Ghost in the Shell ** / *****
Directed by: Rupert Sanders.
Written by: Jamie Moss and William Wheeler based on the comic by Masamune Shirow.
Starring: Scarlett Johansson (Major), Pilou Asbæk (Batou), Takeshi Kitano (Aramaki), Juliette Binoche (Dr. Ouelet), Michael Pitt (Kuze), Chin Han (Han), Danusia Samal (Ladriya), Lasarus Ratuere (Ishikawa), Yutaka Izumihara (Saito), Tawanda Manyimo (Borma), Peter Ferdinando (Cutter), Anamaria Marinca (Dr. Dahlin).
The movie is based on the 1995 film anime film (itself based on a manga) of the same name, which was one of the films that helped to bring anime to North America in larger numbers (as my anime loving wife likes to say, when she started collecting, you had to work to find anything – now it’s everywhere, so even if it remains a cult item, it’s much larger now than it used to be). The story takes place in a futuristic Japan, where almost every human as cyber enhancements – to help you see or hear better, make you stronger, etc. The Major (Scarlett Johansson) is different – she is essentially a human brain, input into a robot body. She is the first of her kind, apparently getting the best of both the human and robot worlds. Apparently, the thing to do with this one of a kind specimen, is to assign her to some sort of anti-terrorism task force – where she is best at what she does. But lately, she’s getting flickers in her mind – flickers of her past human life, flickers that perhaps her superiors are lying to her. As her and her tram search for the terrorist Kuze (Michael Pitt) – and she starts communicating with him – she starts to see things in a different light. Perhaps she shouldn’t fully trust the giant, multinational corporation that built her.
I was disappointed when I recently re-watched the 1995 anime film for the first time in a long time recently. That is a film full of ideas, but man, does it drag. The film stops, often for minutes on end, to have long, drawn out conversation about technology, humanity, etc. – often delivered in monologue. There is good stuff in that film to be sure, but I wouldn’t call is the anime masterpiece most seem to. I have a feeling that the filmmakers behind this live action remake agree with me somewhat – because the film doesn’t take as much time to slow down and explain itself. The problem now is that everything moves too quickly – the film never slows down long enough for anything to truly sink in, to truly have an impact.
As the major, Scarlett Johansson is seemingly the perfect choice (except for the fact that she isn’t Japanese) – as her role here easily fits into the work she’s been doing in recently years in film like Her, Under the Skin and Lucy – characters who are more than human, but struggle with that question of humanity. Unfortunately, this time, the film basically asks her to be robotic for much of the performance – it’s interesting to see Johansson physically in the role – the way she moves, especially her walk, is different in an interesting way. But she plays the role too blankly for it to have an impact. The other key role is played by Michael Pitt – but he’s clearly bored by it. Perhaps Pitt doesn’t show up in movies more often not because he isn’t talented – he is, extremely so – but because he has no ability to hide his boredom with inferior material, which this clearly is. In key supporting roles, Juliette Binoche does her best to add some humanity to her role as the Major’s creator, and Takeshi Kitano is his badass self as her boss – although his performance just reminded me of how long it’s been since he made a truly good movie.
The film is directed by Rupert Sanders, who to his credit, does give you some eye-popping moments throughout. He’s better at the smaller stuff – strange characters, like the robot geisha, or setting rather than the larger CGI laden cityscapes, which is basically just CGI soup, and looks like every other cityscape created with CGI. As a storyteller, he just isn’t very good – he’s too obsessed to get to the next set piece, to spend time with what anything on screen actually means.
The film also is more than a little unsettling in terms of its racial politics. The film has been controversial since they cast Johansson, since she isn’t Japanese, and that criticism has never really gone away. I think something interesting could have been done with the movie, even with Johansson in the role, but the film chooses to completely ignore her race – which makes scenes with her biological mother leave a bad taste in your mouth. I don’t necessarily think a Japanese actress had to be cast in this role – but I do think that if you don’t, the movie has to something to justify that decision.
In short, Ghost in the Shell is an occasionally visually stunning bore. There are moments that work, but not many. I appreciate the effort the filmmakers too to try and make the film look different from other blockbusters – but it didn’t really add up to very much in the end.