A film review by Craig J. Koban April 6, 2017


2017, PG-13, 100 mins.


Scarlett Johansson as "Major" /  Pilou Asbęk as Batou  / Michael Pitt as The Laughing Man  /  Takeshi Kitano as Daisuke Aramaki  /  Juliette Binoche as Dr. Ouelet  /  Chin Han as Togusa  /  Lasarus Ratuere as Ishikawa  /  Tawanda Manyimo as Roma  /  Yutaka Izumihara as Saito  

Directed by Rupert Sanders  /  Written by Jamie Moss and William Wheeler, based on the manga series of the same name by Masamune Shirow


Confession time: I've never seen the 1995 anime sci-fi film GHOST IN THE SHELL, which in turn was adapted from the manga series of the same name by Masamune Shirow.  

On a positive, I ventured into the live action adaptation of the anime film with an open mind and infinitely less baggage than those that worshipped the original.  There's no denying, though, that GHOST IN THE SHELL's influence on the genre can be felt in innumerable ways as a parable about identity, what it means to be human, and how people and machines co-exist in both harmonious and problematic ways.  Weighty themes such as these have been at the core the very fabric of the sci-fi genre since its birth. 

Now, as for how faithful GHOST IN THE SHELL is to its cherished and iconic animated antecedent...I cannot say.  What I can confidently say is that the film, on a level of production design, art direction, and visual effects majesty is one of the most opulent looking examples of futuristic sci-fi that I've laid eyes on.  GHOST IN THE SHELL, as far as pure eye candy goes, is a masterful triumph of technological artistry that creates an impossibly detailed world of tomorrow.  Unfortunately, the film can't compliment its visual splendor with characters and an overall narrative that made me care.  There's an emotional and dramatic emptiness to GHOST IN THE SHELL that held me back at a frustrating distance.  Such painstaking efforts were employed here to make its world feel fully alive, textured, and authentic, but lifeless characters and sluggish pacing makes GHOST IN THE SHELL more of a slog to sit through than it should have been.  This is one of the best looking dull films to come around in a long time. 



But again...the world of this film's future is so resoundingly fleshed out and realized, so much so that it's a shame when it never populates such a mesmerizing cinematic landscape with characters equally well delineated.   Set in Hong Kong of the future, GHOST IN THE SHELL imagines a time and place where humanity has reached a level of symbiosis with machines.  The once black and white segregation between people and robots has become infinitely more grey, seeing as just about every citizen has some sort of mechanical enhancement to their respective bodies.  One robotically enhanced person is Major (Scarlett Johansson, more on her casting in a bit), a young woman that has become a whole new conjoined being altogether.  After her human body is destroyed under tragic circumstances, her brain is implanted into an ultra-advanced robot body.  Her soul, or ghost, is now in a synthetic shell, which easily explains the meaning of the film's title. 

Outwardly, Major appears completely human and is the pride and joy of her creator, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), who considers her the very first of her kind...and an unqualified miracle.  The purely business interest behind Major's inception, Cutter (Peter Ferdinado), perceives her as the ultimate weapon that can and should be used to rid the world of cyber terrorists.  As for Major, she's forced to acclimatize to her new "shell" and is initially troubled with the fact that she seems to have no conscious memories of her past.  Flashforward a year and Major is now working for a special police squad overseen by Amaraki (Takeshi Kitano) and is called upon to stop the nefarious plans of an illusive terrorist (Michael Pitt).  With her loyal and trusted partner Batou (Pilou Asabek), Major manages to track the criminal rogue down, but soon learns from him the awful truth about what actually happened to her in her pre-robotic life. 

GHOST IN THE SHELL has, as mentioned, a strong thematic undercurrent.  Major - like many other non-human entities that have occupied sci-fi storylines before - has a crisis on conscience and identity as the film progresses.  Her once rigorously wiped memory gives way to recurrent flashes of what might be previous memories, and the more "glitches" she experiences the more she begins to doubt her origins (at least that have been explained to her) from her handlers and creators.  Was she really the cognitive survivor of a refugee boat disaster (leaving her brain the only thing that remained)?  The more she doubts her troublingly contradictory back story the more she struggles with notions of free will and her very humanity.  The manner in which GHOST AND SHELL delves into what makes a person an organic entity and what erodes our very humanity makes it eminently watchable.   

What makes GHOST IN THE SHELL even more engaging is, yes, its visual look.  With Oscar nomination worthy cinematography by Jess Hall and production design by Jan Roelfs, the film fills the frame with a staggering density of visual information that makes its tech-heavy Hong Kong of the future such a spell-binding odyssey to gaze at.  The cityscape - which looks like the conglomeration of the dark noir 2019 L.A. of BLADE RUNNER, the shiny and colorful metropolis of THE FIFTH ELEMENT, and the immeasurably massive planet spanning city of the STAR WARS prequels - is an awe inspiring marvel, replete with skyscrapers that reach out to the heavens flanked by gigantic holographic billboard advertising.  The visual effects work - which frequently dabbles into Major's inner workings - are equally astounding.  GHOST IN THE SHELL was directed by Rupert Sanders, who previously made the magnificently rendered SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN; if anything, he knows how to painstakingly craft an endlessly handsome film that deserves worthy consideration alongside elite films of the genre.   

What's ultimately a shame is how GHOST IN THE SHELL lacks...well...a soul.  For as strong as the film's introspective themes are, Sanders and company don't get much mileage out of their characters, most of whom lack distinguishing and relatable personalities.  Even though Major's plight is intriguing enough, her overall arc is nothing that hasn't been already better handled in any number of previous speculative science fiction films, which only subverted my overall willingness to buy into her conflict.  The pacing of GHOST IN THE SHELL is an awkward pendulum of false starts and detours that holds its momentum back to a snail's pace at times.  Major's storyline meanders around aimlessly at times without much symmetry and really only achieves a few novel twists and turns as it approaches its third act.  Unfortunately, it's the languishing spirit of the overall script leading into that finale that hurts GHOST IN THE SHELL, not to mention a pair of antagonists that, on paper, are not really all that memorable. 

Scarlet Johansson has improbably emerged over the years as a bona fide action star.  There's no question of that.  She more than adequately harnesses Major's ass kicking physicality in GHOST IN THE SHELL with a swift and determined confidence that makes her a consistently credible presence in it.  Controversy has dogged the film since her casting was announced, seeing as she's a Caucasian woman playing a role that was originally Asian in the 1995 anime film.  Johansson's participation is definitely indicative of an ongoing symptom of Hollywood whitewashing lead roles for the purposes of box office gain.  That much is certain.  Yet, the script for GHOST IN THE SHELL does contain a rather nifty and ingenious twist that readily acknowledges Johansson's casting as Major (she is, after all, a cyborg that could technically assume any human form) that will either appease white washing critics or anger them ever more incessantly.  I think I fall somewhere in the middle.   

Ultimately, casting an Asian appropriate actress as Major would have not aided this GHOST IN THE SHELL at all.  The film still flounders on a narrative level and left me feeling cold and distant with the underlining material. However, its breathtaking and continuously powerful imagery rightfully does deserve big screen consumption (and is one of the very few films that actually deserves its 3D presentation).  But GHOST IN THE SHELL commits one of the more cardinal blunders of its genre: It doesn't thoroughly engage us with its human (or inhuman) element to allow for its relatable themes to have a tangible weight and consequence in ways that intelligently rendered science fiction does .  The outer shell of this film is one to savor and behold, but there's very little substance lurking beneath it. 


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