Rupert Sanders' 'Ghost in the Shell' remake produces no ghost, empty shell

Johansson fails to energize the popular character of Major.

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 4/11/17 1:10am

Like the film I reviewed last week, “Ghost in the Shell” is a live-action remake of an animated classic. Though, unlike “Beauty and the Beast,” I’ve never seen the original “Ghost in the Shell.” However, a good film should be able to stand on its own without prior knowledge of its source material. Nonetheless, I acknowledge that any problems I have with this remake may be resolved or non-existent in the original anime.

Sometime in the unspecified future, the brain of a dying woman is transplanted into a robotic body with the intention of creating the ultimate weapon: an indestructible machine with the malleable mind of a human. The woman, referred to as the Major (Scarlett Johansson), has no memories and serves as an anti-terrorist operative in an organization called Section 9. As Section 9 begins to uncover a cyber-terrorist plot, Major begins to question both her identity and her reality.

The first half of the film is constructed in such a way that I was convinced there would be a “Matrix”-styled twist that would completely change my understanding of the story in a mind-blowing way. When the twist — in as much as one existed — was revealed, I realized how wrong I had been. During the first hour, I considered a half-dozen directions the film could take that would have been infinitely more interesting. Yet that isn’t, necessarily, a flaw with the film.

Eventually I realized that it wasn’t trying to be a new-age “Matrix” but a contemplative piece of speculative science fiction. In fact, “Ghost in the Shell” is the most comparable to Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and Steven Spielberg’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” “Ghost in the Shell” not only looks like the love child of those films’ respective worlds but also focuses on the existential dilemma of the main character as framed by a science fiction premise.

This is why “Ghost in the Shell” falls flat for me: to care about these existential dilemmas, I need to care about the Major. Johansson’s casting as the Major generated significant white-washing controversy, and for a setting that I can only presume is futuristic Japan, I have to say that almost everyone looks awfully pasty. Director Rupert Sanders defended his decision, arguing that Johansson was the best actress of her generation. And perhaps if her performance had been truly astonishing, then the casting decision might have seemed marginally less foolish. After all, Johansson is a capable actress. Her performance in “Lost in Translation” is a testament to this. Still, I found her to be thoroughly unengaging in “Ghost in the Shell.”

So far as I can tell, the Major still has a human brain, thus she should still act like a human. But Johansson plays her as stiff and robotic, both physically and emotionally. I waited through the entire movie for some explanation of this characterization, only for there to be none. I’m not sure if this was a choice made by Sanders or Johansson herself, but it results in a decidedly boring protagonist. In fact, I didn’t really care about any of the characters except Pilou Asbæk’s Batou, though I’m pretty sure he exists just so that Johansson can have someone to talk to.

My other major issue with the film is the way it spells out its themes. Again, like “Blade Runner” and “A.I.,” “Ghost in the Shell” is about the blurred lines between humans and robots, and pondering the role memory and identity play in distinguishing the two. Yet “A.I.” and “Blade Runner” are far more effective films because the two are so ambiguous. “Blade Runner,” for example, has barely any dialogue and instead poses its philosophical questions through the brilliant use of visual language. Moreover, the film never answers these questions, instead leaving the story open-ended.

“Ghost in the Shell,” on the other hand, highlights its themes with flashing neon lights and giant arrows. The film even ends with a nifty narration that summarizes the central idea just in case you had to use the restroom during a crucial scene.

Furthermore, I find this film’s themes fascinating when contrasted with those other two films but not in a good way. “Blade Runner” and “A.I.” neither condone nor condemn the technology that has allowed for the creation of the artificially intelligent robot characters. In fact, both dour films surprisingly hint at a sense of optimism, suggesting these robots are really just as human as us and deserve acceptance.

Contrastingly, “Ghost in the Shell,” makes its stance painfully clear: technology is bad, and humans are good. For a premise with so much intrigue and potential, it’s a real shame that the film couldn’t have been less decisive and a little more opaque.

Frankly, I suspect I’m thinking far more about the themes of this film than its creators did, because halfway through I realized their focus wasn’t on the ideas but on the visuals and action scenes. While the visuals may be derivative, they are, admittedly, stunning. Some of the action set pieces are enjoyable enough, but most feel recycled from other films. The worst element in my view was the ending, which devolved into a sequence that played like rejected outtakes from “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

I’ll give “Ghost in the Shell” credit for this: it did make me want to see the original anime. Just perhaps not for the reason it should have.

Rating: 3/10