my money, he steals the show. Don’t get me wrong, Johansson is great, and rocks the skin-tight synthetic suit with sheer confidence like she did in “Avengers” and “Lucy” and… about 10 other films. It’s kind of her thing at this point, but Batou establishes the lighter than expected tone as an unexpected, no-holds-barred good dude, and I couldn’t quite decide whether it was refreshing or a detractor from the bleak and visionary setting. I settled on refreshing, but it diminished the return on the overall quality of the film.
The retro futuristic world was clearly beautifully imagined and rendered, and the aspect of that universe which has kept Hollywood’s interest is the visual effects magic. Perhaps that’s what has taken them this long to adapt the story. The effects are stunning. The action on the other hand is a bit disappointing, and the story is less than original.
I left the film entertained but unimpressed. Rupert Sanders delivered a strong effort that I imagine made the original writer proud, but I was expecting a much darker vision. More violence, more despondence and hopelessness, more fear and sorrow. Not to be too bleak, but that’s what makes these films so compelling in my view. I want a total immersion into the future, and I want to leave the theater hoping that these things don’t come to fruition. I didn’t feel that way with “Ghost in the Shell.” I left thinking, “that was fun.”
Action-film fans will probably enjoy the few fight sequences (many of which are spoiled by the previews), but be bored by the story and lack of sufficient character development. It also seems much longer than the 107-minute runtime, but that might have just been me. In a nutshell, I would wait for it to come to Netflix or TV. This is the type of film I have fond memories of as a kid on rainy summer afternoons lying on the couch, surfing through channels, nestled under a blanket, drifting in and out of sleep. It’s that kind of movie.
Editor’s Note: The original “Ghost in the Shell” anime film is available on Hulu.