Despite being in development for years, the live-action Hollywood movie version of Ghost In The Shell seemed to have the cards stacked against it. Some questioned whether Snow White & The Huntsman’s Rupert Sanders was the right director for the job, and many more felt that casting a white actress in a traditionally Japanese role smacked of whitewashing. Sadly, when the movie arrived, it didn’t get the sort of critical and commercial reaction that might have been able to overturn the issues surrounding it.
The movie opens in the near future with the brain of a young woman being transferred into a robot body (Johannsson) – the first of her kind. The android is named Major, and with memories of being nearly drowned by terrorists, she becomes part of a special team tasked with particularly difficult, often technological crimes.
Someone is hacking the brains of cyber-augmented humans that work for the government-funded Hanka Robotics. As Major gets deeper into the investigation, she begins to learn things about her own past, which calls into question everything she thinks she knows.
While not as bad as some cinema reviews might have led you to believe, Ghost In The Shell is a movie that feels like was on the way to being good, but never quite got there. Sanders obviously spent a lot of time trying to create the look and feel on the film’s universe, but while it results in some impressive and very pretty individual shots and sequences, the overall impression is of a low-rent Blade Runner, where looking nice is more important than logic.
It gets to the point where the script begins to feel like it’s contorting itself to get from one thing the makers thought would look cool to another, without too much thought about how it does it. There is an attempt to provide a bit of depth to what is going on as Major heads deeper into an existential crisis and meets Michael Pitt’s villain, but Ghost In The Shell seems to think is profound is essentially the first plot and most basic ideas someone would think of when provided with this set-up.
Even the way it tries to get around the whitewashing arguments (which it’s clear the makers expected due to the way it’s handled), are less well-thought out than the movie believes it is. Indeed, it might actually be even more insulting than just not bringing it into the mix at all.
There are some good things though, such as Pilou Asbæk as Batou, who’s a lot of fun as the second in command of Major’s Unit, while Takeshi Kitano brings a slice still gravitas as Chief Daisuke Aramaki. Some of the action set pieces are well put together, and Johansson herself once more shows off her impressive action chops, while putting in a creditable performance as a robot with vague memories of a previous life.
There will also be more than a few straight men who’ll appreciate the fact her outfits are designed to make her look as naked as possible while she’s actually wearing a full body suit. They may like to pretend she has to look like that due to the invisibility tech in her clothes, but the designer definitely had sexualisation more than practicality on their mind (although, to be fair, it is accurate to the anime/manga it’s based on).
Likewise, a scene that shows a bit of lesbian sensuality initially feels like it might actually bring a bit of depth and soul to the movie. However, it ultimately (and sadly inevitably), becomes more about satisfying the straight male gaze by the end, and shortly afterwards Major asserts her heterosexuality so those same straight men won’t have to feel threatened.
Despite its problems, Ghost In The Shell is actually not too bad a watch, but like quite a lot of Hollywood films, you can’t escape the sensation that despite a gargantuan budget and thousands of people involved in its creation, the movie is constantly struggling to reach its potential. And as so often, it comes up short in ways that should have been easy to sort out. As the long-lived manga has shown, there’s a huge amount of potential in Ghost In The Shell, but this film spends so much time getting excited about individual visual moments that it never succeeds in making what goes in-between work properly.
Overall Verdict: A ghost of what it might have been in the shell of something better. It’s a watchable if problematic movie, which from beginning to end could have been a lot better.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac