This review was written for and appears on Punch Drunk Movies. Check out the site when you have a chance.
It’s hard to believe, but “Ghost in the Shell” is totally watchable. High praise, indeed, but I didn’t have much faith in the film since its director, Rupert Sanders, was responsible for “Snow White and the Huntsman.” But hey, that’s one movie, and while this newest effort doesn’t knock it out of the park, it’s still pretty good. That’s more than I was expecting.
Based on the manga and anime of the same name, “Ghost in the Shell” is a futuristic, cyberpunk tale that stars Scarlett Johansson as The Major. She’s the first of her kind, a human brain meshed with a fully synthetic body. Lacking memories, she’s told she originally perished in an accident and that her brain was transplanted into her new, powerful form by the Hanka Corporation.
She’s soon placed into a counter cyber terrorism task force, Section 9. A year into her tenure, The Major has difficulty acclimating to who, or what she has become, and as she wrestles with what “human” actually means in a cyber-enhanced world, a shadowy figure begins assassinating Hanka’s top brass. With the rest of Section 9’s motley crew, The Major hunts down this new threat. The closer she gets, though, the more questions arise about who she was before and Hanka’s actual role in what she has become.
It’s been 20 years since I saw the animated “Ghost in the Shell.” It’s stuck with me over that time, which is odd since I wasn’t a big fan. The visuals were beautiful but it often, ironically, became an inanimate film with interminable pontifications about the nature of the human soul.
This live action version retains some of the original’s beauty, though it never gives itself over to it like its predecessor. Still, the vision of this future is often stunning, with a colorful, all-encompassing city occupying most of the film’s frames. Helpfully, Sanders allows his camera to linger on these images so that we can properly take them in.
The philosophical pontifications are also given room. They’re more emotional than in the anime, but they’re also streamlined and simplified. As such, they’re not as deep but not as navel gazing either.
And the film is appealingly odd. The opening credits depict The Major’s creation and the sighing sound effects, throbbing music, and visuals that seem to caress her newly formed body result in a strangely sensuous sequence. Later, there’s a visual representation of someone being hacked and it looks like a thousand faceless figures engulfing someone. And nobody looks “normal” in this future, either. Everybody is at least slightly scarred and outfitted with cyber-enhancements.
None of it’s David Lynch weird or anything, but the film admirably sticks to its vision even at the expense of the non-sci-fi fan. Indeed, halfway through the movie there was a walk out…from my row, blocking my view, tripping over my feet during an important scene. If you’re not into sci-fi, you might want do your potential seatmate a favor and skip the movie.
As an action film, “Ghost in the Shell” is fine, though never as exciting as it should be. There are plenty of fisticuffs and shoot-outs, but they tend to be short and clipped by the film’s PG-13 rating. Just as a sequence gets good, it’s over.
The problem is that The Major is simply too powerful and thus never in any real danger. She’s blown up at one point but is quickly put back together again. As such, the film’s villains are never a real threat. It also doesn’t help that the main antagonist is so generic and unintimidating that his revelation deflates the film with an almost audible pfffffffffft, like air escaping a balloon.
But then there’s Johansson. My seat was a little too close to the IMAX screen, so from where I was sitting I could have looked at my feet and still have seen her contemplatively staring off into the ether. At the risk of sounding childish, if I have to be that close to someone’s face stretched to 50 feet, I’m glad it’s Johansson’s. But there’s more to it than that. She’s fascinating and sympathetic even when playing a bit of a blank slate like The Major, so kudos to her.
“Ghost in the Shell” is not revolutionary. You won’t find me shouting its praises from a cliff (as if I could find a cliff in Miami). Two and half stars seems a little low, but three too high. I’m playing it safe and sticking to the former. But the film has good qualities, and I feel no shame giving it a recommendation, especially to a sci-fi fan.