“Ghost in the Shell” sets a shining standard of mediocrity for action films and further serves as proof that live-action manga adaptations (well, more like anime adaptations, in this case) are generally not good ideas. Of course, giving writing duties to one of the minds behind “Transformers” hardly helps. The final product is a substandard action film that drowns the humanistic themes of its source material under a deluge of headache-inducing CGI cityscapes and a painfully bland corporate conspiracy story.
Scarlett Johansson plays Major Mira Killian, the first person to have their brain inserted into a purely cybernetic body. As a result, she can hack into the cyberbrains of other people and has superhuman abilities. Basically, she’s playing Black Widow again, but now her skin-tight bodysuit is flesh-toned. After her transformation, the corporate mind behind the Major’s creation, Cutter, comes up with the brilliant idea of taking this investment he holds so dear to his heart and putting her in a counter-terrorism unit. Smart business move there, bud. Put your experimental business asset in a profession in which getting a bullet in the ass is right in the job description. Then again, what can one expect when the film’s idea of a pre-asskicking one-liner is “The truth is … I wasn’t built to dance.”
The Major spends the first third of her own screen-time questioning her humanity, a theme central to the original manga source material that depicts a world in which cybernetic augmentation is as common as wearing a watch. The film makes this abundantly clear to us by showing a variety of humans who have undergone some sort of modification or other: chips in the brain to play music, cybernetic eyes, stuff like that. However, this deep thematic content goes down the toilet pretty fast in favor of “Matrix”-esque gunfights (in slow motion) and the tortuously cliché story of the super-agent searching for their forgotten past. Hey, DreamWorks. Jason Bourne called. He wants his plot back. Oh, and he’s also suing for defamation.
“Ghost in the Shell” also tries to distract you from the shortcomings of its plot by shoving enough holograms in your face to make you see binary code. Every 10 minutes or so, you’re treated to the sight of gigantic, colorful holographic advertisements pulled straight out of “Blade Runner” and waving at you. Once, it’s cool. Twice, it’s artistic. Eight times and the scenery is not only overpowering whatever character is in the shot, but the movie is also treating you like a complete moron. Yes, I know it’s a sci-fi movie, thank you very much. Now get to the next scene before I decide to go sneak in to see “Logan.”
Perhaps my analysis is a little too harsh. The film is at least visually inventive and arresting, that much can be said. Holograms aren’t used in any groundbreaking story manner, but in small touches, like having them disintegrate like sand upon the end of a conversation, which lends at least a little personality to their measly existence. And the Major’s deep dive, her hacking into another cyber-brain, provides for a darkly hallucinatory experience (albeit one that is, weirdly enough, evocative of both “Code Lyoko” and Kingdom Hearts).
For all its attempts to divert your attention that there is little under the surface of this shell, the third act kicks in hard. As the pieces fall into place, things actually start getting at least a little interesting when the questions about the Major’s identity are answered. The thing is, as someone who was at least a little familiar with the source material, I was able to see the twist coming from a mile off. Maybe others won’t and will be blown away by it. The interesting question though, without giving too much away, is can a movie be truly accused of whitewashing when the character herself has been literally whitewashed?
Unfortunately, the film does not seem to care about the implications, nor does the protagonist dwell upon her revelation. “Ghost in the Shell” is still a dumb action movie, ground into a pulp by the Hollywood wringer. It may look somewhat the same as Masamune Shirow’s work, but its soul has been rent and mangled, rendered unrecognizable. The best I can say about the movie is that it takes the indecipherable technobabble of its source material and trades it in for a couple of entertaining and occasionally seizure-inducing combat scenes.
My fellow Artsweek writer Ryan Hykes rates this movie an 8/10. And that’s why he writes album reviews.