For a movie ostensibly about uniqueness and what makes us human, Ghost in the Shell doesn’t make a strong argument for either. This is a story in which the technology fascinates and the people bore. Sense memories of other movies proliferate until you forget quite what it was you were watching in the first place. That’s the sort of thing bound to happen when the star (Scarlett Johansson) is playing a role she can sleepwalk through and the story was only groundbreaking when first filmed over 20 years ago.
But just wait for the final showdown. That features an articulated combat vehicle called a spider tank, and many things blow up.
Much like the 1995 anime original, Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell is a standard-issue elite police unit action flick heavily stippled with questions of identity and the price of technology. It’s set in a generic pan-Asian megacity sometime in a generic near future that scans like a hybrid of every urban sci-fi noir from Blade Runner to Minority Report. The city is part crumbing concrete high-rises and part digital wonderland, with monstrous and eerie holographic commercials flickering everywhere like an advertising executive’s hallucination.
Johansson plays Major, part of Section 9, whose members use their part-hacker and mostly-Navy SEAL skills to hunt down terrorists and the like. Besides being the only Section 9 cop who never flashes a smile, Major stands out as being the team’s sole member who may not be strictly human. In an opening sequence whose bleak and sinuous beauty is one of the movie’s most memorable creations, a brain is placed ever so gently into a cybernetic carapace. Cool, plasmatic coils snake toward the gray fleshy receptacle. Soon a sleek young female body is birthed from a pool of milky white liquid whose shell sloughs off like a flight of doves.
Major only remembers flickers of a past, where she was rescued from a refugee boat attacked by terrorists. Her Dr. Frankenstein, Ouelet (a warmly empathetic Juliette Binoche), continually tells Major that her brain has retained her humanity — “your mind, your soul, your ghost.” But she stills doubts that she’s anything but a particularly high-functioning robot in human drag.
The plot is cobbled together from the Ghost in the Shell anime and manga series that was a high-water mark for the genre in the ’90s, decades before the species-transforming tech that it both critiqued and celebrated had become an any-minute-now reality. Section 9’s putative enemy is a hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt) with an ax to grind and a wetware army to exact revenge on his and Major’s creator, military-cyberindustrial outfit Hanka Robotics.
Operating with post-democratic feudal corporate ardor much like Detroit’s Omni Consumer Products in RoboCop, Hanka wants to eliminate Kuze before he finishes murdering their best scientists. First, though, they want Major to keep being field-tested as their killer app: the ultimate cyborg soldier. But the closer Major comes to finding Kuze, the closer she gets to uncovering the truth of her own existence.
The original movie riffed neatly on cyberpunk tropes of the interface between biology, spirit, and technology in between its bravura action sequences and its vision of a future that looked like Hong Kong and Tokyo smashed together and rewired in ad hoc fashion. Major’s frequent moody soliloquies on whether a soul could exist under all her hardware were roughly slotted into the chase narrative but earnestly delivered. For this remake, Sanders brings about as much understanding of Major’s existential struggle as he did to the mythological underpinnings of his last effort, the soulless Snow White and the Huntsman.
Johansson is an obvious choice for Major. From Lost in Translation through Under the Skin and Lucy she has nearly cornered the market on drifting alien outsiders slipping quizzically through a world they are fascinated by but only partly comprehend. But that glove-like fitting is part of what makes the movie so barren at its center. Johansson plays Major with such a strident flatness that it leaves the story with nowhere to go.
It’s easy to think that the filmmakers simply wanted a curvaceous sex symbol for the skintight cloaking outfit Major wears when she dashes into a batch of bad guys, twin guns blazing like just another action babe from Lara Croft to Resident Evil’s Alice. A more left-field choice for the role like Snow White’s Kristen Stewart would have delivered some drama in between Sanders’ gleamingly shot set pieces. The story needed somebody who would have worried and gnawed at Major’s questing until it burned a hole right through the center of the movie.
Even beyond Major, Ghost in the Shell isn’t exactly filled with memorable characters. Pitt valiantly aims for philosophical hacktivist grandeur, but is limited by a story that reduces him to just another revenge-seeking villain with a heart. There are some glimmers of buddy movie camaraderie between Major and her partner, the intensely likable grunt Batou (Pilou Asbaek), but it never develops into much. (Left unspoken is why all those “white” characters are running around an obviously Asian city.)
Sanders gains points at least for casting Takeshi Kitano as Major’s canny, silver-haired and sixgun-slinging boss, and putting him right in the center of the movie’s one decently choreographed shootout. But for a movie ostensibly about finding the ghost in the machine, this one doesn’t have much of a heartbeat.