There is no denying that the $110 million spent to bring Ghost in the Shell to the big screen looks like money well spent. Every cent seems to have made it to the final product and as an overproduced CGI spectacle it doesn’t really miss a beat. The problem on display here is that the film is a classic example of style over substance. There is plenty of visual eye candy but there is very little life behind it. The end result is visually compelling but void of any other emotions to really make it stand out and fans of the source material may find themselves upset by certain choices made to make this more commercially accessible.
Genre fans have been waiting since the late 1990s for Ghost in the Shell to get a live-action adaptation. The popular Japanese manga was successfully given an anime counterpart in 1995 that resonated with fans but the desire to see these visuals brought to life by flesh and blood performers has always been of interest as years have gone by. The 20 year wait to get this interpretation of the story is part of the reason why the film feels strangely muted. I’m not a huge fan of anime but Ghost in the Shell is one of the few that stands out for me and it has a lot more vitality than this adaptation. You would think that with all this time to develop the film the end result would be more compelling than what we get but time has not been kind to the final cut we get here.
In a brief prologue, we are provided with an explanation of how Major (Scarlett Johansson) is about to become the first in a new breed of technological creations – a human brain implanted into an advanced robot body. Her doctor-creator, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), sees her as a “miracle.” Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), the businessman who provided the financing, calls her a weapon. One year later, Major has stabilized (although her pre-transplant memories are evasive) and is working on a government anti-terrorist squad led by Amaraki (Takeshi Kitano). Major and her partner, Batou (Pilou Asbaek), are called to take action when sensitive information is compromised and, while following the cyber trail back to its originator, an entity named Hideo Kuze (Michael Pitt), Major learns disturbing things about her past and the plans of her handlers for her future.
There is a compelling narrative to follow in Ghost in the Shell but it’s compromised by the decision to make the film more commercially viable to mass audiences. The action is serviceable but the various chases and fights take precedent over the story and the visual eye candy, of which there is plenty, robs the film of its emotional depth. This is a film that could entice the intellect but it opts for a more visceral experience to excite those who may not want more meat to the story. This could possibly please some but, knowing the potential of the story, I couldn’t help but feel cheated that it didn’t trust enough in itself to take a more cerebral route.
There are hints of Ex-Machina on display here, especially the similar themes of cybernetic science fiction concepts, but that was a film that wasn’t afraid to stimulate the mind. It was able to be visual intoxicating while offering up an interesting story. Ghost in the Shell aspire for these goals but you can tell the studio thought that mainstream audiences would be bored, confused or all of the above.
I also felt that this was a film that screamed for a R-rating but it has been saddled with a teen friendly PG-13 for prime box office consumption. This should be a film that has an adult aesthetic because its themes cry out for that but the restrictions of the rating don’t allow for it and more focus is put on the action, rather than tackling the adult nature of the story.
Scarlett Johansson has proven she is no slouch as an action heroine. She makes us want her Black Widow character to branch off from the Avengers franchise and stand on her own while Luc Besson’s Lucy provided us with more proof that she is more than capable in these roles. She brings some of that natural charisma to her role here but she’s ultimately defeated by the spectacle around her. I’m not sure how many actresses could deal with acting against so much green screen but you can tell that she is in need of something more real to really resonate. She looks great, no doubt about that, but you get the impression she could do much more if she fully believed in the world the film has created. Her co-stars are all credible performers but they also don’t stand out enough to be truly memorable. This is essentially Johansson’s show and she does what she can to make it some of it work.
If you don’t know what’s missing, Ghost in the Shell should provide enough solid entertainment to please you. The film is high on frenetic energy and the film is a visual spectacle to behold but even a passing knowledge of the source material will make you feel a bit disappointed by the final result. This could’ve provided thought provoking sci-fi but instead we get pure eye candy that compromises its intelligence to sell itself.