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‘Ghost in the Shell’ review

'Ghost in the Shell' may look beautiful, but it feels hollow

The central premise of Masamune Shirow’s acclaimed manga series Ghost in the Shell has always involved questioning the nature of humanity.

How much of what makes someone human can be stripped away, replaced with synthetic parts, and have what remains still be considered human? Is our humanity just a soul – or rather, a “ghost”  – wrapped in a shell?

Shirow’s exploration of these heady philosophical themes unfolded across multiple volumes in print, several animated programs, video games, and animated features – including a 1995 adaptation widely considered one of the best animated movies ever made. That legacy now also encompasses a live-action film, with Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders at the helm of a new adaptation of Ghost in the Shell that puts one of Hollywood’s most marketable actresses front and center as the series’ existentially uncertain protagonist.

Despite her high profile, the decision to cast The Avengers actress Scarlett Johansson in the lead role generated controversy around the film, which has been accused of “whitewashing” her character – a cyborg who’s been portrayed as Japanese in most iterations of the story.

And yet, it’s that casting decision – among other ways the film diverges from the source material – that also puts the live-action Ghost in the Shell in an interesting position to question more than just the nature of humanity.

Chief among those questions – for anyone familiar with the franchise, at least – is how much of what fans identify with the Ghost in the Shell series can be stripped away from the film yet still remain, at its core, Ghost in the Shell?

Ghost in the Shell seems more like a mediocre imitation of a modern classic.

Like many of the adaptations of Shirow’s series, the live-action Ghost in the Shell takes more than a few liberties with the stories that inspired it, but it wisely samples from some of the best elements of those projects, too.

Sanders’ adaptation casts Johansson as “The Major” (Johansson), a heavily augmented agent for Section 9, a counter-cyberterrorism unit investigating a series of attacks on the robotics company that put her “ghost” in its synthetic shell. The investigation takes a troubling turn when the questions she has about her past keep leading back to a mysterious hacker.

The story unfolds in an Asian-influenced metropolis at a time when most of humanity has embraced cybernetic augmentation in one form or another, and massive, holographic billboards fill the urban skyline at all hours. It’s a world of endless visual stimuli, and nearly every scene in Ghost in the Shell offers some new, eye-catching element that suggests an all-too-possible future, given the current ubiquity of pop-up ads, auto-playing video, and personalized advertising at every turn.

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Johansson portrays The Major with the sort of detached calmness that serves her feelings of otherness, but with so much of the film focusing on her, that constant state of detachment also ends up making it more difficult to connect with her as the story develops. The audience experiences the story through her character, so The Major’s lack of emotional response to the events happening around her often leaves you feeling similarly unemotional about what occurs on the screen.

At this point, it’s no surprise that Johansson shines in the film’s action sequences, given everything we’ve seen of her in Marvel’s superhero movies and 2014’s Lucy, among other projects. Ghost in the Shell continues that trend with some memorable stunt work that has The Major taking on all manner of threats – from heavily armed criminals to monstrous, mechanized weaponry. And like the set design and cinematography, the action sequences are beautiful to behold.

Unfortunately, the side effect of paying so much attention to Johansson doesn’t leave much room in the film for supporting characters.

The action sequences are beautiful to behold.

While Shirow’s manga and the 1995 animated film both make a concerted effort to give Major’s fellow agents some narrative layers, there’s little of that depth to be found in this iteration of Ghost in the Shell. The lack of character development feels most conspicuous with Pilou Asbaek’s character, Batou, who’s clearly intended to have humanizing effect on The Major as her partner in Section 9 but isn’t given nearly enough screen time to sell their relationship in any effective way. Famed Japanese filmmaker and actor “Beat” Takeshi feels similarly shortchanged – almost criminally so – in his role as Daisuke Aramaki, the head of Section 9.

Perhaps the most frustrating element of Ghost in the Shell, though, is the script’s reluctance to have The Major ask those questions that form the foundation of the film’s source material.

The live-action Ghost in the Shell is very clearly positioned as an origin story for Johansson’s character first and foremost, and seemingly prioritizes franchise-launching over any philosophical pondering. Her quest to uncover the truth about her life prior to joining Section 9 is the driving narrative thread in Ghost in the Shell, and although much of the criticism surrounding the film has focused on her character’s ethnicity, the decision to have her pursue her past instead of exploring her humanity might actually be a far more egregious departure from the source material.

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Of course, none of that is likely to matter for audiences coming to the film with a clean slate – but fans of the existing franchise will certainly have some strong feelings about the decision.

Like the philosophical questions the series poses that have no single, definitive answer, there’s also likely to be little agreement on whether the latest iteration of Ghost in the Shell lives up to expectations.

Considered without the baggage of its source material, Ghost in the Shell is a satisfying, entertaining sci-fi action movie that offsets a somewhat predictable plot with a great lead actress and stunning cyberpunk visuals. On the other hand, judged against a backdrop of the stories that inspired it, Ghost in the Shell seems more like a mediocre imitation of a modern classic – full of flashy sequences and other cinematic sleights of hand to distract from its shortcomings.