Rupert Sanders’ Ghost In The Shell live-actioner dawns with universal promise. Rainbow-colored building exteriors erect a neon-laced megalopolis (once again New Port City). Scarlett Johansson bursts through plate-glass and bullet-times the shit out of some mecha-Geishas. We’ve yet to endure a barrage of slaps to the faces of foreign cultures and racial hijacking. Yes, Sanders lives in better times for the first few minutes of his synthetic-assassin tranquilizer – then it’s like an aesthetic “Abort” button is smashed. Dark nights negate any 3D usefulness, drowning skyscraper-tall advertisement holograms and eye-catching beautification. Life fleets, pacing tumbles and the whole thing begins to feel like a legless cyborg crawling out of futility.
Oh, and to those who cried whitewashing? Oh man. You guys are gonna be SOOOOO pissed. Especially after all the marketing attempts to assure otherwise. Anywho…
Johansson transplants herself into the cybernetic shell of Major, a government operative whose human brain sits in an engineered super-body. She has no memories after being rescued from a life-threatening car crash and brought to Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche). Today, Major works under Aramaki (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano) fighting futuristic crime with her elite Section 9 squad (including Pilou Asbæk as white-haired Batou). While hunting a nefarious hacker known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), Major knowingly opens herself to viral infections. Glitches become more frequent, and her path becomes more dangerous. She may be a finely-programmed killing machine, but her brain is still vulnerable to destruction. Will Kuze prove too formidable a foe? Or will Major discover agency secrets about her ghost-in-the-shell beginnings.
You see, it’s Ghost In The Shell because Major’s soul – a “ghost” – is implanted into a superior vessel. Top-of-the-line outer display, cognitive completion firing from within. Sounds like engineered perfection, right? If only Sanders accomplished the same transformation for his robotic, stripped-down thriller.
Masamune Shirow’s anime receives an empty Hollywood adaptation here, paling in comparison to Mamoru Oshii’s animated feature. Sanders loses control after his futuristic metropolis sparks slight intrigue, which – admittedly – bursts in a fanciful array of Vegas-meets-Tokyo pizzazz. Think Futurama meets Dredd meets Blade Runner meets any other mainstream sci-fi title. Opening details flash for distraction’s sake because Ghost In The Shell is nothing but a cavernous husk of a robot hybrid soldier otherwise. Heavy on techno-garble conversations, light on breakneck daytime pummeling.
Most climactic fight sequences occur at night, which might account for some of the cast’s sleepy performances (can someone wake Takeshi Kitano up?). Point, shoot, watch Johansson dive in slow-motion while wearing her bodysuit armor. Action becomes repetitive with each stun blast and crossfire, cast under a grim shadow that erases any and all New Port City personality. Every ounce of creative artistry is poured into red-dressed “companion” robots, Major’s radiating skyline dive and a hotel suite with bustable decor (all within minutes). Then this planted seed sprouts into a tree shaped like a middle finger, as cold steel, white skinsuits and social satire without conviction wastes an otherwise dystopian technology storm.
Remarkably, Johansson does a tremendous job portraying her calculated, emotionless experiment drone – only it doesn’t make for enthralling cinema. Most characters lack the ability to become excitable about anything, minus one good dog petting scene (only a pooch can break Major’s outer shelling). Otherwise, it’s a whole bunch of Johansson gazing with disenchantment, Michael Pitt skipping lines like an android record and “jokes” about cyber body modifications (say, an upgraded liver for all-night drinking). Villains aren’t made implicitly clear (Peter Ferdinando’s Hanka CEO Cutter), nor do screenwriters Jamie Moss and William Wheeler script depth aside from a river scene where Major literally dives underwater. That’s as deep as you’re getting.
Now, for the albino gorilla in the room – how does Ghost In The Shell deal with all those whitewashing claims? Horribly. Unacceptable on so many levels.
Apparently, in future New Port City, the Japanese population has either become henchmen or were replaced by British/Australian/other ethnicities. Sure, it’s a melting pot you could say – then the granddaddy of all cultural appropriation happens. Major utters her pre-surgical name. MOTOKO. Americana female Scarlett Johansson says – with stern sincerity – that her name is Motoko. Oh, and Michael Pitt doesn’t make things any better, when he admits his own Asian-influenced name. Cast Johansson and rewrite Major’s background, or cast a Japanese actress to keep Motoko’s persona – you don’t get both. Sorry. Such flippant disregard to honorable storytelling dumbfounds and distresses, ending Ghost In The Shell by literally walking over New Port City graves. Even a grave that says Motoko, because, hey – f#*k you.
Sanders mimics sci-fi norms to the best of his ability – inarguable – but cannot sustain. When Major “deep-dives” into a robot’s corrupted data backup, this magnificent horde of tar-colored bodies swarms her like some suffocating Renaissance-era portrait. Pilou Asbæk’s tactical eye replacements mirror anime details with seamless facial effects-blending. One of the floating three-dimensional billboards displays a suit-wearing Shiba Inu puppy, with a news station’s logo underneath – something more discernible than Japanese women twirling for no reason. As a holographic coy fish floats downstream while Major plummets downward, Sanders juxtaposes fantasy phenomenons against unique societal advancement – but that’s where world-building ends. His psychedelic color pallet quickly fades away, leaving monotone structures and disposable heroes.
Ghost In The Shell is exactly the high-fi cyber shooter you feared it’d be, drenched in digital paranoia and concerns of network privacy. Visual fancies overload the senses early and often, only to hope the kaleidoscope artistry lingers long enough to overcompensate for back-end dullness. The longer it goes on, the more Rupert Sanders and company trip over their own feet. First atmospherically, then in vapid scripting, and finally, two white-as-Wonder-Bread actors dictate authentic Asian names in one of the year’s most comical exchanges. Should it be? No, but that’s part of the issue. No one involved looked around and said, “Uh, maybe at least change their names?” Nah thanks. I’m not about such close-minded filmmaking (even worse when the movie itself barely emotes above Siri’s level). The least they could have done is cast a real Asian-American actress, like Emma Stone!
Ghost In The Shell begins with such minimal promise, only to repeatedly stumble over its own murky intentions until finally going full American-appropriation in the worst way.