In an unnamed, presumably Asian, megacity in an undated, presumably not too distant, future, special task force Section 9 hunt the various terrorists and cyber-criminals that threaten the security of the high-tech state. Their chief operative is The Major (Scarlett Johansson), physically just a living brain in a sophisticated artificial body, who can perform superhuman feats even as her nature forces her to question her own essential humanity. When a mysterious criminal known as Kuze (Michael Pitt) begins murdering high-level scientists at Hanka Robotics – the corporation that created Major’s robotic chassis – secrets are revealed that could not only uncover the truth about her origins, but threaten the stability of the state itself.
Director Rupert Sanders’ visually adroit but narratively loose adaptation of the popular multimedia Japanese franchise is certainly something to behold. Taking his cues from Ghost in the Shell‘s manga and anime incarnations, plus a host of cyberpunk media from Blade Runner to Strange Days and all points in between (Takeshi Kitano, here playing Section 9’s gruff chief, is a veteran of the Keanu Reeves/William Gibson misfire, Johnny Mnemonic), he gives us a near future tech-tropolis that feels new and intriguing even when it’s lifting directly from its source material – there’s just something about seeing these hologram-drenched vistas in “real life” rather than pen and ink. It’s cinema du look at its finest, where image trumps meaning and cool is more important than smart. If the visual aesthetic is the most important element when it comes to cinema, then Ghost in the Shell is a masterpiece.
Unfortunately, there’s a script in the mix as well, by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Krueger, and it doesn’t seem to trust Sanders’ sensual imagery to tell the story and address the themes at hand. At one point Major, noticing damage to her arm, contemplates the wreckage of a recently destroyed geisha android. “You’re not like them,” her gruff 2IC, Batou (Pilou Asbæk, pretty great) mutters. Yeah, we get it – is there anything worse than a supposedly smart sci-fi film that thinks its audience is too dumb to pick up the pieces it’s putting down? We’ve been watching variations on this story since Metropolis, and at the very least we’re au fait with Robocop – pay us the courtesy of assuming we’re cine-literate.
There’s a lot of this sort of thing – characters spouting clunky expository dialogue or explaining key concepts to each other in a way nobody real ever does. Really it’s a fairly common fault throughout the entire GitS franchise – the ’95 anime is frequently pausing the narrative to indulge in tedious philosophical navel-gazing, and at least the new model keeps that material buried in the subtext where it belongs. The film is also in love with its own weightiness, slowing the story flow to a crawl and forgetting to imbue its villains with much sense of menace – Kuze never comes across as the existential threat he’s tagged as, and Peter Ferdinando’s sinister corporate suit is straight out of mid-’80s central casting, too much of a cliche to come across as a palpable danger.
Still, there’s joy to be found in the details. The action beats are fantastic, shot with a staccato rhythm and a creative understanding of what you might do with the robot bodies, chameleon suits and other assorted tech toys in play. The depiction of a multicultural melting pot of a metropolis is top notch, taking Bill Gibson’s old adage that “the street finds its own use for things” and running with it as far as possible in its portrayal of weird robotic enhancements, weapons, and gizmos – design fetishists will have this one on repeat for years to come. And, impressively, that whole whitewashing scandal gets addressed in the most astute way possible – but that’s a conversation for another, far more spoilery, article.
Ghost in the Shell skids right up to the edge of greatness but falls short thanks to a typically conservative mistrust of both its material and its audience. For all that, it’s a beautiful, committed attempt at bringing the property to a wider audience, and you can all but feel Sanders and his team fighting for purchase against the constraints of big-budget, big-studio filmmaking. Tell you what, if you can watch it with the dialogue track muted, bump the score up by 20% – at least that way you don’t have the jarring experience of the movie telling you what you’re looking at.