FILM REVIEW – GHOST IN THE SHELL. With Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Takeshi Kitano. Written by Jamie Moss and William Wheeler. Directed by Rupert Sanders. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images. 107 mins.
An eye-popping technical wonderment without much going on underneath the hood, GHOST IN THE SHELL is a $110-million Hollywood reworking of Mamoru Oshii’s seminal 1995 anime, and eventually becomes something of a metaphor for itself. The searching, philosophical qualities of the original picture (and presumably the manga by Masamune Shirow upon which it was based) have been tossed aside in favor of bold-stroke, blockbuster battles between good and evil, less concerned with what it means to be human than with showing Friday night audiences a grand old time. As far as dumb action movies go, this is a great-looking one, but it should have been so much more.
Scarlett Johansson stars as Major Mira Killian, a special-ops cyborg fond of flesh-colored jumpsuits and leaping through skyscraper windows with pistols ablaze. She and the gang from covert Section 9 protect an unnamed, bustling future metropolis from cyber-terrorists, occasionally pausing to get touch-ups on their personal robotic enhancements from a warmly maternal doctor played by (of all people) Juliette Binoche. But when a mysterious hacker (Michael Pitt) begins picking off corporate honchos that hold the patents on our Major’s super-skeleton, the plot, as they say, thickens.
Oshii’s sometimes tediously chatty original film was fixated on questions of the singularity and the soul, with the Major struggling to assert her humanity despite being a disembodied consciousness inside a machine. It’s the kind of role that almost feels like typecasting for Scarlett Johansson when you consider the post-human trilogy of “Her,” “Under the Skin” and “Lucy” from a few years back. As a performer, Johansson is capable of a steely, magnetic reserve that’s both empathetic and otherworldly. She can also fight like hell in a catsuit.
Johansson isn’t as revelatory as she was in those other pictures, but she’s still awfully fun to watch here, a shapely vision erupting from the water while wearing a cloaking device that flickers like an old TV on the fritz. The rococo visual design pig-piles neon greens and pinks with backdrops so dense with detail that my eyes often strayed around the screen, ignoring the story to take in the sights. There’s also one marvelously haunting scene in which the Major contemplates a colleague’s physicality and Johansson makes visceral the yearning to once again be human.
Alas, since this is an expensive corporate product, we don’t have much time for metaphysical mumbo jumbo. Instead we’ve got cleanly-drawn lines with a glowering, one-dimensional baddie named Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) working for the mega-cybernetics company and unleashing his private army against the good folks of Section 9, who in addition to the Major include Pilou Asbaek’s cuddly bruiser and a commander played with incomparable cool by the great filmmaker Takeshi Kitano. He’s such a badass that he talks in Japanese the whole time and everybody in the film understands him, as if he were speaking English like the rest of the cast.
It’s precisely that sort of cross-cultural mishmash that’s made “Ghost in the Shell” a subject of controversy ever since this American remake was first announced. While the setting is never named, the movie obviously takes place in Tokyo (either there or on planet “Blade Runner”) with a ton of Asians in supporting parts, yet a pretty young white chick got cast in the lead. Now I’m not gonna mansplain to angry thinkpiece writers about how Hollywood economics work, but there are very few female stars who can secure a budget of this size and I’m sorry the lady robot isn’t ethnic enough. (Seriously though, this isn’t like Emma Stone playing Allison Ng in “Aloha.” The Major’s head is made out of titanium. Also, how many major studio blockbusters have juicy roles for Takeshi Kitano?)
The movie rather klutzily tries to tackle this taboo head-on when we discover that Major Mira Killian actually used to be one Motoko Kusanagi, a runaway-turned-activist kidnapped and brainwashed by those nasty bastards at the lab before her consciousness was implanted in our heroine’s exoskeleton. That’s right, “Ghost in the Shell” is ultimately about a Japanese troublemaker abducted by a large corporation and made over into a hot, rule-abiding Anglo movie star in a ludicrously expensive undertaking. Like I said, a metaphor for itself.•••
Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.