'Ghost in the Shell'
Controversial amongst nerds and social justice advocates alike, the American ‘Ghost in the Shell’ remake hits theater screens to more wary concern than excitement. Ultimately, the anime redo disappoints, but not for the reasons many predicted. The movie feels dully uninspired despite some glorious wall-to-wall eye-candy.
The new ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is a curious concoction. It exists because so many Hollywood movies (most notably ‘The Matrix’) took elements from the 1995 anime classic (plus the 1989 manga and many other sequels and spinoffs) that a remake of this cult oddity became a mainstream possibility. Many folks cried foul that Hollywood would dare touch something like ‘Ghost in the Shell’, even though the original movie stole many images and ideas from Hollywood features (especially ‘Blade Runner’) in the first place. When the live-action edition hits screens, it feels oddly familiar in ways both good and bad. Although it’s exciting to see the story that spawned so many imitators get its due with some absolutely gorgeous imagery, much like the ‘John Carter’ movie, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ took so long to get here that it seems overly familiar and even old-hat now. At the turn of the millennium, this would have been a revelation. Now, it’s kind of a yawn.
Scarlett Johansson stars as Major, a cyborg member of a cyberterrorism law enforcement team that goes after hackers who attempt to sabotage the Artificial Intelligence products of Hanka Robotics. Of course, Major is also a product of the company that she protects, which complicates things plenty. She has a human mind that gives her robo-superbody the consciousness necessary to kick ass and take names as needed. She’s treated somewhat like a daughter by her creator (Juliette Binoche) and like a product by her company, which raises all sorts of existential quandaries. Not that Major asks many of them at first. However, a new case leads her toward a hacker (Michael Pitt) who might actually be a previous product of Hanka. When he causes Major to consider the ghost in her shell (i.e. her soul, for those following at home), suddenly Major is forced to question everything she knows.
It’s a pretty heady story wrapped up in an action flick about a pretty robo-girl in a skintight suit firing off guns. (That’s anime for ya!) There’s a reason why the story has resonated with so many for so long. Director Rupert Sanders (‘Snow White and the Huntsman’…shudder) is a fan. He lavishly creates a world that’s both deeply indebted to the 1995 animated film and 1989 comic as well as its own thing. The neon and Apple product future is gorgeous to behold, both sleekly high-tech and crumbling in the cracks.
On a purely visual level, the movie feels like an anime brought to life (with plenty of ‘Blade Runner’ for good measure) and it’s easy to get lost in the eye candy. It lights up a big screen with every dollar of the budget apparent for maximum impact. For those concerned about whitewashing, Sanders cast with that in mind. Johansson got the lead for obvious movie star reasons, but everyone else is a hodgepodge of international actors ranging from the French Binoche to Japanese cult action actor/director Takeshi Kitano (as badass as always). It feels like a world without cultural borders in the best sense.
The problem isn’t that ‘Ghost in the Shell’ miscast a classic or dishonored the deep ideas or stunning visuals of the source material. Sanders and company nailed all those things. The problem is that, aside from a few stunning action scenes (mostly front-loaded), the movie is simply dull. The script is so determined to overstate all the themes and oversell all the conspiracies that far too much of this eye candy action film is dedicated to actors overtly discussing subtext in hushed tones until it loses all meaning. These ideas aren’t quite as avant garde as they were in the ’80s and ’90s. Viewers don’t need the spoon-feeding that they’re forced to sit though, and that prevents ‘Ghost in the Shell’ from ever gaining the momentum and excitement it needs to function as a satisfying action movie. Instead, it plays more like a series of dreary conversations circling around the same tired concepts explored in so many more satisfying movies.
Eye candy can only carry ‘Ghost in the Shell’ so far, especially since so many of the images are so familiar. Ultimately, the film will likely play well for younger audiences completely unfamiliar with ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and the many movies produced its wake that pillaged all its best concepts and visuals. They may well be as blown away as people who first discovered this story decades ago. As for everyone else, they’ll get bored quickly and leave the theater wondering what all the fuss is about. Like ‘John Carter’, that’s a shame and not really the filmmakers’ fault, in that they told this story as well as it could have been told. No, it’s their fault for thinking this story needed to be told again. It didn’t. It’s just too bad it took $150 million and the wasted efforts of so many talented people to figure that out.