The live action film of Ghost in the Shell has used a combination of dazzling visuals with a moody electronic soundtrack that led me to believe that director Rupert Sanders has been watching Blade Runner lately. The picture follows the story of a body – part woman, part machine – that has a soul trapped inside it. However, the film has created a conundrum; the soul is also lost somewhere in the matrix.
Based on the similarly titled manga by Masamune Shirow, and the 1995 anime film by Mamoru Oshii, the story takes place in the near future where a cyborg with a soul known as Major (Scarlett Johansson) tracks down criminals and eliminates them. She works with a team that includes a scientist (Juliette Binoche), cop partner (Pilou Asbaek) and commander played by the great ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano.
For much of the film, Major is chasing a terrorist, Kuze (Michael Pitt), who warns her that the way in which she came to be in her present body – that is, how her brain became embedded in the half-robotic, half-human form it inhabits – was, perhaps, not by way of consent. This is the simplest way to describe the plot of Ghost in the Shell, which goes out of its way to make itself appear complex, but isn’t particularly.
There are some visual wonders to behold in the film. Gigantic holographic advertisements float through the futuristic Japanese air, a geisha turns into a robotic spider and climbs backwards up a wall and slow motion shootouts are presented in the typical balletic form we’ve come to expect in these types of pictures. In other words, Ghost in the Shell often looks great when, in fact, there’s very little actually going on.
Most of the cast appear to be – at least, at times – bored. Then again, many of them are cyborgs and aren’t likely to emote too much. Sanders’ previous film, Snow White and the Huntsman, had a similar problem in that its impressive visual effects were bogged down by the ho hum storytelling and that description is just as apt here.
In fact, the cast is a smorgasbord of great indie actors – with the exception, of course, of Johansson, who is no stranger to big budget action filmmaking – but they are given little to do. The only memorable trait among any of the characters is that Asbaek’s Batou likes to feed stray dogs.
Johansson has, of recent, been involved with films that have explored challenging terrain involving otherworldly or futuristic stories about characters who are not quite human – such as the marvelous Her and Under the Skin – so, Ghost in the Shell would seem to be an obvious fit for her. But her character is merely one in a long line of action heroes who are dedicated to work, with little personality outside of it.
Also, while remaking a film provides creative license to its filmmakers to take the story where they see fit, this live action update is mostly a routine action film, dropping much of the complexity – and storyline – from the original comic book and film. For a movie that ponders what it means to have a soul – or ghost, if you will – this one feels more robotic than human.