Review: 'Ghost In the Shell'

Live action take on anime classic is one shell of a movie
Even setting aside gripes about Hollywood whitewashing, 'Ghost in the Shell' just isn't that interesting.

In the horrifying, dystopic future year of 2017, Scarlett Johansson has her face sawed off—"scanned" is the parlance. Her kissable visage is used as a model for a digital avatar, roaming around Neo-Sorta-Kinda-Tokyo killing her fellow avatars with a blaster.

She's a federal cop called Major (Johannsen)—with human brain in a synthetic body—on the trail of terrorists assassinating execs from the robot-making Hanka corporation. The investigation involves some cyber eavesdropping, rousting yakuza nightclubs, and penetrating a "lawless zone" where the rebels live, scrawling their Unabomber-like manifestos.

Studying the live-action version of the distinguished 1995 anime film Ghost in the Shell, one broods over psychological questions. How much humanity can Johannsen have after all the movies where she's been animated into a cartwheeling, hair-whirling, ass-kicking electronic phantom? Does ScarJo have any "glitches"—any unsanctioned memories—of her time sashaying around Tokyo in Lost in Translation?

She's gone full android. Never go full android. Hushed and expressionless, she goes on missions in a Barbie-doll body sans nips and pudenda, as shiny as a factory-new Kia. (To break up that cream-cheese colored plastic glow, little blue blazes of lightning crackle over her frame, indicating a cloaking device).

ScarJo is supposed to be Japanese-oid: not Japanese but not not-Japanese. Occidents will happen, even in movies with a lot of Shanghai money in them. One gets some comfort in seeing that the way you turn a European actor Japanese is exactly the way it was done 50 years ago in You Only Live Twice, when Sean Connery was brilliantly disguised as an Asian to outwit SPECTRE. Operating room, check; tapered eyebrows, check; and a shaggy haircut, in this case a kind of black horsehair version of a 1950s pixie cut.

Major is given support by the maternal scientist Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) as well as from a control, the paternal if ever-sinister Beat Takeshi—here with his own funny haircut, a cross between Larry Fine and Dick Tracy villain Flattop.

Since physical augmentation is the next killer ap, colossal holograms haunt the skyscrapers (as do lazy, sky-swimming koi). The oddest advertisement of them all is a pair of disembodied 70-foot-tall artificial legs running laps in place in the air.

This looks like a fun city—Pepperland: Year 2500. There is a moment of a cop proudly showing off the scar where he got his new cyber-liver ("Now it's closing time every night!"). Otherwise, Ghost in the Shell does without humor, except in one moment. Major's partner Batou, played by Danish dreamboat Pilou Asbaek, shoots a thug and the man keels forward dead, face-planting into a jumbo bowl of ramen. That was as funny as it got. Director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) sets a tone of dead seriousness, as if a group of fanbois gripped him by the portal holes in the back of his neck.

As for the speculation of what cybernetic bits would change a person out of homo sapiens into some other category... you'd have to digest at least three years' worth of Wired magazine to equal such thumb-suckage. The other question considered here is duty versus escape, the answer being, of course, "choose duty."

ScarJo breaks a lot of real and synthetic bones, but the movie doesn't break any new ground. Ghost in the Shell wouldn't exist without the original RoboCop—it's a haunted, abject copy of the Verhoeven movie. The easy compare and contrast, given the holographic chimeras all over the place, is with Blade Runner. Alex Garland's Ex Machina, now on Amazon Prime, took the most interesting parts of Blade Runner—the Turing-testing sequence—and wreaked them into a full length movie.

Nothing here is as good as Alicia Vikander showing up in a frumpy sweater and droopy stockings, a wistful machine trying to dress up like a human being. Since there was no equivalent in Ex Machina to Harrison Ford running around shooting androids, Ex Machina wasn't the same kind of hit Blade Runner was. Ghost in the Shell isn't interesting but there is a lot of blasting—that may send it over.

Ghost in the Shell
PG-13, 120 Mins.

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