Hollywood’s never-ending quest to crack anime has been plagued by setbacks. Dragonball: Evolution bombed at the box office in 2009, Battle Angel Alita suffered numerous false starts before Robert Rodriguez dragged it over the finish line, and a long-gestating adaptation of 1988’s landmark sci-fi Akira remains unmade.
It’s a similar story for Ghost in the Shell, based on Masamune Shirow’s Japanese manga series, which languished in development purgatory for more than a decade only to be pummelled with complaints of white-washing as soon as its cast was announced. The final result is unlikely to win over its dissenters, neither is it likely to usher a new era of anime adaptions. An utterly spectacular visual masterpiece it might be, but this cold and emotionless sci-fi actioner lacks an engaging ghost to go with its slick and stylish shell.
Scarlett Johansson plays Major, a human brain cut and pasted into a synthetic cyborg after her original fleshy avatar was ravaged in a shipwreck. Or so she’s told. A year later Major is ensconced within Section 9, a shadowy government task force devoted to thwarting cyber terrorism in a near-future world where everyone has some kind of tech crafted onto their bodies and personal data is stolen not from a person’s Facebook profile but by hacking into their brains.
The source material is almost three decades old but its subject matter feels as timely as ever, raising dark questions about the nature of identity and privacy in a society dominated by technology. It’s clear, too, that director Rupert Sanders had ambitions of turning it into this generation’s Blade Runner, even if the clunky and perfunctory script lacks the depth or nuance to meaningfully explore such weighty themes.
Instead, we end up with a conveyor belt of tightly choreographed, cool-looking action sequences – an opening heist in a geisha restaurant plays like the warped offspring of The Shinning and The Matrix – held together by a bland, predictable plot that fails to justify the hype.
Thank the stars, then, that Ghost in the Shell is such a staggeringly beautiful movie to watch. Sanders had already proved his gift for immersive world-building – his similarly hollow debut, Snow White and the Huntsman, was at least great to look at – and he cements that reputation here with some mightily impressive design work.
The nameless, pan-Asian metropolis which Major calls home is a richly detailed tech-topia where giant holographic fish weave between high-rises and where every inhabitant sports some kind of cyber enhancement. Such fantastical imagery can become bewildering but Sanders wisely grounds the futuristic visuals with some gritty realism, erecting gloomy, colourless tenement buildings which disappear into the smog that hangs over the city with unnerving permanence.
Much of the conversation surrounding the movie has focused on the choice of Johansson to play a traditionally Japanese role, and the filmmakers at least attempt to find a narrative explanation for her casting by depicting Major as a woman whose personality doesn’t fit her body. While it would’ve been progressive to cast an Asian in the role, there’s no denying Johansson has an impressive knack for playing such alienated figures. She not only kicks ass with the grace and efficiency of a merciless killer, but also possess an otherworldly quality that feels like a perfect fit for Major. Throughout, her movements are stiff and disjoined, almost as if her body is permanently out of sync with her brain, no matter how many mind-altering drugs she’s prescribed by Juliette Binoche’s conflicted doctor.
Yet, her fundamental lack of personality proves to be the movie’s biggest flaw. Major is so disconnected from the world around her that it’s an almost impossible challenge to engage with her story. With no emotional arc to connect to, it’s unsurprising that Major’s final showdown with Michael Pitt’s crudely underdeveloped terrorist falls flat. Not to worry, though: a gun-toting spider robot swiftly rampages into shot to distract us from how disappointingly weightless this confrontation feels.
It’s a sequence that pretty much sums up Ghost in the Shell: a bold, visually mesmerising sci-fi action movie without a compelling narrative to go with it. A glossy shell without a fully-formed ghost, you might say.
Runtime: 107 mins; Genre: Sci-fi; Released: 30 March 2017;
Director: Rupert Sanders; Screenwriters: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger;
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Juliette Binoche, Takeshi Kitano